The year 1958 was never safe, never boring

By Larry Chabot
(This is the 18th installment in a series looking back 60 years.)
California fires, people fleeing Venezuela, deadly hurricanes, personal bombs. Sound familiar? Maybe so, but these events happened 60 years ago, in 1958. Hurricane Helene, with devastating winds up to 150 miles an hour, was the worst of the season’s storms. A mail bomb mailed to Cambodia’s King Sihanouk killed one of his aides instead. Bombs continued to be popular for dispatching opponents and destroying buildings, recalling the worst case of 36 mail bombs and eight public explosions in the U.S., orchestrated by Italian anarchists in 1919.
After 92 children and three nuns were killed in a Chicago parochial school fire (nearly 100 more were hospitalized), schools everywhere – including the U.P. – revisited their school safety plans. Locally, Marquette County’s top story involved 12-year-old David Luoma, brutally beaten to death by his stepfather, who was convicted of second degree murder and given 25 to 50 years in prison. In February, two Marquette men were asphyxiated when their car was stuck in a snowbank in 16-below-zero weather.
In other legal highlights, Marquette Branch Prison reached a new high prisoner count of 1,407, although the number of inmates fluctuated due to what prison historian Ike Wood called a summer of walkaways. There were so many, he wrote in One Hundred Years At Hard Labor, that it was hard to keep score. These were not over-the-wall escapes but trustees walking away from minimum-security camps. At least eleven wandered off; all of them were caught by October, when frosty nights made them look forward to a warm prison cell.
A government clerk resorted to sarcasm over the apparent lack of security. “What you people need,” he told prison officials, “is a traffic cop out in the woods. They’re coming and going in all directions. If any of them get lost, they’re going to sue you for not taking better care of them.”
In Marquette, two local dudes were trying to pick up women late one October night when city cops tried to flag down their car to save the damsels from distress. Officer Donald Gill was flagging them to a stop when he saw the vehicle heading toward him at high speed. Although he jumped aside, the car antenna whacked his wrist and sent him to the hospital. Meanwhile, Marquette court Judge Glenn Jackson sighed in frustration as he scanned ten motley citizens who stood before his bench, charged with a variety of offenses. “Behave or face prison,” he told them sternly. “Take your choice: either become a bum or a good citizen. You’re old enough to have some sense.” Then he handed out fines and jail time to give the culprits time to think it over.
Safer In The Woods
Although 13 deer hunters died in the U.P. in 1958, only one perished in a hunting accident. Nine died in traffic accidents coming or going (including three killed near Marquette the night before the season’s start). Another four had fatal heart attacks, and many more suffered wounds and injuries. In the weirdest mishap, a hunter was peppered with flying metal chunks when his partner’s gun shattered upon being fired. And no less then 31 hunters got lost in the woods and had to be rescued.
A near-record 32,000 deer were harvested in the U.P., including an unusually high number of big bucks. Bear harvest was also up, as 367 were taken across the Straits of Mackinac by downstaters. A Wakefield resident shot a bear right through his screen door, but when he opened the screen check it out, a skunk snuck in and hid behind the refrigerator, irritating his wife no end. And then he had to repair the screen. Finally, a driver in Alger County, nearly blinded by heavy fog, crashed into a herd of 13 cows being walked down the road by a farmer. Two cows were killed outright; a state trooper shot a third one at the request of the farmer.
Michigan’s population of 6,421,000 was 7th most in the U.S.; with 9,962 million now, we’ve fallen to tenth. In sports, the Lions, Red Wings, and Tigers all wobbled through so-so seasons. The Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans made no waves in college football; their combined record was 5-11-2 (with only one conference win between them). In their head-to-head matchup, they struggled to a 12-12 tie. To use a phrase coined by veteran sportswriter Red Smith, they overwhelmed five teams, underwhelmed eleven, and whelmed two.
On the bright side, the little but mighty Chassell High School in Houghton County won its third straight Class D basketball championship and ran its winning streak to a state-record 65 games.
No More Smoking In The Library!
Peter White Public Library doubled in size with a two-story addition, new reading room, an elevator, and a youth area occupying the former smoking room. Residents of townships which supported the library were charged ten cents per borrowed book, subsidized by their township. However, residents of non-supporting townships paid ten cents fee per withdrawal plus a $5 deposit.
At Northern Michigan College (now NMU) student enrollment hit a new high of 1,743. Its Hedgcock Fieldhouse, the largest gym in the Upper Peninsula, opened for business. Meanwhile, up the road in Houghton, Michigan Tech enrollment hit 2,996 with students from 19 nations.
The Soo Locks had one of its worst seasons due to strikes at several ports, a national business downturn, and competition from a new oil pipeline. One of the Mackinac Straits car-and-passenger ferries (no longer needed because of the new Mackinac Bridge( was sold to a firm for use as a potato warehouse. Sawyer Air Force Base was activated with the arrival of 27 jets and 600 military personnel from Kinross in Chippewa County. Congressman John Bennett predicted Sawyer would eventually have 9,000 people assigned there, including civilians (it’s high was about 4,100).
The last passenger train out of Marquette left on January 11, but North Central Airlines offered “8 departures every day:” four headed to Houghton and Duluth, three went south to Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Chicago, and the eighth linked Marquette with Sault Ste. Marie. The ill-fated lake freighter Edmund Fitzgerald was launched in June, while tragedy struck the freighter Bradley, which sunk in Lake Michigan in November with only two survivors from its 35-man crew.
Ishpeming’s John Voelker, then a Michigan Supreme Court judge, was honored to learn that his Anatomy Of A Murder novel was chosen as a Book-Of-The-Month Club selection.
The United States launched its first satellite – Explorer I – which orbited the earth 58,000 times during its life, and the USS Nautilus nuclear submarine sailed under the North Pole on a trip from Alaska to Iceland. National Airlines introduced the first U.S. jet flights. In the same year, trans-Atlantic jet passenger service was inaugurated between London and New York. Japanese Toyota and Datsun autos went on the sale in the U.S., which lost Packard products when the company ceased production.
The fabulous and possibly cursed Hope Diamond (45.52 carats) was donated to the Smithsonian Institution by jeweler Harry Winston. In more mundane matters, Wham-O Company sold over 100 million Hula Hoops in its first year. The leading films were Bridge on the River Kwai and South Pacific, while Candid Camera and The Ed Sullivan Show ruled television. Gasoline cost two bits a gallon. Traffic deaths averaged 100 a day (it’s now 110 per day, but we have nearly twice the population).
Oh, no, moaned his groupies: Elvis Presley, then the world’s most famous entertainer, was drafted into the Army in March. His fans kept in touch, as became evident when mail deliveries to his German base jumped from one bag a day to 15. According to the BBC, women followed him wherever he went, even tried to scale the fence at his base – just see him, they said.
When discharged two years later, Elvis (who made over a million dollars in 1958) received mustering-out pay of $109.54. He donated all of his Army pay to charity. Before leaving Germany, he bought TV sets for the post and new uniforms for his Army mates.

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