Big trouble in little Michigamme

by Larry Chabot

It’s so easy to like Michigamme: nice town, great name, cool lake with endless shoreline, lots of famous visitors and a glorious past. This piece of the past, however, has been buried in old news clippings for more than eighty years.
0905bt2Michigamme, age 137, had a peak population of 1,800 in the 1880s and boasted “a larger percentage of pretty girls than any town in Northern Michigan,” according to the town’s centennial story. Sixteen trains rolled through town every day. Judy Garland’s mother lived there; Henry Ford did business there.
In 1926, future movie star Jean Harlow endured a miserable summer with poison oak and scarlet fever on Lake Michigamme.
“The worst nightmare of my life,” she said later.
Only one doctor would treat her, probably Dr. Isaiah Sicotte, who figured in our big story that same summer. Harlow’s doctors claimed the scarlet fever took her life eleven years later.
The big trouble in Michigamme began with a simple credentials check of school superintendent C.C. Walther (fresh from leading Michigamme to the state Class D basketball title) and ended with six people losing their jobs.
On April 15, 1926, a school board majority of Charles Sundstrom, Carrie Karpensky and Gust Schwendeman voted against retaining C.C. Walther and teacher Florence Simons. Walther was getting a superintendent’s salary in the belief he was a college graduate, when in fact he was a few credits shy. “Nothing personal,” they said.
0905bt1As for Miss Simons, supposedly she was moving on next year, so the board would replace her at a lower salary. Miss Simons replied that no one asked her about returning.
The reaction in town was immediate: almost 100 residents petitioned the board to keep Walther and Simons, and all but two of the eighty-four high school students went out on strike, vowing to “hang together to the last ditch.” Nevertheless, the board majority was unmoved by the commotion and gave the kids two choices: “Go back to school or be expelled.”
The students returned to classes at the superintendent’s request, feeling they had made their point.
“For fear that we may be charged with being egotistical,” they told the Daily Mining Journal, “we believe school children, especially those in higher grades, are better judges of what is best for their welfare and future success than those who are not on the ground daily…High school is only a stepping stone to higher education. We must have proper training for the future and we believe [the firings] would be a decided setback.”
Then another startling incident popped up. Back in January, a school audit found possible state law violations by Sundstrom, Karpensky and Schwendeman—the same three who started the controversy—for doing business with the school while sitting on the board. Although no fraud or harm was alleged, the three had been warned by state education official W.L. Coffey to cut it out.
On April 20, Coffey arrived in Michigamme amidst the firing uproar to learn that the January warning to the three board members had been ignored. He asked them to resign, and when they refused, called a hearing for May 5 in Marquette for them to “show cause.”
In an April 24 editorial, the Iron Ore called the state law violations “purely technical.” Sundstrom sold some batteries, paint supplies and framing to the school through an unsolicited order. And Schwendeman, one of two local insurance agents, “is entitled to a share of the township’s business,” said the paper.
In another editorial on May 1, the Iron Ore again admitted the law was violated, but wondered how the other two board members could approve the questionable bills without also violating the law. The town only has “ten to twelve business men. Should doing business with all of them be outlawed? We do not believe so, provided the business comes unsolicited and the regular charge is made.”
The paper concluded that the law is there to prevent fraud but sometimes goes too far when it handcuffs local communities.
That same day, the Iron Ore reported the hiring of a Professor Kirkeberg from Prairie Du Chien (Wisconsin) as superintendent by a 4-1 vote. Board president P.E. Paquin, who cast the “no” vote, told the Mining Journal the tally really was 3-1, with trustee Edward Elnes abstaining. Paquin denied an Iron Ore charge that the town was more obsessed with basketball than education. He said practices were held after hours, and since there was no gym, the coach and players had to walk more than a mile to the nearest practice site.
Many locals believed Walther’s dismissal had nothing to do with his credentials or cost cutting. They knew he was a great administrator and that Michigamme’s share of his $3,200 annual salary was only $1,000 or so, with the balance coming from neighboring Spurr Township paying Michigamme $75 a year per student for more than thirty kids.
