Blogs > HNN > Donna M. DeBlasio, Review of Alison K. Hoagland's "Mine Towns: Building for Workers in Michigan's Copper Country" (Minnesota, 2010)

Oct 31, 2010 11:54 pm

Donna M. DeBlasio, Review of Alison K. Hoagland's "Mine Towns: Building for Workers in Michigan's Copper Country" (Minnesota, 2010)

[Donna M. DeBlasio is Professor of History, Youngstown State University.]

Interpreting the lives of working class people can be, at best, problematic. This is largely due to lack of available evidence that historians traditionally use to examine the past. So-called non-traditional sources such as oral histories, photographs, and material culture need to be considered in order to understand the fullness of working class lives.

The built environment is another tool that historians can utilize, which Alison K. Hoagland does in her new book, Mine Towns: Buildings for Workers in Michigan’s Copper Country. This is a study of the towns in northern Michigan that supported the copper mining industry of the region. These communities, because of their ties to the local employers, became vehicles for management’s paternalism and control of its workforce. Stuart Brandes, in his classic, American Welfare Capitalism, also postulated that company housing was one means of controlling employees. Hoagland, however, while going over similar ground, uses the built environment to further bolster this view of domestic working class life. She draws on floor plans, photographs, extant structures and contemporary descriptions to understand the everyday existence of the residents of the mine towns.

Hoagland opens each chapter with the story of one working class family living in a company town, Joseph and Antonia Grubesch Putrich. While the Putrich house is no longer extant and the family left little documentation, their house played an important role in the 1913 strike in the Copper Country, as this region of Michigan is known. Because of that. contemporary accounts reveal much about the Putrich residence. The Putrichs, following their marriage in 1907, moved into a small four room company house. By 1910, they housed seven borders along with their own growing family and one servant. The Putrich house was a common example of a simple housing plan used throughout the Copper Country. Over time, other plans developed, as concepts regarding the housing of the working class also evolved. The inclusion of amenities such as indoor bathrooms, closets, and hallways reflected changing expectations not only by management but among the workers themselves. The appearance of hallways, for example, meant that bedrooms could be accessed individually, without having to go through an adjacent bedroom, thus providing greater privacy for the inhabitants. The addition of such spaces also meant that the houses themselves had to be bigger, which also happened over time.

Hoagland’s analysis focuses on the Copper Country from the 1840s through the end of World War I. In that time, the built environment changed to reflect what American industrialists believed was necessary to the smooth operation of their enterprises. By the early twentieth century, theories abounded over how best to deal with the burgeoning unskilled labor force—theories that evolved into a system known as welfare capitalism. This method of worker control manifested itself in diverse ways—including in the various schemes for housing the working class.

The author’s discussion of the 1913 strike is especially relevant to prevailing notions on the part of management about methods for squelching unionization. The strike, which began on July 23, 1913, dragged on into the following April. It was a strike marked by much violence, including the showdown at the Putrich house, where two unionists were killed by local deputies. It was also defined by contested space, “including how public space and private homes were defined when the company owned nearly all the land.” The relationship between company owned space and other space is critical to understanding the dynamics of the Copper Country and Hoagland does an excellent job in delineating this aspect of the area’s labor history. As she notes, in many mining communities which were torn by labor/management conflict, evictions of strikers was the norm. But in the Copper Country, “there were few evictions. Instead the companies used their houses to favor certain workers, to engender company loyalty, to keep wages down, and use as a propaganda tool in the battle for public opinion.”

Hoagland discusses other aspects of Copper Country towns, including the role of homeownership. In the Copper Country, different strategies for homeownership emerged, including the establishment of buildings and loans, buying homes from companies that were going out of business, and building a house on land rented from the company. The author views home ownership as antithetical to the company town; while this may have been true in the Copper Country, there are examples of company housing in other places where the management did build houses specifically to sell to its employees and even established a mechanism for providing the mortgage. In other words, company housing and home ownership were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Hoagland also examines the evolution of modern amenities such as electricity, central heating and indoor plumbing. What she discovered was that while the size of the residence spoke to class differentiation in the older company houses, by the time of World War I, new units defined class not by the size of the house, but by the kinds of conveniences that were incorporated in the structure.

