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Copyright 1996-2006
Kevin E. Musser



Ojibway Mining Company house

Structures of the Keweenaw
Part IV

An Introduction to Company Houses

The next three articles in this series will focus on some of the types and styles of company houses found throughout the Keweenaw. The company house was, and still is, the backbone of life in this region. This may seem an odd subject for a publication focused on railroads, but the railroads could not function without places for the population they serve to exist.-- and a model railroad purporting to represent the area would be incomplete if it did not include company houses.

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Homes within a location usually would include no more than one or two styles -
a block of single dwellings and a block of duplexes.

Until 1887 the Keweenaw was an isolated outpost in one of the most environmentally harsh areas found on this continent. Heavy snow in the winter and ice-covered lakes prohibited almost all travel for six months out of the year. Today when we travel to this region we are most familiar with US-41. In the late 1800s and early 1900s travel into this region would have been by rail, either the DSS&A or the Copper Range.

Before the introduction of railroad service, miners and developers would have used Copper Harbor, Eagle Harbor or Eagle River as the point of entry by boat using Lake Superior. Even with this, ships had to be built and reside on the lake in the days before the Soo Locks were built.

The early harbor towns were more like camps. Most of the early accommodations for miners were large tents thrown up just outside of town to house the ever increasing population. These tents would be torn down in the fall and most of the population would retreat back to civilization for the winter. Only the extremely hardy soul would last the winter, without fresh food or communications.

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The most distinctive addition to the main structure of a Keweenaw company home is the vestibule or "snow room", which is attached to almost all houses in this region. They were meant to be a place for dirty, wet men to change before entering the main house.

When spring arrived the locals who remained would spend a good part of each day waiting for the ice to break in hope of seeing the first ship of the new year.

As mining locations developed, small mining communities followed. The Keweenaw was dotted with paternalistic mining societies. The mining company built, owned, operated and/or controlled the housing, hospitals, schools, local government and stores, and provided free land to build churches. Unlike some other areas of the country where companies controlled and choked the workers, the copper region was almost free of this form of indenture.

The Copper strike of 1913-14 was an exception to this rule, causing the deaths of men, women and children. In the 70 years of mining history to that point the worst single accident claimed 30 men, all of whom were asphyxiated by smoke in the Osceola Mine. During the strike, 74 children died when they ran to a crowed exit after someone yelled "fire" during a Christmas party in the Italian Hall in Calumet. Men were murdered when they tried to go to work or stay away from it. It was not a good time to live in the Keweenaw, since your home was owned by the company you were striking against.

Most of the time things were better in the mining communities. The company may not have provided company homes with indoor plumbing, but they built large bathhouses for the miners returning from the shafts and their families.

The companies also built bowling alleys, ahtletic fields, and libraries, such as the Sarah Paine library in Painesdale (no longer surviving) and the company library for the C&H in Calumet (still a public library).

The big three, C&H, Quincy, and Copper Range Consolidated were the companies to work for if you wanted to live a normal life of the times. In the early years before consolidation, the best living conditions a worker could hope for was a log bunk house with dirt floors. Many of these survived well into the 1940s and a few can be found even today.

The earliest types of company houses were log structures, being the simplest to build and maintain. With many local sawmills popping up, most companies developed standard sets of plans for wood frame homes.

Almost all the the money to develop this region came from Boston. One of the early books written about this region is aptly titled"Michigan Copper and Boston Dollars". Therefore it is easy to understand why there are so many saltbox houses in the Keweenaw, especially south of Houghton. The influence of Boston extends to town and street names like Beacon Hill, Concord City, Boston Location, Painesdale (named after William Paine, of Paine Webber of Boston, owner of the Copper Range Consolidated). The stamp mill for the Champion Copper mines in Painesdale were located in Freda, which was named after Paine's daughter.

Town sites were divided into areas called locations. The mines were also referred to as locations. In Painesdale locations were referred to by letters; A Location, B Location, etc. In other towns these areas would be given more interesting names, usually referring to the local population; Swedetown, Germantown, Hardscrabble, and Bumbletown (named after a bunch of clumsy miners,no doubt).

Homes within a location usually would include no more than one or two styles - a block of single dwellings and a block of duplexes. Company houses ran from single dwellings, duplexes (usually side by side) to boarding houses for single men.

Each mining community had at least one location for the supervisors and bosses - in Painesdale it is known as "Snob Hill" for obvious reasons. The construction of addition locations was tied directly to the richness of the mine being developed. The most distinctive addition to the main structure of a Keweenaw company home is the vestibule or "snow room", which is attached to almost all houses in this region. They were meant to be a place for dirty, wet men to change before entering the main house. Usually these are found in the back of the house, but through many modifications some have become attached to the front. Most of these homes are close together and never had garages, since most were built before the automobile. In the early days all the homes would be fenced in to keep stray animals away and the home dweller would have room for a small garden and one cow in the back.

Large plots of land were also made available by the company for cutting firewood and growing additional vegetables. Men could earn additional money felling trees, as the mines never ran out of a need for timber underground.

