Take a trip to Escanaba’s past

ESCANABA – On Sept. 23, 1917, a crowd of 10,000, representing the “greatest mass of people ever assembled at a single point in Escanaba” gathered at the train depot for a rousing farewell to 84 Delta County draftees headed to war. Prosecutor Torval Strom orated to the men, “Tonight you are finally laying aside the tools of your trades, the implements of your peaceful occupations, leaving your homes, your families and friends” and when the train pulled from the station, a band played America and the “monster crowd stood with bared heads, shouting farewells to the window filled groups of faces and the din of shouts raised was deafening”

This dramatic scene, described in cinematic detail, appeared on the front page of the Escanaba Daily Mirror, along with a listing of the names of the men headed off to war. The story is an example of one of the thousands of newspaper articles recently digitized by the Escanaba Public Library.

The library is now offering an online searchable index to Escanaba’s historic papers. Funded through a generous donation from the Friends of the Library, the archive was a gift to the community in celebration of this year’s Sesquicentennial. The collection features local newspapers that were published between 1869 1926: The Escanaba Tribune, The Iron Port, The Escanaba Daily Mirror, The Escanaba Morning Press and the Escanaba Daily Press.

Having access to the historic newspapers in a searchable digital format is akin to discovering a previously unpublished manuscript on Escanaba’s history. The archive is a substantial enhancement to the library’s local history collection, offering unprecedented opportunity for genealogists, researchers of local history, writers and the general public. The papers tell the story of Escanaba in a way that only primary sources can; the people, events and circumstances that shaped our community are described in a voice both compelling and authentic.

This librarian likes to read historic newspapers for pure escapism. To savor the glimpse they afford into times past and seemingly simpler days, when people lives revolved more around the land and water and the passing of the seasons. To a time when newsworthy events included the first skater of the season to cross Little Bay de Noc from Stonington to Escanaba (1/4/1906), the opening of the ice harvest (1/19/1892), or the advent of winter sleighing as described here: The first sleigh of the season made its appearance on Ludington Street last night following an almost steady sprinkling of snow through the day. (11/15/1911)

The earliest papers hold a fascinating look into the everyday life of our predecessors. Hardship is evident in both work and home life, but throughout the reporting runs a thread of admiration for the natural surroundings, a connection with community, and the roots of the pride and self-reliance that often characterize the Upper Peninsula. Colorful observations abound, like this one tucked between recipes for green tomato preserves and oyster macaroni:

We will bet on our Little Bay de Noc for kicking up more of a racket and a rumpus on shorter notice than any body of water of its size in the country. (11/10/1877)

Communal activities and festivities are frequently mentioned. An article from 1892 richly describes a “Grand Affair” for St. John’s Day, the traditional French-Canadian celebration in which arches of pine boughs were placed over Ludington Street bearing the salutation, “you are our guests, we are your friends.” Reading the July 1911 Morning Press, I learned that the steamer ship Maywood ferried people from Escanaba to Stonington to pick blueberries, “700 People Pick Many Blueberries.everyone filled their basket without trouble,”and that the first day of the Farmer’s Market in August, 1924 opened with the striking of a large gong on the front steps of City Hall, and was proclaimed “a success far greater than the most sanguine booster had anticipated.”

There is a formal quality in the writing and use of language in these old papers that makes them a delight to read. Occasionally stilted, often ornate, the words and tone imply civility and impart an archaic dignity to news and events both big and small.

Advertisements sprinkled throughout the pages tend to be lighthearted and jaunty. Even birth announcements are imbued with a certain spark, like this one from 1881: Born in this village, on September 7 to John Jordan and wife, a son, eleven pounds weight and sixteen ounces to the pound, with an appetite like a wolf and a voice like the sound of many waters.

Recreational reading aside, the archive may help Escanaba natives connect with their family history in a more meaningful way. By browsing the papers, I learned that my grandfather, Ed Harkins, entered a carpentry contest sponsored by the Carnegie Library in 1917 and won a pair of “outing shoes” from Kratze Brothers for his bluebird house. He also placed in a three-legged race in Ludington Park on Labor Day, 1918, played the part of an “Indian Brave” in the high school production of Pocahontas in 1922, and was installed as an officer with the Knights of Columbus in 1923. These details help me to color in a picture of my grandfather and his life as a young man in the early part of the century.

The papers also help piece together significant periods in the history of the U.P. A dramatic headline – Upper Peninsula’s Last Big Pine Tract Exhausted laments the end of the “Lordly White Pine” in 1911. News from the late 1800s is filled with detail about the prosperous days of iron smelting in Fayette and shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. City Council proceedings and articles as far back as 1877 reference topics we wrestle with today, such as wolf hunting, illegal net fishing – even street repair, as the editor of the Iron Port notes: “There are numerous places about town where a little exercise of muscle would make a great improvement in the streets and sidewalks. A little more public spirit among us would be a good thing. ” (11/11/1877)

Finally, the archive can serve as an important tool for economic development efforts such as the city’s recent application for the Historic Register for the downtown district.

Tracing the history of local businesses, residences, organizations and churches is easier than ever, given the search capabilities of the software.

The papers have been scanned from microfilm, converted to digital format and indexed using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. This means that the end user can enter a keyword, name or date into the computer and retrieve a list of results. With one click, the paper appears on the screen, ready to read. Users can search across all papers and date ranges, specify which papers to search or simply browse the whole index. Images and content can be enlarged, printed, emailed or saved to flash drive.

The historic newspaper archive presents a chronicle of our community that is nothing short of poetic. Go ahead. Give it try. Read some letters that children wrote to Santa in 1898, search for events that happened on your birthday in history, find out something you never knew about your great-grandpa. The archive is available online, day and night, through the library’s website at www.escanabalibrary.org. No library card required. Whether your interest is serious research or simply a diversion, expect to be captivated.

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Carolyn Stacey is the director of the Escanaba Public Library