Life in 1947 and the crummiest job in the U.S., by Larry Chabot

The seventh in Larry Chabot’s series about life in the U.P.
The year 1947 found Michigan governor Kim Sigler in a grumpy mood as he simultaneously addressed and startled the members of the Economic Club of Detroit. He railed against the second-rate governor’s residence, which he called “a disgrace,” and delivered his low opinion of the high position he held. “The office of the Governor of Michigan,” he moaned, “is now the crummiest job in the United States. I am nothing but a glorified clerk.”
The terms should be four years, not two, he argued, and he wanted more authority over the various boards and commissions to which he appointed members. “How would you gentlemen who manage industry like to have your foremen and superintendents responsible not to you, but to someone else?”
His edginess may have been triggered by pending surgery, but he denied being nervous. He claimed no fear of death because, “If your number is up, it makes no difference whether you are flying an airplane or walking a street.”
Most Michigan voters turned a deaf ear because they tossed him out in the 1948 election, replacing him with the charismatic G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams. Ironically, Sigler’s number did come up about as he predicted. He had learned to fly during his term of office, and was killed when the plane he was piloting crashed into a television tower on a foggy night in 1953.
World War II had ended in 1945; postwar life was a mixed blessing. Greece, three years into a bitter civil war, was one of several nations scarred by political turmoil. India and Pakistan broke free from Great Britain, battled each other for a while and became independent. The U.S. Congress authorized the Marshall Plan, which successfully rebuilt the war-shattered countries of Europe. After six years of war and near-ruin, the British still suffered from shortages. The average housewife spent one full day a week just standing in line. They noted angrily that the wealthy didn’t appear in any lines because they apparently had direct access to the best goodies.
Another Adolf Hitler atrocity was revealed. A Milwaukee woman, Mildred Harnack, who married a German student and moved to his homeland, was arrested at the same time her husband was picked up in 1942 for joining an anti-Hitler group; he was later hanged. She got six months of hard labor until Hitler learned of her American background, then ordered her guillotined.
Of the more than 400,000 Americans who died in the war, 275,000 bodies had been recovered from war zones. Next-of-kin were sent questionnaires asking if they wanted the bodies returned or left buried overseas. Two-thirds of those responding wanted them back, so nine ships began bringing the war dead home in 1947, including hundreds from the U.P. At least two Yoopers were on that first ship, the Joseph V. Connelly, whose precious cargo was paraded in honor down New York’s Fifth Avenue before almost one million spectators.
According to Marquette historian Loraine Koski, the body of Staff Sergeant Charles Senecal of Grand Marais was the first Alger County fatality returned. A member of the 107th Engineer Corps who received the Silver Star for gallantry, Senecal died of wounds in Belgium on December 20, 1944 and was buried first at the U.S. military cemetery at Henri-Chapelle (Belgium). Munising merchants closed their stores for his funeral, and all county flags were flown at half-staff. Senecal was reburied in Holy Rosary Cemetery in Grand Marais.
Another U.P. man aboard the Connelly, also returned from Henri-Chapelle, was Private First Class Matt Lautanen of Negaunee, a 9th Infantry Division veteran who died of wounds suffered February 20, 1945 in Germany. He was the first Marquette County man brought back. Lautanen, twice-wounded, earned the Bronze Star for heroism. More than 100 people met the train carrying his body to Negaunee, where all businesses closed during his services and burial in Negaunee Cemetery.
Meanwhile, life’s vagaries filled the pages of local newspapers and occupied coffee drinkers in U.P. cafes. They read of the Marquette County man without a cutting permit who chopped down fifty-five Christmas trees he intended to smuggle to Chicago. He was fined $1 per tree. In Brimley, an overheated furnace set fire to the Catholic Church during a service. Lucky break: the worshippers included a bunch of volunteer firemen, who leaped from their pews and doused the blaze before the Soo fire crew could get there.
Firemen figured in other stories: a downstate house filled with smoke after a sparrow nesting under the roof brought home a lit cigarette. A pigeon in Washington started a fire the same way. (Don’t smoke in bed, even if it’s a nest!) A Detroit fireman carrying a woman down a ladder from a burning building, had his pants catch fire as he passed through flames shooting out of a first floor window. He dropped the woman from the ladder and then fell on top of her. Both survived.