In some areas of the Keweenaw it is still possible to see rows of similar houses, without modifications. In others area, the passing of time has destroyed some, removed others, and renovated the remaining, as mining companies sold the homes after the mines shut down.

Ideally there would be interest among local historians in preserving these homes. The mines, support structures, and facilities have long since disappeared, leaving the company homes as the only remaining examples of structures from the era..

When and if you visit, what you'll see is only a tiny fraction of what existed during the height of the mining era.. More than 95 percent of the company homes in Redridge were disassembled and moved after the two stamp mills on the Salmon-Trout River shut down. Almost all towns have had at least a few streets removed along with the homes. Apparently people in the Upper Peninsula are extremely fond of disassembling and moving homes elsewhere, making it harder for people like me to find how they got there in the first place.

Many communities in the Keweenaw had paved streets and electricity years before the rest of the state due to the fact that mining companies needed roads and generated their own electricity. When the mines closed the homeowners lost their electricity and had to wait until the government caught up with them again in the late '40s and early '50s. Many towns had electrical power and lost it for 10 to 20 years until it returned. So much for progress.

If you have more interest in learning about the life styles of all those mining folks then I would suggest the following books, which should still be in publication.

Keweenaw Character; The Foundation of Michigan's Copper Country, by David Mac Frimodig.

Cradle to Grave; Life, Work, And Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines, by Larry Lankton.

Wild Empire; A Copper Rush Adventure in Michigan's Copper Country, by Richard F. Searight. Although the latter is a work of fiction it is based on fact and is a good insight into the early days in the Keweenaw.

Regarding Company houses in general there isn't much other than some PHD theses and local historical site registers in the Tech Archives, but finding them is well worth the effort.

A good book on American Homes in general, which is very helpful, is "A Field Guide to American Houses", by Virginia and Lee McAlester.

Ojibway Mining Company House.

Today there is a small brown and white sign located off US-41 which points the way to the area once known as Ojibway. Located 7 miles south of Eagle River and 3 miles north of Mohawk, in Allouez Township, Keweenaw County, Ojibway Mining Company started operations in 1907. The town site was built a mile from the mines and located near the Keweenaw Central Railroad (controlled by the Copper Range RR) on the Gratiot River. The Ojibway was funded by a Minnesota company and the main office in the region was located in Houghton.

By 1909, Ojibway Mining Co. had built 24 single family dwellings, a boarding house and two wood-framed sleeping camps to house its workers. All of these structures had running water and five had bathrooms. Electricity and phones were in place by the same year. The town site was defined by a rectangle of five streets by four streets. Of the 24 single family dwellings, 18 were of the type described in this article.

The building of company houses was a necessity in order to support a boiler house, engine house, compressor house, blacksmith shop, machine shop, warehouse, office, change house, oil house, carpenter shop and a company barn. Ore was taken from as far as Mohawk on the Keweenaw Central and transferred to the Mineral Range Railroad. The rock was stamped at Tamarack Mill on Torch Lake in Hubbell. The concentrate was finally smelted in the Dollar Bay Smelter. In 1909 the Ojibway was one of four shipping mines in Keweenaw County and showed a lot of promise.

The Keweenaw Central built a station at Ojibway in 1907. The station was located between the South Gratiot and Cliff stations on the Central's timetable. It was reported to be clean and well heated, the most important consideration in this area. Most of the stations on the Keweenaw Central were rather small and portable, due to the fluctuation in mining activities.

All of this activity just to mine for six years. In 1913 the mine closed, reportly because of bad investors, not bad ground. The town and mine location were only used until 1913 except by the watchman. In 1932 the home shown in these plans was worth $900. The entire complex was sold or stripped off piecemeal until 1941 when the whole place was sold for scrap. Some of these homes went for $35 in 1941. A gentlemen from L'anse took six of them back home with him (I haven't found them yet). This was at a time when 40 acres of fair land on which these houses sat went for $120. Ojibway, lock, stock, and barrel, went for a little over $3,000. The C&H and the Copper Range were both interested in the property. In the end it was the C&H that took ownership, but it never developed the property further.

The model

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The dimensions for this structure were taken from plans found in the Archives of Michigan Tech. The plans were made from interior floor plans and show only the front view of the structure. I used Grandt Line windows and doors throughout. The porch spindles and posts are also Grandt Line. The exterior and trim is basswood (the ONLY material for wood structures), the interior walls are bristol board.

The first floor contains a living room, kitchen and dining room. A hallway extended from the front door to the kitchen in the back and also contained the stairway to the second floor. The upstairs was divided into four bedrooms or "chambers" on the 1907 plan. No bathroom, but it did have a basement.

Most homes that did survive the transition would have made one bedroom into a bathroom later on in the 1900's. My model has four bedrooms and an outhouse out back. In line with the Keweenaw's history, I have moved the house to Lake Mine, Michigan, after being purchased from the Ojibway mining company for about $500 in 1917, to serve as a Finnish farm house alongside the Copper Range railroad mainline.