A Tall Woman’s Take – The Women of the Copper Country

Imagine you’re a woman in 1913 and living in what is now called Calumet, MI. Before doing that, you will need to know some things about the town:

  • It was far more of a big deal back then than it is now
  • It was much more populous than it is now (25,000 in the village itself plus the outlying areas of Calumet Township)
  • It has a rich history, mostly steeped in copper mining
  • At one time 31 different languages were spoken among its residents
  • There are a LOT of churches in Calumet

Now imagine you’re not only a woman living in Red Jacket (Calumet’s former name), but you’re much, much taller than all of the other women – and most of the men living in your town. And because of that, you are ridiculed, taunted, teased and continually gawked at and asked – “Just how tall ARE you, anyway?”

Having a hard time imagining that? That’s OK! Because I’m also a tall woman and will say only that I’m taller than 6 feet – that this book – hit pretty darn close to home.

In the book, real life Annie Clemenc (known as Clements in the book) is 6 foot 2. The book’s prologue describes her experiences at a local fair in 1903, when she was 15 years old. At the fair, she is stared at, teased, pointed at – and even told she should be in a sideshow alongside a bearded lady. She and her father attended this fair, and she asked him:

Why do I have to be so tall?

Annie Clemenc

He would only give his answer after they took a hot-air balloon ride together, which cost him a whole day’s wages per ticket. The book did not reveal what that dollar amount was, but copper miners at the time earned less than a dollar per day.

Her father’s answer:

Stand up straight, Anna. Hold your head high. That’s your strength. You are tall for a reason. When your head is high, you can see farther than anyone else.

Annie Clemenc’s father

Annie would one day heed his advice and lead a wildcat strike. For her efforts, she would be inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and earn the nickname “American Joan of Arc.” My own nickname for her after reading this was “The Norma Rae of the U.P.”

Here’s a photo showing Annie Clemenc, whose nickname was “Big Annie:”

I think you can figure out which woman is “Big Annie!”

Though “Big Annie’s” height is an interesting undercurrent of the story, it’s not the whole story. Annie would go on to lead a wildcat strike in 1913, which attempted to unionize the copper miners. Long story short, the union would not be recognized by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company until 1943, when they joined the Union of Mine, Mill and Smelting Workers. The one thing workers did get after the strike ended was an 8 hour day – the $3 a day wage was not OK’d by the company.

After all of this happens, something happening much farther south in Michigan would forever change the fortunes of Calumet – and not for the better. An entrepreneur named Henry Ford would lure miners to his factories to build cars for $5 per day. Calumet’s population would drop from its peak of 4,668 per the 1910 Census to 2,390 in the 1920 Census. Today, only 726 people call Calumet their home (per 2010 Census estimates).

But enough of the facts you can get from Wikipedia! Beyond the hard facts of the 1913 strike and Italian Hall disaster (more about that in a bit), if you choose to read this book, do it for the pure storytelling and attention to historic detail. If you also want to read about the struggles of a tall woman, you won’t be disappointed!

What Annie did not struggle with was being able to carry a full sized American flag and pole in countless parades – a task that would require three female children to do:

Annie Clemenc with one of the rare things taller than her – an American flag pole

Beyond the facts – learn about Annie’s abusive drunken husband – whom could care less about whether or not a union represents him, revel in the food porn appeal of pasty making (Annie was making pasties for miners beginning at a very young age), and marvel at the way Annie’s and others’ attempts to unionize the miners would get the attention of Mother Jones and other well-known union activists.

Growing up too fast

If you’re into stories about children? This book has lots of those! Though Annie did not have any children of her own in this story, she took in three Italian immigrant orphan boys, whom worked grueling shifts pushing the trams at the copper mines. This back-breaking job was considered bottom dwelling even by copper mining standards. Young Eva, at 13, muses about how she can one day become the wife of a boy whom she starts out crushing on pretty hard. She looks upon him longingly while she is in a class that is teaching her a skill for girls that was deemed pretty vital at the time – sewing. Kind of makes me feel inferior for having struggled so hard when I took Home-Ec in junior high! I had to stay after school to finish my darn pillow. To this day, ask me to thread a bobbin and I’ll throw that bobbin at you! And the spool of thread, too!

Eva ends up maturing and deciding to turn down his eventual marriage proposal. And it wasn’t just because the boy who proposed to her wound up becoming an anti-union spy for Calumet and Hecla! She becomes Annie’s right hand gal with union organization activities and is an integral part of the story. Your heart will absolutely break when you read about how she ends up losing every person in her immediate family, becoming a ward to many families in the village. Her last surviving family member, an older brother, winds up being killed in a riot by anti-union goons. Because her black mourning dress no longer fits her, she wears her mother’s black dress, which is a bit too big on her – and her outgrown matching shoes pinch her poor toes.

1913 Italian hall disaster

If you want a read that will tear at your heartstrings, consider the book’s description of the 1913 Italian Hall disaster, which was caused by someone falsely crying out “Fire!” Seventy-three children would die after being suffocated and trampled in a stairwell, which meant a busy, busy night for the town’s coroner, whom had to write up death certificates for each and every one of these kids. When Calumet and Hecla general manager James MacNaughton receives this news, his three servants would immediately step down as his girls and Guy Friday (and later spill the beans to the press about how horrible of a boss he was). His own entitled wife dreaded when he didn’t have enough to do around the house because it meant he would be chasing after his staff people and timing their activities with a stop watch.

His chasing his staff people with the stop watch was the least of his transgressions. His hatred of immigrant workers – especially Finns and Slavs – was so powerful that if he were to express those opinions on Twitter, he would lose his account.

If you have a music streaming service, consider giving a listen to Woody Guthrie’s song “1913 Massacre.”

How about some romance?

If you’re into bodice ripper romance novels, you won’t be able to whet that whistle with this book! But you will get to read about how a journalist with a crush on Annie would eventually sweep her off her feet and become husband #2. After Annie gets jailed for her union activities, she is beaten, tortured and undergoes a self-inflicted hunger strike. Purely by accident, she ends up befriending some prostitutes, including one who said she got arrested on purpose so she would have a warm place to sleep and eat for a spell.

A prominent woman union activist pays for a hotel stay after Annie gets out of the clink. And whom is there to greet her when she gets out? Hint – it’s NOT her drunken “Who gives a fuck about the union anyway” husband – it’s her new beau, the journalist whom is based on real life Frank Shavs. Though no bodice ripping details are given about what happens when these two meet in her hotel room and after Annie has a nice hot bath, it’s heavily hinted. Oh come ON! I’m not spelling it out for ya! Yeah, they totally did it – more than once!

Whatever your reasons are for wanting to read this book, there are no bad reasons to read this book! But if you don’t end up despising Calumet and Hecla’s general manager James MacNaughton, you really don’t have a soul!

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