To put the skids on a crime wave in Negaunee, police announced a crackdown on “excessive horn tooting” by drivers who greeted their friends as they buzzed around town. 0712backComplaints were especially heavy from Iron Street; a tractor stolen from a freight company in Iron Mountain was found almost 200 miles away in St. Ignace; and a drunk driver in Marquette spent thirty days in the clink (he couldn’t pay the $50 fine) for reckless driving. His crime involved using his car to spin figure-eights and other wheelies on a south-side ice rink, which was full of youthful skaters at the time.
In the fall of the year, seventeen state-owned liquor stores in the U.P. were clearing out their old stock at bargain prices and held a sales competition. In early December, the Ishpeming outlet won the weekly contest by selling 3,818 bottles of booze.
In Escanaba, a railroad inspector reported seeing three unidentified flying objects over the city. He told only his wife until hearing reports of UFO sightings all over the country, including the still-famous sighting at Roswell (New Mexico).
The 1947 U.P. deer kill resulted in 11,008 carcasses going south across the Straits of Mackinac, up about 500 from the previous year. An estimated 100 deer were poached versus seventy-four in 1946, and the 625 arrests for hunting violations were an all-time high. A Colorado hunter was among that state’s injured; as he dressed his kill, a reflex action caused the dead deer to strike his rifle and discharge a shell, which drilled a hole through his arm.
• The U.S. had only 44,000 television sets in 1947 (there were 100 times as many radios); some stations carried the first televised World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers.
• Goofy sports news: After a speedboat on Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) turned so sharply that a woman passenger was pitched into the water, the boat circled around, hit her again, tossed her ten feet in the air and back into the boat.
• In a prelude of things to come, commercial fishermen on Lakes Huron and Michigan complained that sea lamprey were beginning to kill off the fish.
• When Ishpeming ski jumpers Joe Perreault and Ralph Bietila (who was elected U.S. team captain) headed for the Winter Olympics in Switzerland, a big crowd cheered them off at the Chicago & Northwestern station. Back home, though, lack of snow was fouling up the skiing season. Ishpeming’s winter sports area had a long delayed opening, Negaunee could use only two of its four ice rinks and Marquette finally opened two of its rinks just before Christmas.
Front pages carried stories of major achievements. Pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time in the experimental X-1 airplane. Canada welcomed Labrador and Newfoundland as provinces. The transistor was invented, which would change everything. Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first black major league baseball player. The Oscar for best movie went to The Best Years Of Our Lives, while the catchy “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” was the year’s top tune. Guess who died: mobster Al Capone, carried off by a venereal disease, and Henry Ford, one of the world’s—and U.P.’s—most colorful and controversial innovators, employers and landowners.
A major restructuring of American society was well underway in hundreds of colleges educating the 7.8 million veterans whose tuition was paid through the wildly popular GI Bill of Rights. Initially passed to keep these discharged millions from directly entering a work force that had no room for them, the bill’s unquestioned success eventually would expand America’s middle class after all the veterans graduated and found work in an expanding economy.
Prices were low back then, but so were wages. At a time when the minimum wage was forty cents an hour, a first class stamp was three cents. After a small bump in the gasoline tax, motorists still griped that regular gasoline was now twenty-seven cents a gallon. New car prices averaged $1,500. Milk was eighty cents a gallon, bread cost a dollar for eight loaves. The stock market index was in the 180s, a tiny fraction of today’s five-figure numbers.
The Associated Press, among its annual list of screwball events, reported that Siam (now called Thailand) mourned the death of its Prince Singha, who was survived by 180 wives and more than 800 children. “No man tried harder to be the father of his country,” said the A.P.’s tongue-in-cheek tribute. In California, there was no wedded bliss for the man who filed for divorce from a wife he hadn’t seen since two hours after their marriage—and that was forty-seven years ago. In Perryville (Pennsylvania), townsfolk voted, 58-47, to allow the showing of movies on Sundays, even though there was no theater in town.
Not to be upstaged by the AP, the National Safety Council listed the year’s wackiest accidents, like the Seattle man who drove into a service station for an oil change but forgot he was up on the grease rack, eight feet in the air, when he stepped out for some air. And in Ann Arbor, a motorist who had inexplicably tucked his dentures into his shirt pocket hit another vehicle, which threw him against the steering wheel, causing his own teeth to bite him. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
Finally, the 1947 crop of babies clad in bulky cloth diapers, babbling and cooing in their cribs while wiggling little arms and legs, included Glenn Close, Elton John, David Letterman, O.J. Simpson, Hillary Rodham and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
—Larry Chabot
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