Copper Country rallies behind immigrant workers

Historians focusing on World War I state that the United States wanted to remain isolated and neutral. Part of that position is that the general consensus in the U.S. was that the war in Europe was Europe’s concern and had nothing to do with the United States.

Maybe. But for millions of naturalized American citizens who were born in the European nations that went to war in 1914, the hostilities had a very real and immediate impact. Many historians, especially in Europe, somehow make the claim that, even in considering the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand Franz in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a Serbian school boy, no one saw the outbreak of the war coming. The European immigrants living in the U.S., however, very much did see the war coming. They also knew what that war would mean for them.

On July, 30, 1914, just two days after Emperor Franz Josef, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, declared war on Serbia, a news piece went out over the wire from Kansas City, Missouri, stating that member of the Croatian Colony in that city hoped that U.S. Croatians would escape being conscripted into Austrian military service.

In the article, the Rev. D.M. Krompetic stated that his people were wondering if they would be called upon to fight Austria’s battles.

“We are Slavs and sympathetic with Servia,” Krompetic said. “But when a Croatian comes to America, he pledges himself to return if called. So, although many of us are citizens of the United States and could not be made to return, many would go if called upon, because of the promise.”

Ivan Cizmic, of the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar, in Zagreb, wrote in his 1997 article that examined political activities of Croatian immigrants in the U.S., stated that the largest political organization of American Croats, the Croatian League, was founded in Kansas City on Sept. 15, 1912, a day after the Eleventh Convention of the National Croatian Society.

The Daily Mining Gazette, which obtained the article from Kansas City, spent much space and ink in speculating on the course of action the Slav immigrants in the Copper Country might take. Slavs were not the only ethnic group from Europe living in the Copper Country, though.

On Aug. 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia in response to Russia’s refusing to demobilize its army after being ordered to do so by the German secretary of war. Just two days later, on Aug. 3, 50 German immigrant employees of the Quincy Mining Company, boarded a train in Hancock. Bound for Chicago, their intent was to approach the German consul there to report for military duty. As Herman Schuster, spokesman for the group, explained, it was not out of some blind loyalty to “der Kaiser” that compelled them to do so. It was far more complex than that, and had more to do with being able to visit family in the future.

“Unless we return to our native land in time of war,” he explained to a local reporter on Aug. 4, “it would be impossible for us to return after the trouble without taking the chance of being arrested and spending eight years in prison.”

Schuster said that those who left Germany before the age of 17 were not bound to that obligation. Although an American citizen, if he did not return to Germany to fight for the Kaiser, he would not be eligible to return until he was 45 years old, and after only six weeks in the old country, he would be ordered to leave.

Just a week later, five of them, the first of the 50, were back in Hancock. They had reached Chicago, but there, the German Consul told them it was impossible for the German government to transport them back to Europe, because of the British naval blockade of the North Sea and German ports. They were also told that if it was not possible for them to return to Germany during the duration of the war, they would not be punished by the government, so long as they could prove in the future that they had registered their names with the consul.

Upon returning to Hancock, they were rehired by the Quincy company — but that didn’t amount to much.

At a directors’ meeting of the Hancock Consolidated Mining Company on Aug. 8, the decision was made to suspend operations at the mine and shut it down, with the exception of the pumps. The directors were following the actions of the Winona Mine, near the Ontonagon County border, and the Mass Mine, in Ontonagon County, taken the day before. According to its annual report for 1914, while not suspending operations, the Quincy Mining Company reported that the outbreak of the European war, seriously interfered with business, because of the decrease in the foreign and domestic demand for copper, which “necessitated a reduction of the working force as well as a 12.5% reduction of wages and salaries of all employees and officers of the company.”

The Calumet & Hecla Mining Company was compelled to take similar steps a month later, on Sept. 1, according to that company’s 1914 annual report:

“On Sept. 1 wages were reduced about 10 percent, or to rates existing previous to May 1912, and salaries off all officers and employees in both the mine and the eastern offices were reduced 15 percent and the mine operated on a three-quarters basis.”

In spite of the recent strike, C&H could not escape its attitude as a benevolent father. The report explained the reasoning for the expense reductions it had taken.

“Your Directors felt by so doing, rather than discharging any large numbers of men, that a greater proportion of the force could be kept at work, the organization of the company held together and lesser hardship imposed upon the men.”

The Copper Country was, again stated, resilient and war only strengthened the resolve of the residents.

“The lumber industry in the Upper Peninsula employs thousands of men every fall,” stated the Aug. 9 edition of the Daily Mining Gazette, “and the fact that the season for sending men to the woods is but a few weeks off, means that hardships which would have to be endured under other circumstances are now to be avoided.” The article focused on those miners laid off at the Hancock and Winona mines.

A week after many lumber companies reported a drastic increase in the number of men applying for forestry jobs, the Houghton Country Road Commission began working on the Hancock Canal Road, which at first seems like an odd time of year to begin a major road project. However, the work had been authorized during the first week of August by the Houghton County Board of Supervisors as a measure of relief for unemployed miners.

When thousands of miners were unemployed because they voluntarily walked off the job to engage in striking between July 1913 and April 1914, they received little support from the Copper Country which, as a whole, suffered terrible economic hardships because of it. Now, just four months after the strike was called off and thousands of miners were trying to rebuild their lives and financial security, as well as that of the region, it was no fault of theirs that they were unemployed.

During this time of financial stress, however, the Copper Country rallied to them, offered them work, and once again, the Copper Country demonstrated that although it was composed of many ethnic groups and nationalities, it was still one community.


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