They suspected the board wanted all “hometown” teachers (six of the nine were) and had a local man lined up to replace Walther. It also was thought that a replacement for Miss Simon, who wasn’t a local, was on tap, and that Mrs. Karpensky had loaned her money for college.
Then came another shocker: Spurr Township threatened to hire Florence Simons and start its own high school, thus depriving Michigamme of all that tuition money.
At a contentious May 5 hearing in Marquette, the state charged Sundstrom with selling $43 worth of goods to the school, that Schwendeman wrote a policy on the school, and that Karpensky served as school librarian for $6 a month—while all three were on the board.
Because they ignored Coffey’s ultimatum to stop, he ordered them removed. Coffey said the ousters were unrelated to the firings or student walkout (which he first read about on his way up from Lansing in April).
Sundstrom defended himself by claiming he only sold $18.40 in goods, on which he “lost a few cents,” and added that most school supplies came from other merchants. Then Schwendeman admitted writing policies on the school for a $50 commission, but so did the other local agent when he also was a board member. For her part, Mrs. Karpensky acknowledged her $6 a month stipend as school librarian, but claimed a board member traditionally held this position.
Prosecuting attorney Thomas Clancey, representing the three ousted board members, claimed that every township trustee in the Upper Peninsula would be sacked “if cases of this kind were pressed.” When he called Coffey’s order for another hearing in Lansing as just more harassment, Coffey retorted with, “I am tired of your bunk.”
None of the dismissed were in Lansing for the May 21 hearing before state education chief Thomas Johnson. Because of high travel costs and the state’s lack of proof that the school was harmed, attorney Clancey criticized the hearing location. He also was angry that accused trustee Schwendeman, disabled since childhood, was expected to travel 400 miles from home when he couldn’t even climb the courthouse steps in Marquette.
In blunt letters to each trustee, Thomas Johnson announced the verdict: “You are hereby removed from office.” A Mining Journal article concluded that Clancey proved “there was no proper case…and that showing up in Lansing wouldn’t have done any good anyway.” Even though there were violations, “the nub of this case was the defiance of the state.”
Back in Michigamme, Iron Ore readers were startled by the latest scoop: P.E. Paquin, employed as a railway mail clerk, was forced by the post office to quit the school board because federal workers were barred from elective boards. So, trustee Edward Elnes became the entire board. It was time for a special election on June 12 to fill the vacancies until the regular election in July.
A slate of prominent town candidates, headed by Jean Harlow’s temporary doctor, Isaiah Sicotte, led the ballot. The dismissed members, however, refused to vacate their seats, calling the election illegal because their appeal time hadn’t expired. Naturally, said the Mining Journal, Michigamme was in a high state of excitement.
After Spurr Township loaned the school a ballot box when Michigamme’s mysteriously disappeared, the election went on as planned. The new slate was swept in, but when they tried to take over the school accounts, Schwendeman wouldn’t give them up without a court order.
A month later, the whole thing was repeated at the regular election, despite a lawsuit to quash the results. When no court action ensued, the election went on, with Sicotte’s now-incumbent slate on the ballot.
The deposed had one final maneuver up their sleeves: they printed their own ballots with their names already checked, and handed them out to voters entering the polls. Describing the local mood as “hostile,” the Mining Journal said the situation was so strange it “would put a crossword puzzle to shame.”
Surprise! The Sicotte slate drew less than seventy votes each, while the other group, which included the ousted Schwendeman and Karpensky, polled more than 100 a piece on their homemade ballots. The election board tossed out the fake ballots, certifying the election of Dr. Sicotte, Otto Lund, Albert Olson, Ernest Christiansen and John Treado. And so the dust finally settled on one of the U.P.’s great adventures.
For the deposed board, life went on. Sundstrom ran his store until his death in 1948. He also served four terms in the state legislature. Insurance agent Schwendeman, who died in 1947, was township clerk for many years. Karpensky, according to Dorothy Elnes Moore in Michigamme Family Histories, would “split wood for her neighbors as well as for her own household.”
Michigamme High School graduated its last class in 1965 and merged with Republic.

— Larry Chabot

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