Bessie Phillips exhibit opened in Eagle River

provided photo — Bessie Phillips driving Governor G. Mennen Williams in the 1953 Calumet Homecoming parade. Williams reportedly chose to ride with Phillips because he liked her Model T more than any of the other cars available.

The Eagle River Museum unveiled their newest exhibit last week, featuring the late Bessie Phillips, noted Eagle River hotelier and reporter who also worked at the electric company and Eagle River courthouse.

“We’ve had some very interesting people living in Eagle River over the years,” said Mel Jones, Houghton Township supervisor, during his introduction.

Todd Taskila gave a brief presentation about Phillips’ life in Eagle River.

Phillips was the lone survivor of her immediate family.

Her brother drowned in Eagle River, her mother was accidentally burned to death, and her sister and father also died early in her life.

provided photo — Bessie Phillips standing beside the Eagle River.

“Her life was described as lonely in Eagle River,” Taskila said.

Her father was the proprietor of a local hotel, which she ran herself after his death. Working there she came into contact with many important travelers involved in business, politics and law.

She was also a reporter for the Daily Mining Gazette from 1932 to 1967, reporting on everything, including social happenings, in Eagle River.

“I don’t think she was lonely,” Taskila said. “Everybody visited her.”

Her prolific writing has helped with other research projects at the museum, one of the reasons the museum committee decided she should be included in their exhibits.

Bessie Phillips standing on a motorized ski. (provided photo)

When Phillips worked at the courthouse, Taskila’s uncle worked up the street where he could sometimes see her starting up her Model T Ford, which she would coax into starting.

“He said she used to talk to her car all the time,” Taskila said.

Marcia Mason was one of several people who told stories about Phillips.

According to Mason, Phillips had her Model T, which ended production in 1927, well into the 1950s, when she finally decided to replace the old car. She replaced it with a Model A Ford, a car that had still been out of production for around twenty years.

Phillips always stood up for herself, too.

Joshua Vissers/Daily Mining Gazette — Documents and photos, now a part of the Bessie Phillips exhibit at the Eagle River Museum.

Her Model T was old and needed work, but the local dealership didn’t want to service such an old car and pressured her to get a new one instead.

Rather than cave to the salesperson’s pressure, Phillips wrote a letter to Ford in Detroit, who sent a representative back to Copper Country. They told the dealer that he had to service the Model T or risk losing his dealership.

When she worked at the electric company, the cost of stock was removed from their paycheck regularly, essentially forcing them to invest in the company. The stock ended up worthless, and Phillips sent letters of protest to authorities complaining of the treatment there.

Audience members who remembered Phillips said she was an intimidating figure who kept close eye on the neighborhood, even in old age.

“We were all afraid of her,” one of them said.

The former Eagle Hotel, where Bessie Phillips used to work, is now a summer residence. Behind it along the road you can see the buildings that used to be the doctor’s house, a jewelry store, the German Hotel and Saloon that also contained the first Keweenaw jail, a warehouse and general store. (Joshua Vissers/Daily Mining Gazette)

At least one member of the audience is related to Phillips, too.

June Phillips Burich, 91, was related to Phillips through the Sibilsky’s, making them cousins.

Burich said she had pride in the exhibit, and was doing what she could to learn more about her family’s history.

The museum also handed out copies of an self-conducted tour of Eagle River that Phillips wrote with Clarice Stromback in 1961.

Parts of the tour, including the map, are outdated, but the written directions are still followable, leading readers past the courthouse and jail, past former hotels, to where the docks used to stand, and through old neighborhoods.

The Eagle River Museum is open from 12-4 p.m., Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday during the summer. There is no admission fee for this museum but a donation is appreciated.


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