- Historic Sites
The Calumet Tragedy
When copper-country miners went on strike, the owners brought thugs from the slums of New York to northern Michigan. The struggle led to an event that killed a city.
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
The violence continued. In September a deputy and a striker died under questionable circumstances. Indiscriminate beatings and shootings were commonplace, almost daily occurrences. “The deputy sheriffs and the Waddell men acted with great brutality towards the strikers,” the U.S. Labor Department investigation later concluded, “and in many cases beat even women with clubs and night sticks.” On December 7 there was another boardinghouse massacre. Three strikebreakers, all Cornish, were killed in their beds when unknown persons armed with high-powered rifles fired some forty rounds into what the strikers called the “English Scab Boarding House.” The federation was the most obvious suspect, but Prosecutor Lucas believed the murders were committed by Waddell thugs in an effort to turn public opinion against the union. The killings never were solved.
Although the federation sent in its top officers to coordinate the strike, the figure that came to symbolize the miners’ resistance wasn’t even a miner. She was Annie Clemenec, the twenty-five-year-old wife of a miner. Every day of the strike, she took to the streets of Calumet, leading massive protest marches, or “parades” as they called them. At times the leading figures of the labor movement joined her. John Lewis, representing the American Federation of Labor’s mining unit, walked with her, bringing expressions of solidarity from the coal workers, and so did “Mother” Jones. Clarence Darrow was the attorney for the federation and, on at least two occasions, marched at her side. She was known as “Big Annie” or, sometimes, “Tall Annie.” At six feet two inches she towered over most of the strikers who followed her. She carried a massive American flag on a ten-foot staff. “I get used to it,” she said. “I carried it 10 miles one morning; the men wouldn’t let me carry it any further. I love to carry it.”
“I’m going to keep at it,” said Annie Clemence, “until this strike is won.”
The powerful of Calumet accused her in the local newspapers of inciting the miners to riot. She was arrested at least three times, charged with intimidation and disturbing the peace; she even went to jail for ten days. But she would not quit.
She was married, but her husband, Joe, a Croatian miner, never appeared in the numerous press accounts of Big Annie. Even her brother Frank Klobuchar has trouble remembering him. “He was a pretty quiet, mild-mannered guy. I can’t even put a face with his name in my memory. 1 don’t think they had been married that long when the trouble broke out.”
But Klobuchar remembers his sister very well. Their parents were Austrian immigrants, the father a C&H miner. Annie was the oldest of five children and she was always tall. And stubborn, too, as Calumet soon came to realize. “Annie was something else,” says her brother, who, at eighty, lives on a small farm in Chelsea, Michigan. “She believed in her cause. She wouldn’t back off, no matter how much pressure they put on her. She said the men were fighting for dignity and self-respect.”
Sometimes as many as two thousand people marched behind her. Once, finding herself confronted by a group of National Guardsmen and deputies armed with swords, guns, and clubs, she walked head on into the troops. A soldier on horseback unsheathed his saber and knocked the flag from her hands. When a marcher went to help her pick up the banner, a cavalryman pushed him to the ground, and another soldier slashed at the flag with his sword, ripping the silk fabric. The hooves of the horses stamped it into the mud. Annie fell to the ground and hugged the flag tightly to her chest as deputies and soldiers tried to wrest it from her.
“Kill me,” she shouted. “Run your bayonets and sabres through this flag and kill me, but I won’t move. If this flag will not protect me, then I will die with it.” Other marchers jumped between her and the soldiers, and she escaped unharmed. But over and over, as the bitter strike stretched into autumn, Annie confronted the cavalry and Sheriff Cruse’s hirelings.
In late fall, during one of her arrests for trespassing and intimidation, a soldier asked her why she didn’t stay at home. “I won’t stay at home,” she replied. “My work is here, and nobody can stop me. I’m going to keep at it until this strike is won.”
It was mid-December now. The five months of striking had taken their toll on the miners. Strike benefits, always promised by the federation, never seemed to materialize; and the C&H had started to serve notices on the miners who rented houses on company land. Merchants began refusing credit, even for groceries. It would be a grim Christmas for everyone, but especially for the children. To lift their spirits, the Women’s Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners organized a party. The women spent weeks sewing scarves and mittens for the children; they made up little bags of candy and rehearsed a Mother Goose play.