Telling stories of the strike

CALUMET TOWNSHIP – Creating an exhibit about the 1913-14 copper strike, which took place in much of the Copper Country, involved making often emotional decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, and one of the creators of the exhibit gave a presentation about the process Thursday.

Gary Kaunonen, project historian for “Tumult & Tragedy: Michigan’s 1913-14 Copper Strike,” spoke at the Keweenaw National Historical Park’s Fourth Thursday presentation at the park’s Calumet Visitor Center.

Kaunonen said besides himself, the creation of the exhibit included former Michigan Technological University archivist Erik Nordberg and graphic designer Mike Stockwell. There was also a nine-member “narrative committee.”

“This is kind of a community collaboration,” he said of the process to create the exhibit.

The preliminary work for creating the exhibit often involved the 12 people getting together in a room and discussing ideas, which Kaunonen said was both good and bad at times.

“You get many voices coming together to work on something,” he said.

The exhibit consists of 12 panels each about 7 feet tall by 3 feet wide, which have text, photographs and graphic designs. It highlights the four concepts of context, community, conflict and consequence.

Kaunonen said the members of the group creating the exhibit wanted to be as thorough as possible, but they realized too many facts could make the exhibit dry.

“We try to connect the person who’s reading the exhibit to the strike,” he said.

The strike had national significance, and Kaunonen said that was an important aspect of the exhibit, also.

Kaunonen said the strike affected almost everyone living in the Copper Country at the time. The exhibit includes strikers, who were all men, and their families. The wives and other female family members of strikers were very involved. Also included in the exhibit are the mine managers and their families.

“Many of those stories don’t connect too well,” he said.

The intent of the exhibit was not to direct the viewer to any point of view, Kaunonen said, and the creators realized the viewers would take away from it what they wanted.

One of the most difficult parts in creating the exhibit was deciding how to include the Italian Hall disaster, Kaunonen said. On Dec. 25, 1913, during a Christmas party for miners’ families, there was a stampede to get from the second floor ballroom of the building on Seventh Street in Calumet down the stairs out of the building, the cause of which has never been resolved. The stampede resulted in the death of 73 people, most of whom were children.

Kaunonen said there were emotional discussions about what images to use for the Italian Hall part of the exhibit, including photographs of dead children laid out in a temporary morgue. Some of the members of the group thought those photographs would be unfit for children and even some adults to see, and some thought leaving them out would be “sanitizing history.” It was decided not to use those images.

“The story of the Italian Hall was so powerful, it takes away (from the overall story of the strike),” he said.

Although some of the people viewing the exhibit as it traveled around the Copper Country (It will be on the second floor of the Calumet Visitor Center until June 1), have commented too much was left out of it, Kaunonen said most viewers appreciated it.

“We’ve had generally real positive feedback,” he said.