(Richard Harris narrated the public television documentary, Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913, which recently aired on most PBS stations and recounts the Christmas Eve tragedy at the Italian Hall in Calumet, Mich. as the 100th anniversary of the disaster nears. The program can be watched online.)
For many of us, the instinct kicks in as we get older. Sensing the window is closing, we seek out our aging parents and relatives, try to make sense of our family tree and learn what we can to pass along to the next generation.
This year, Davey Holmbo, 54, a driving instructor in Hancock, Mich., had an added incentive to better understand his Norwegian and Finnish roots: Christmas Eve marks the 100th anniversary of a tragedy that directly touched his ancestors.
So Holmbo recently turned to an aunt to research the moment in 1913 when his family history made headlines around the country.
The Disaster's Long Shadow
For the past century, the disaster has cast a long shadow over the upper portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula known as “The Copper Country.” A disaster at the Italian Hall in the village of Calumet, in the midst of a bitter labor dispute between striking copper miners and owners, is still shrouded in mystery.
While no one knows precisely what happened, there seems to be this consensus: On Christmas Eve afternoon 1913, five months into a miners’ strike protesting wages and dangerous working conditions, more than 700 family members packed the second floor of the Italian Hall for a holiday party. They hoped to lift the spirits of the children of the demoralized miners.
Hundreds of kids were receiving presents and candy when an unidentified man — who some believe belonged to the anti-union group, Citizen’s Alliance — walked through the doors at the top of the stairs and falsely yelled “Fire!”
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That triggered a panicked rush for the exits. In the stampede, someone fell on the stairs, others followed and people were soon piled atop one other. By some estimates, the crushed and suffocated bodies were stacked several feet high.
The Loss of Innocent Children
All told, 73 people died. Most were children, including Holmbo’s 10-year-old great aunt, Lydia.
His grandmother, Minda, age 5 at the time, and another great aunt, Milma, 8, narrowly escaped.
“My grandmother never talked about it at family gatherings,” he says. ‘She had kind of a scarlet letter sewn on her: She was in the Italian Hall disaster. But the biggest toll was on my great-grandmother, who lost Lydia, and mourned for the rest of her life.
"I tell my kids it’s important to know this story and hope they will tell their kids that this is our connection to history, to our ancestry, to our past," Holmbo says.
Passing Down the Tragic Tale
He also wants to be sure the story gets told accurately from generation to generation. “No matter what happens in our little lives,” he says, “this is a thread in the fabric of our family’s life.”
In recent years, Holmbo gained a new appreciation for just how much the tragedy has scarred the region when he served as artistic and technical director for the Calumet Theatre. That’s the building that acted as a makeshift morgue following the disaster, where the bodies including his great aunt were initially taken.
Attorney Steve Lehto, whose Finnish ancestors worked the mines in the Upper Peninsula, describes Calumet as “sacred ground.” He recently updated his book on the tragedy, Death’s Door, to help keep the tragedy's tale alive, too.
“It’s extremely important to remember,” he says, “because many of the same (labor) issues that were happening then are happening now. If we forget them, we repeat them.”
Calumet, 100 Years Later
These days, Calumet is a shadow of its former self; its population has shrunk to 712 people, give or take. But that hasn’t stopped plans by the local Rotary Club for its annual lighting of 73 luminaries at the memorial park, where all that remains of the Italian Hall is the brick archway.
In this commemorative year, the arch will be graced by a wreath containing 73 white tea roses to be offered to surviving family members attending the ceremony.
Folksinger Woody Guthrie immortalized the tragedy in “1913 Massacre”:
Take a trip with me in nineteen thirteen
To Calumet, Michigan in the copper country
I'll take you to a place called Italian Hall
And the miners are having their big Christmas ball …
The piano played a slow funeral tune,
And the town was lit up by a cold Christmas moon
The parents, they cried and the men, they moaned,
See what your greed for money has done?