WWI REMEMBRANCE

A commemorative display at Houghton’s Carnegie Museum shares stories of local men who served as soldiers during the first World War.

Story and photos by Deborah K. Frontiera

Two years ago, Sue Collins, an associate professor in the Humanities Department at Michigan Technological University, came up with the idea of a community-wide commemoration of the end of World War I and the Copper Country’s involvement in it. She formed a core committee of community members, including MTU, the Carnegie Museum in Houghton and Finlandia University. To keep planned events free and open to the public, funding came from the Michigan Humanities Council (an affiliate of the National Endowment of Humanities), both universities and other sources (a complete list of sponsors can be seen at ww1cc.mtu.edu).
Elise Nelson of the Carnegie Museum and Hillary Virtanen at Finlandia University, as well as other members of MTU’s Humanities and Social Studies departments, eagerly pitched in to help. Students at MTU and Finlandia also volunteered to help Collins in her role as project director and primary investigator for the grant money. She emphasized that the events are designed commemorate, not celebrate, the centennial of the end of WWI.
Through all the challenges of managing the project without a professional staff, juggling publicity logistics, finding time for volunteers to help out over and above their regular jobs, working on a very limited budget (but with people willing to give) and staying on-schedule in spite of inevitable delays, this group of people has done a fantastic job.
Events began in June and will conclude on November 11 with an Armistice Centennial Ceremony. A wide range of exhibits, talks, films, performances and a symposium are included. While many events have already concluded, more will continue into November and beyond the Armistice Commemoration. Those who take advantage of the programs will discover a wealth of interesting information. The highlights in this article are the proverbial “tip of the iceberg,” demonstrating a few of the many and aspects of the late 1910s.
From June through late October, the Carnegie Museum featured an exhibit borrowed from the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center in Marquette, where it was called World War I Remembered. At the Carnegie it was titled Soldier’s Stories: The U.P. and The Great War. Visitors could wander through several panels of information and photographs describing the experiences of Copper Country soldiers, many of whom ended up not in the trenches of France but in Russia as part of the Northern Russian Expeditionary Force. They became known as the “Polar Bears.” This group of Copper Country men, representing the region’s wide variety of ethnic groups, suffered great deprivation and ended up fighting an additional six months after the Armistice! The details of this expedition and the politics behind it will long be remembered by those who visited the exhibit.

 

A replica of a WWI trench is part of an experiential exhibit located on the corner of US 41 and MacInnes Drive on the Michigan Tech campus in Houghton.

The Carnegie will open another exhibit in early November. This exhibit is called World War I and the Copper Country Home Front and features the everyday lives of Copper Country residents who did not leave to fight in the war, particularly women. With most able-bodied men gone, the mines were short on workers, although students continued at MTU (which had a different name back then). The exhibit also shows the added workload of area mothers, the Red Cross and packages sent to soldiers, ongoing Liberty Bond drives, Victory Gardens, rationing, and more. While this is a nationally rotating exhibit, the focus at the Carnegie is on the local area. For more information, visit the Carnegie Keweenaw’s website or Facebook page.
Over at Finlandia University, Hilary Virtanen researched and assembled an exhibit titled Copper Country Voices of Dissent in the Great War. Helping her in this endeavor were Professor Tom Adolphs and Finlandia University students. The series of 10 panels of information and photographs describe the war years leading into the U.S. involvement: Copper Country in 1914 on the heels of “The Strike” and the main events leading to WWI, which was an “unpopular war” that the United States tried hard to stay out of. The exhibit shows the challenges of winning national support for the war and highlights local resistance, such as a march by men in the Copper Country who did not want to register on the first day of the first draft. It also tells stories of the status of “Alien Enemies,” those born in Germany and its Eastern European allies; Socialists and members of the International Workers of the World, called “Wobblies,” who were outspoken against the war; the way dissenters were treated by peers and vigilantes; and one specific Hancock man, Hisky Salomaa. The exhibit also covers loss of free speech through the Sedition Act and other laws of the time and the aftermath of the war. This exhibit is open at the Finnish American Heritage Center, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. through December 1.
Shell Shocked: Footage and Sounds of the Front, which was at MTU’s Rozsa Center gallery through early October, involved viewers in surround-sound speakers and multiple images that took one from cheering parades of soldiers boarding trains and ships to battlefield explosions to final victory cheers. Ears and eyes were bombarded, literally, with the sounds of voices, rumbling train wheels, boat whistles blowing, shovels digging, gasmask breathing, exploding artillery shells, early aircraft engines, people digging through ruined buildings, screams of the injured and, finally, the return home.
Along with Shell Shocked, the Rozsa displayed French and American Propaganda Posters. Described by some as the beginning of the age of advertising images, these posters brought to the people of France and the United States such iconic images as James Montgomery Flagg’s “Uncle Sam” and the Red Cross’ “Greatest Mother in the World.” Such posters were displayed across the country for the purpose of getting people to mobilize for the war effort and are part of the Marquette Regional History Center’s permanent collection.
Dug In: Experiential WWI Trench opened in September and will remain open until November 11. Excavated at the corner of US-41 and MacInnes Drive on the MTU campus in Houghton, it reproduces a section of WWI trench and includes sound to allow visitors to experience a shadow of what soldiers lived through. Mattila Dock and Rock and Superior Gravel donated three truckloads of sand, which MTU football coach Steve Olson had his players shovel into 2,500 burlap bags. The sand bags are piled along the top of the trench with barbed wire for maximum historic accuracy.
In addition to these ongoing displays, World War I and the Copper Country featured numerous films, lectures, immersive visualizations, reading and literature of the period at the Portage Lake District Library, MTU’s Van Pelt and Opie Library, Memorial Union Building and Orpheum Theater in Hancock, the Calumet Theater and Dee Stadium, as well as a concert on the Walker Arts Lawn. All of these displays and events were designed to bring about an awareness of the consequences of war, preserve U.P. and Copper Country history and bring people together to remember “The War to End All Wars.” And, perhaps, to ponder why we still have wars.
For complete details of ongoing displays and events, visit ww1cc.mtu.edu.

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