The copper companies not only constructed residences, but they also included amenities such as churches, schools, libraries and bathhouses. While these structures appear to be examples of corporate benevolence, they too were contested spaces. The very size of the buildings reveals what Hoagland refers to as “the architecture of paternalism.” Not all of the employees basked in the reflected glow of the company; in some quarters, such as among union supporters, these structures were viewed as company tools to control the workforce. Many immigrants, especially from southern and eastern Europe, “probably did not feel welcome…Immigrant women, especially were less likely to speak English and would have been less likely to circulate freely in the community.” In spite of this, Hoagland provides evidence that many of the employees and their families took advantage of the company-provided amenities.

The final chapter ties the book together by looking at the preservation (or lack thereof) of the built environment. The author focuses on two structures, one of which was demolished and the other saved. The tale of two buildings vividly expresses the still-contested ground in the Copper Country, only now it is a battle of how events are remembered and interpreted.
Italian Hall, which was one of the most significant Copper Country structures, is no longer standing, yet it was the scene of a tragedy during the 1913 strike. It is the site clearly identified with the workers. At Christmas, 1913, a party was organized for the children of the strikers at Italian Hall. About 500 children and 175 parents attended. At one point, someone supposedly yelled “Fire,” which caused a panic among the partygoers. The room where the party occurred was on the second floor of the building and there was only one exit—the front door. In trying to escape, people ran down the stairs; some tripped and fell and others fell on top. In the end, seventy people died, including fifty-eight children. At the time, the tragic event became a bone of contention. No one claimed responsibility and on one was ever convicted of any crime. The Western Federation of Miners could have taken advantage of the incident to maintain public support of the strike, but did not do so and eventually the strike ended the following April.

Hoagland notes that there are two questions that impact memory of the event that have never been resolved: “who, if anyone, cried fire? And how and why were people trapped in a stairwell.” She explores both of these questions and the various interpretations that have arisen about the event over time. Eventually, in 1984, despite the establishment of a Friends group to save Italian Hall, it was demolished. The author attributes the unfortunate demise of the building to the unpleasant events surrounding the structure, especially its reminder of strife in the community. The only element left is the arched door surround, which now stands in a memorial park on the site of Italian Hall, dedicated to the memory of the Italian Hall’s victims. There have been other attempts to interpret and preserve the memories of the incident as well as of the history of labor relations in general, including songs, poems, public art, and videos, but the building itself is now only a memory.

The other structure that Hoagland examines is the Calumet Theater, which met a very different fate than Italian Hall. The author recounts the history of the structure and its role in the community. It began life as a venue for live performances and then became a motion picture theater in 1913 and converted to sound in 1929. By the 1960s, it was no longer a viable operation, but the community would not let the building die. In 1971, rehabilitation began, funded by several entities. Since that time, various efforts have tried to keep the theater afloat and functioning in the community.

The author believes that the concerted preservation efforts directed at the Calumet Theater were a part of a larger endeavor to engage in what is now called “heritage tourism.” When the effort to develop a Disneyesque park called Coppertown USA, which included a mix of historic buildings and new construction, failed, the community decided to pursue federal funding through the establishment of the Keweenaw National Historic Park, which opened in 1992, includes five buildings that the author contends “indicates the park’s involvement in the paternalistic landscape.” The park buildings are the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company’s headquarters, office building, warehouse library, and non-company Union Building which was a meeting hall for fraternal organizations. Nineteen other sites throughout the community were designated Keweenaw Heritage Sites, including the Calumet Theater and Coppertown. These elements of the built environment were meant to help tell the story of the Copper Country, which is heavy on the area’s mining history. Hoagland notes that many elements of the region’s past are excluded from these sites, including the rich ethnic diversity and the impact of deindustrialization.

She also reminds us that in “thinking about how people remember the past, it is important to recognize which people.”

She is so right. Even with elements of the built environment still extant, the tendency, especially in deindustrialized communities, is to engage in historical erasure. Her work raises issues about the nature of the historic preservation movement in the United States and its emphasis on heritage as opposed to history. The author has done an admirable job in delineating the working class history of the Copper Country. Alison Hoagland demonstrates how important it is for historians to utilize all types of evidence to reconstruct and interpret the past.

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