The evolution of food sources on Lake Superior between 1840-1913

By the first decade of the 20th century, dietary limitations and food scarcities common to the pioneer residents of the Lake Superior copper region had been relegated to the pages of frontier history.

Two-masted cargo schooners had given way (although some still remained in service on the Upper Great Lakes) to large, steel-hulled, steam-powered ships. Footpaths through swampy forests had been replaced by roads that had been improved to accommodate heavy freight wagons pulled by four to six-horse teams. Railroads connected the copper region to the Marquette iron region, and west to Rockland, then on to Duluth, or Chicago or Milwaukee and elsewhere.

Historically, Westward Expansion was, from the Colonial period, driven largely by an ever-increasing demand for more and more farmland. In 1860, a year before the outbreak of the Civil War, only 20% of the population lived in urban areas, according to seniorliving.org. That began to change rapidly starting in the following decade, according to khanacademy.org. Between 1870 and 1920, 11 million people migrated from rural to urban areas, and the majority of 25 million immigrants who came to the United States in these same years moved into the nation’s cities.

The copper region, however, like other mining districts, demonstrated a contrast between rural and agricultural areas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “rural” as all population, housing, and territory not included within an urbanized area or urban cluster. The Lake Superior lands acquired by the federal government through the 1842 Copper Treaty were acquired as “mineral lands,” so they were withheld from public sale and place under the authority of the Ordinance Bureau of the War Department, rather than the General Land Office. Tracts of mineral land could be leased for three years with options to renew the lease every three years, or for a total of nine years, but were initially withheld from public sale. In the beginning, none of that mattered very much, because people came to the region to mine for copper, not for agricultural pursuits.

On a national level, consumerism is historically linked to the 1920s with the increase of manufactured goods. The copper region was, from its beginning, based on consumerism. Agricultural products ranging from flour to corn to rice to salted meat in barrels, were purchased elsewhere and shipped to the region. Other items, which could be produced or manufactured at mining company blacksmith and carpenter shops, were made available in the time it took the tradesmen to make them. But stoves, boilers, mining equipment and everything else was ordered, usually at Detroit and delivered to the nearest Lake Superior harbor by ship. Remains of manufactured products shipped to the region in the 19th century can still be found laying in the woods around pioneer mining locations, but food was perishable, often having rotted before it reached its destination.

Existing diaries, journals, letters and other historical sources from the 1840s and on, contain many references to supplementing foods with wild fruit harvesting, game hunting and fishing. By 1910, as with today, those activities had become hobbies.

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, wealthier and larger communities like South Range, Houghton, Hancock, Lake Linden, and Calumet, offered consumers general stores as well as specialty stores like butcher shops, bakeries — even restaurants — that early residents of Clifton and Rosendale did not imagine in their frontier communities in 1840 through 1870.

In the early decades of mining activity, the constant and underlying fear of starving to death before the opening of navigation compelled companies like the Cliff and the Minnesota to reserve hundreds of acres of cleared forest lands for crop production. The annual reports of these two companies that reported on agricultural production were somewhat misleading, however. The phrase “cleared land for farming” meant timber had been harvested making it possible to plant seeds around stumps and between boulders. Later companies did not bother.

When the Champion Mining Company began operating in 1900, its management did not convert timberlands to farm land; it was unnecessary. The Copper Range Railroad (CRRR), constructed the year before, provided freight service from its southern connection to places like the King Phillip and Winona mines, South Range, Atlantic Mine, and Houghton. Remote mill locations like Redridge, Edgmere, Beacon Hill and Freda, also received food — as well as industrial products via the CRRR.

in populated locations like South Range, Houghton, Hancock, Boston (Franklin, Jr. mine location), Osceola, Calumet, and the like, groceries, butcher shops and other establishments, offered residents choices on what to consume and where to buy. Remote locations, however, did not develop business districts, leaving it up to the companies to fill the gap.

The Copper Range Company, for example, by 1912, was the only company in the district that owned stores, according to a 1914 Dept. of Labor report in regard to the Strike of Mine Workers in the Michigan Copper District, but was not the choice of the company. The Copper Range owned four stores, located at Trimountain, Atlantic, and the communities of Redridge and Beacon Hill, both dedicated to stamp mills. Those locations were too far from business districts to travel for shopping.

The Dept. of Labor report stated that store prices in the district were largely governed by the prices fixed by the Tamarack Cooperative Association, which operated its store at Calumet. The cooperative sold and delivered goods in adjoining and neighboring villages in a 15-mile radius. Access to food was not an issue by the first decade of the 20th century, but there was a question of affordability.

By the end of the first decade of the 20the century, dietary choices and consumer habits were no longer determined by availability of foods. By 1912, the determining factor had become affordability of the foods that were available.

Next week, we will examine food prices in comparison to the lowest wages earned in the copper region and we will also examine monthly expenses and what was left of monthly wages for food and if there was a bit of money left over for recreational activities such as attending theater shows or taking a train ride to the Freda Park, or the Crestview Casino or the streetcar to the Electric Park.


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