The Quincy mine faces hard times

Copper Country's past and people

The Luoma farm as it appeared in 1914, amid a field of stumps. Farms such as this one saw many Copper Country families through tough economic times.

By the end of the 1920s, very few mines in Michigan’s Copper Country were still operating. On the hill above Hancock, the Quincy mine had truly fallen on hard times, and general manager Charles Lawton was doing everything in his power – and imagination – to avoid shutting the mine and suspending operations. The Quincy was already approaching 9,000 feet depths by 1929, and as the mine went deeper, the copper lode was flattening out. This meant the copper was more difficult to mine. The percentage of copper in the rock was also decreasing with depth. The Quincy was, in 1929, an old, tired mine. Despite the unrealistic demands of the corporate board, there was not much more Lawton could do to keep dividends rolling in like in the past.

For years Lawton had been struggling with a president and board of directors whose only concerns were for profits and dividends. They were lacking any kind of practical knowledge of mining. In many ways, the board showed amazing ignorance and shortsightedness, as demonstrated when they directed President William Todd to fire Lawton in 1915, even as he had kept the mine profiting during the 1913 strike. Todd, to his credit, did not follow up on the board’s desire. Lawton, in spite of the board, continued to do his best at the mine.

The copper industry had fallen into an economic depression in the early 1920s, from which it tried to desperately to recover. In 1926, Lawton wrote a letter to Quincy’s vice-president in which he expressed concern over situations, including “unsatisfactory results of our operations.”  The mine simply could not be made to profit. Its days were numbered now.

The stock market crash of 1929 plunged the nation into a depression that devastated the already depressed Copper Country. Lawton continued the struggle to avoid shutting down the mine, but in early 1931 he finally accepted that he could not make it operate profitably under the current conditions. In fact, it was operating at a severe financial loss. While Todd rarely gave consideration to employee relations, Lawton did. He found himself forced with a choice: close the mine or cut wages by ten percent for a second time. Lawton felt it would be better if the men continued working for wages reduced by total of 20 percent rather than close the mine, but most of the workers disagreed. Many of them had already voluntarily been laid off and went to work on their farms.

Even with reducing wages Lawton was forced to suspend operations several times between June and September, three weeks’ duration each time. Finally in September, Lawton gave up and announced the mine would close indefinitely.

The company tried to ease the burden of its men and their families. Lawton and Todd agreed to suspend rent payments and also allowed men to cut fire wood from company land at no cost.

The Calumet and Hecla was in not better condition in 1931. And as if the shutting down of the mines was not crippling enough, something of a phenomenon began to occur – reverse migration.

For decades, people had been leaving the Copper Country to find better work and living conditions elsewhere. Now, as industries and businesses across the country failed, people returned to the area believing they could better weather the depression in their former home towns.

Their return only served to put more pressure on an already over-burdened relief system.  By 1934, for example, 75 percent of the residents in Keweenaw County were receiving public assistance in one form or other. Free rent and firewood were not enough to relieve the drain on unemployed workers.

In the Copper Country, ethnic differences became apparent during the Great Depression. For decades, many Finns migrated to the copper district with a dream of saving enough money from mine wages to start a small farm. Quiet, industrious, often religious, many Finns were able to realize this dream. Purchasing cut-over acreage from lumber companies which had stripped the land of any trees of value, they took this wasted land and slowly converted it to small yet prosperous farms. Food, shelter, heating and cooking fuel, and often even clothing could be produced in quantities adequate to support a family – if the farm owner could somehow avoid foreclosure if he had borrowed money from a bank, which happened with more frequency than is often mentioned in local history books.

A number of residents of French descent had also purchased or built farms and they, like the Finns, were better able to weather the depression than people in mining neighborhoods and towns.

Mining companies, keenly aware of this, plowed up large sections of their lands, making plots available to residents of company housing, free of charge, for planting, in many instances supplying seeds.

The residents of the Copper Country readily reverted back to the ways of those pioneers who had opened the region in the 1840s, when companies like the Cliff and Minesota mines had large company-owned gardens along with plots for community residents to use. Again during the Great Depression, families canned their own jams, vegetables, and wild preserves, which together with hunting, saw many families through the darkest years of the panic. The Copper Country would be see better times – but when?