Cost of the Copper Country, miners and non-miners make ends meet

What was the cost of living in the Copper Country in the first decades of the 20th century?

Rows and rows of stocked shelves crowding stores did not guarantee an end to frontier-era dietary limitations or food scarcity in Copper Country households, particularly those with low income.

There was much publicity during the Copper Country mine strike of 1913 regarding the low wages paid for mine work in the years leading up to the strike. Historical documentation making the argument that mining companies were not paying employees enough to live on are analyzed in the published reports of the House of Representatives’ Conditions in the Copper Mines of Michigan, the report on the Committee of the Copper Country Commercial Club of its own investigation of conditions in the Copper Country in 1913, local newspapers, and other sources.

They overshadow questions regarding wages and cost of living in the region of workers not engaged in mining. As the Mining and Engineering World stated in its article, Why the Lake Copper Strike Will Fail, Volume 39, published by the Western Mining World Company, investigations by the state of Michigan, the U.S. Department of Labor, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives found “that working conditions were better, and wages paid were higher, considering the cost of living, than any other mining camp in the United States.”

The Mining and Engineering World article pointed out that “Since the cost of living to the individual family depends largely on its management and the number of its members, and in all mining camps corresponds to the costs of table board to the single man, a comparison of the latter in Michigan is significant.”

In other words, when regarding the cost of living over all in the Copper Country, to what extent did income and family size contribute to the quality of living in the mining district? When examining the costs of housing, fuel, water and other considerations, just like today, food selections were largely determined by what was affordable after other expenses were met.

While examining statistics and records to establish some context of the standard of living in the region in the first two decades of the 20th century, it becomes apparent that two classifications existed: Mining and non-mining workers. The classification comes from the fact that producing mining companies offered their employees benefits, opportunities and incentives that were not offered to those not engaged in mining. Some examples include company-owned houses rented to employees at charges below what could be found in non-mining housing, heating fuel at bulk rates as secured by the companies and passed on to employees, running water at no cost, or at cost, to those houses, medical insurance programs, and so forth. In addition to these, the investigations found that the lowest paid mine employees were paid higher daily wages than the prevailing non-mining daily wages paid in the region.

During the Congressional investigation, Thomas H. Gibson, supervisor of Houghton Village Public Works, was called to testify regarding wages paid to non-mining workers. Prior to accepting that position, he had been a general contractor engaged primarily in road building, maintenance of some township roads, and some construction work on railroads. As public works supervisor, the men under his supervision engaged in projects such as building sewers and streets, water works and “the general run of all kinds of work around a village or city.” He testified that during the past eight years, from 1905, the going daily wage was $2 for a 10-hour shift; the work was classified as unskilled labor.

For the same period, according to the Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, trammers’ wages varied from $2.30 to $2.54, with the mean average being $2.40. Those wages were lower than those paid by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Co. and its subsidiaries, where trammers’ wages varied from $2.50 to $2.91. The general average for all companies during the year 1912-13 averaged $2.59. The average monthly wages for miners other than at C&H and its subsidiaries was calculated at $2.78, or 19 cents over the average trammer.

The Copper Country Commercial Club conducted its own privately funded investigation. It was an organization of local businessmen established to promote manufacturing, mercantile, agricultural and “other economic conditions,” it stated in its investigation report. Its report, when published reads essentially like a pro-mining company propaganda piece that compared costs of living and personal finances in the Copper Country to that of the western mining districts where the Western Federation of Miners had won labor strikes.

What the investigation failed to do was answer its own question, which was stated as being whether the lowest paid Copper Country mine workers were paid enough to live on in the region in which they resided. In stead it focused on whether the WFM members in the western districts were faring as well as the Copper Country mine workers. It did not include, for instance, that on average, local trammers averaged 30 to 91 cents per day more than average non-mining workers in the area. What the investigation did not address was that if the lowest paid mine workers could not afford a decent standard of living with the region, neither could non-mine workers.

Supervisor Gibson did testify, however, that he frequently hired men who had left mining, accepting substantially lower wages, “only to get out of the mines and get a better job, probably.” Many of the men he hired, he said, came from the mines during the summer months to work, then returned to mine work during the winter months. Whether those workers owned or rented their homes Gibson did not say.

What was established in the investigation was that the average cost to build a house in 1912 was $2,000; the cost of a lot varied from village to village and from property to property.

During the same period, the Osceola Mining Company built, in the years before 1913, seven four-room houses at a cost of $818.74 per house. In the same period, the Franklin Mining Company built 53 six-room houses at $1,050.00 per house.

Most of the mining companies made rental houses available to employees at low cost. The investigation found that the average monthly rental for frame houses was $1.10 per month per room for a three-room house; $1 for a four-room house; $0.98 for a five-room house; $0.95 for a six-room house; $0.91 for a seven-room house; $1.09 for eight-room houses (perhaps a misprint); and for houses of nine rooms and more, the average rate was $0.80 per room.

All of the frame houses of the Calumet & Hecla, Copper Range, Hancock and Houghton companies were provided with running water, “with faucets in the house;” while some of the houses at Centennial, Isle Royale, Lake, Osceola, Tamarack and Winona mines were provided with faucets. At three of the mines, 50 cents per month was charged for water. Residents of companies not supplied with running water, obtained it from wells, which varied in number from one per house to one per five houses.

While not all mining companies owned log cabins, others did, which they rented, as with frame houses, rent varied per number of rooms, but were cheaper. The Lake Mine, for example, owned two log cabins, two rooms each, which were rented for $1. By contrast, the Tamarack owned three three-room cabins, which were rented a $1 per month per room.

Electricity was provided to most company homes with charges ranging from 5-12 cents per kilowatt hour. Hard coal ranged from $8-8.15 per ton, while soft coal ranged between $6.75-7.25 per ton.

Standards of living also varied somewhat among mining company employees based on housing options some companies made available to them.

The standard of living becomes clouded when it is taken into consideration that many mining companies still owned log houses from their development phases that they continued to rent to employees. While frame houses were rented by most companies at about $1 per month per room, log structures were rented at 50 cents on average. While renting a log structure saved a substantial amount on housing costs, by comparison, those who elected to reside in a log house opted for a lower standard of living by comparison.

Next week, we will continue examining the economic conditions of the mining and non-mining workforce of the Copper Country.


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