Capitalism’s Import: Mining Frontier Company Stores

Copper Country's past and people

If Charles Brush wanted to sell miners’ supplies at his sutler’s store at Fort Wilkins, to clothe, feed, and equip miners and prospectors, it only made John Hays’ job that much easier. Hays, who was the agent of the Pittsburgh and Boston Copper Harbor Mining Company, was directing mining operations around the fort, and if he could get away with not having to oversee a company-owned store, he would happily dispense with the headache.

Hays was the man in the middle. He represented the interests of the company at the mine, while at the same time, representing the mine and the miners to the to the directors of the company. There are very few corporate records from the time Hays was at Copper Harbor. The company did not publish its first annual report until 1849. What records that do exist, indicate Hays did not have a staff or office assistants.

It fell to Hays to make sure his mining captain accurately recorded and reported information, production tonnages and mine developments to him on a monthly basis. Hays also had to see to it that he received reports from the company’s geologist on vein discoveries, and copper content and purity from assayed ore samples. From these, Hays kept a close eye on the copper market conditions, and estimated the price on the copper produced at the mine, then figured in the cost of shipping the product to either Cleveland or Boston for further processing. In addition to these tasks, Hays created reports on costs of mining, based on the mining captain’s reports, as well as expenditures at the mine. The upshot of all this was to give a close monthly production and financial report of all activities and transactions at the mine location, which was then forwarded to the directors back east.

Separate from these tasks, Hays was also tasked with chartering cargo vessels to ship the copper product, negotiate the contract terms, ordering supplies, such as drill steel, powder, rope, and other materials necessary to mining, and again charter a vessel to ship those items to his dock in Copper Harbor. These were not the only responsibilities Hays had, but they offer a fair example of his activities from month to month. So, in the end, Hays was very happy not to have to contend with a store, and all the responsibilities that came with it.

William Pettit, the superintendent of Cliff Mine, which was also owned by the Pittsburgh and Boston company, was not so fortunate as Hays. Situated on the west branch of the Eagle River, the Cliff Mine was isolated, with its only neighbor, the Lake Superior Copper Company, some five miles away on the main branch of the Eagle River, about two miles from the Lake Superior shore. Pettit had no choice but to open a store on his location, but he used the store to economic advantage in ways that irritated the residents.

Pettit’s company store enjoyed a complete monopoly initially, and he used it to manipulate economics at the location. Although it was, indeed, a company store, it was typical of any general store on the American frontier. It stocked food stuffs, mine tools, black powder and fuse, rope, and other equipment, plus hardware, as well as household and personal items such as medicines, combs, brushes, mirrors, and of course, tobacco, coffee and tea. However, being a monopoly, there was no natural competition, and the company-controlled prices were ridiculously priced, and combined with rooming costs, Pettit profited more from his residents than they did from working. It was the typical “I owe my soul to the company store” scenario.

At the Lake Superior Copper Company location, Gratiot was the agent, and he and the company came up with what they thought was a delightful solution to the company store problem. The company owned a nine-square mile tract of mineral land, which included the mouth of Eagle River and quite a bit of Lake Superior frontage. In 1845, the company set that section of its land aside, platted roads, listed commercial and residential lots for sale, and established the town of Eagle River. Initially, it did not work out as planned. The first three lots sold for commercial development were for two hotels and a saloon, rather than a general store.

Meanwhile at Copper Harbor, there were other ridiculous distractions that occupied Hays’ time. In addition to his other duties, it was also fell to him to deal with and report any unusual or damaging incidents at the mine, such as when Lt. Daniel Ruggles, second in command at Fort Wilkins, stole several hundred pounds of copper and ore from the mining location, then shipped it to various places, such as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington City, and event to natural museums as far away as London. Of course, Hays filed charges against Ruggles with post commander Capt. Robert Clary. And of course, while Ruggles never denied taking the ore, the Army exonerated him of any wrong doing. It left many on Keweenaw Point wondering if the Army was supposed to be protecting the mineral lands from squatters, who was there to protect miners and companies from the Army.

If Brush charged high prices, there is no record of anyone complaining about it. But if he charged high prices, that came to an end when former P&B company investor James Raymond and his partner opened Halleck and Raymond’s General Store on the east end of Porter’s Island. Other stores opened either on the island, or on the mainland, and created a natural competition that kept high prices in check.

At Eagle River, stores eventually opened, as well. But they did not force Pettit to lower his prices at the Cliff store. He did what he wanted. And his greed placed an inconvenience on his residents. If they wanted to keep more of their wages for themselves, they had to walk to Eagle River to do their shopping, which was some five miles away.

As the copper district continued to develop, more companies were established. Some treated their workers well, as did Hays. Others, like Pettit, were bent on profiting anyway they could from the natural resources of the district, as well as from those who worked to produce those natural resources. Along with the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution, the ruthlessness of capitalism also came to the Lake Superior copper district.