Women bore the brunt of pioneer life in Copper Country

Copper Country's past and people

October was a seasonal transition period that induced emotional responses in many early residents of the Lake Superior mining district. As the month progressed, the brilliantly colored leaves fell, or were blown, from the trees, creating a forlorn mood that emanated from the forest. The southward flight of geese and other birds, constant inclement weather and the leaves all issued a somber warning that winter was yet to come. October could also evince feelings of isolation, and the emotions associated with them, for many reasons.

October also signaled an end of the shipping season to come soon. Ships were the only practical way off of the south shore of Lake Superior in, say, 1846. John H. Forster, an early pioneer of the copper district, wrote what many people were thinking.

“None who could help himself was willing to face the prospective hardships and privations of a Lake Superior winter,” he wrote. October was similar to Last Call at a tavern before it closes.

Days on end with low, thick cloud cover, rain, wind, no sunlight for long periods or time, combined with shrinking daylight hours, often contributed to depression, more than a century before the term Seasonal Affects Disorder was coined.

An extreme minority throughout the district, women suffered more than men. If a woman was fortunate, there was at least on other woman in the mining location for a friend. If not, in many instances the nearest neighboring location was at least two miles away, which was too far for time to allow for walking that distance just to visit. Clifton, the Cliff mine’s residential area, was five miles from its nearest neighbor, Eagle River. Without another female nearby, the feeling of isolation could become overwhelming, particularly if her day-to-day life is taken into consideration. She longed for a letter from home, family, friends, loved ones.

The end of the shipping season brought an end to regular and frequent mail deliveries. From November to April or May, residents were dependent on mail contractors bringing the mail by dogsled from Green Bay.

W.A. Childs, in her 1906 essay, “Reminiscenses of Ol’ Keweenaw,” remembered mail deliveries twice a winter. Forster, and others, put it at more like once a month.

“The arrival of the mail was day of excitement — a joy to some, sorry for others,” he wrote. Those who experienced sorrow were those who received no mail.

In what would today be considered a sexist remark, Forster did not consider the plight of women on the frontier. Rather he reflected on the suffering of men as a result of a lack of women.

“There were but few of the gentler sex in the country,” he wrote, “to cheer the hearts and enliven the fireside of those snow-bound homes. A colony of men alone is one of the most forlorn pictures on the canvas of human history.”

Whatever Forster meant by that, had he said it to a woman in the copper district, she would have either laughed in his face, or slapped it. The last thing a woman had time for was “enliven the fireside,” or “Cheer the hearts” of a colony of amative men. Those few women who were residents were, in nearly all cases, tending their home while operating it as a boarding house.

While men could socialize with each other at work, or at the boarding houses afterward, the woman, nearly always a wife, was left alone in the cabin to her work of taking care of her husband and as many as six other men, some working day shift, some working nights.

She would need to be up at approximately 3 a.m. to build the fire in the cookstove. While that was heating, she would prepare breakfast for her husband, and the three other men working the day shift. Once they were fed, gotten their lunch pales, and out the door, she had just enough time to start supper, do the dishes, and prepare the table for the men coming in from the night shift.

When they were taken care of, and the clean-up done, depending on what day it was, she would then tend to washing clothes, grabbing a bite to eat at some point. Once washed, the laundry would wait to be hung. It was time to start breakfast for the men going out, and supper for those coming home. If necessary, she filled the reservoirs of the kerosene lamps, trimmed the wicks, and washed the chimneys before lighting them. Breakfast, clean-up, supper, clean-up, set the kitchen for the next round of meals, it went on and on. If she was efficient, she finally laid down to sleep at around 10 p.m. Five hours later, she up again to begin the entire process over. Except for the laundry. Today, she would hang it to dry.

In all of that, if a single man like Forster longed to have his heart cheered by the fireside by “the gentler sex,” he would do well for himself to catch the last ship leaving, and make his way back to Boston. No woman on the Lake had time for molly-kottling a man.