(be sure to check out the links below!)
In late July 1913 striking miners marched down the main street in Calumet, Michigan. Suddenly, a tall woman holding a massive American flag on a 10-foot pole stepped in front of the marchers and took the lead. For months, this woman would carry this flag in daily protests. When asked if she grew tired of bearing the flag she replied, “No, I would support it forever, just as I would my country.”
This remarkable woman was Annie Clemenc (pronounced “Clements”). Born to poverty in 1888, Annie Klobuchar marched for higher wages and better working conditions. Her parents were immigrants from Croatia. Her father worked in the mines, while her mother was a maid.
After graduating from high school Annie married miner Joseph Clemenc. Life was difficult for Annie and Joseph. Miners worked long hours for $2.50 per day. They often worked in unsafe conditions with dangerous drills. Annie scrubbed floors, making 50 cents a day. The Clemencs were not unique. Thousands of miners living on the Keweenaw Peninsula suffered.
On July 23, 1913, nine thousand of the area’s thirteen thousand miners voted to go on strike. The miners hoped to get a shorter workday, a one-dollar-a-day raise and a safer, easier-to-operate drill. Throughout the autumn, Annie-always carrying her American flag-led strikers through the streets of Calumet.
As Christmas neared, the strike continued. To lift everyone’s spirits, Annie and others decided to have a Christmas party. By 3:00 P.M. on December 24, more than 500 children and about 175 adults had gathered on the second floor of Calumet’s Italian Hall. Suddenly, someone yelled, “FIRE!” People panicked. Annie tried to tell everyone that there was no fire, but the terrified crowd could not be calmed. There was no fire but that did not prevent tragedy. As the crowd headed for the stairwell, they stumbled. Soon dozens of people were crushed in the stairwell. In a matter of minutes, 68 children and 15 adults died trying to escape. (Another child died the next day.)
Some believed a man opposed to the strike triggered the panic with a cruel false alarm, but nothing was ever proven.
On April 13, 1914, the strike ended. Some, but not all, of the miners returned to work. The companies did give in on two of the strikers’ demands-a shorter workday and a raise.
Little is known about Annie’s life after the strike. Annie and Joseph were divorced. Annie moved to Chicago, remarried and had a child.
Anna Clemenc ~ 1888 – 1956 in the the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. (Includes a photo plus there’s an Anna Clemenc lesson plan for high school students)
The MWHF also has Tall Annie: A Biography by Virginia Law Burns available in their online store.
Finally, there’s a documentary film in production about the incident at Italian Hall called “1913 Massacre”. The film is based upon the version of events that found its way into Woody Guthrie’s song (you can listen to it on the site — very cool!). In the song, the “copper-boss thug-men” had plotted to yell Fire! and were holding the door of Italian Hall shut, so that the miners and their families could not escape. Visit the web site (the site has lots of photos and a cool bit of a traditional tune by mandolin player Oren Tikkanen on the updates page)
photo credit: LOC LC-D4-19051. Just up, Hecla shaft No. 2, Calumet, Mich. circa 1906
For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/.