Marriage in an Age of War, Pandemic, and Labor Unrest: 1918-1920

By Vikki Bynum

The following essay is adapted from my current book-in-progress, a combined family history and memoir. It begins with the marriage of Mary Daniel and William “Harrigan” Huckenpoehler. There are notable similarities between the international turmoil, pandemic, and societal upheaval that rocked their world and ours, but the revelations for me are also personal. Drawing on my grandmother’s memoir and my own research, I understand as never before the struggles my grandparents faced during the years Harrigan was employed by the Oliver Mining Company and later the Duluth, Missabe, and Northern Railway (DM&N), while Mary adjusted to a life vastly different from that of her youth.  

 

Mary Daniel, 1910

William “Harrigan” Huckenpoehler, 1918

On August 17, 1918, after dating off and on for five years, Mary Daniel, a 29-year old school teacher, and William “Harrigan” Huckenpoehler, a 40-year-old bachelor, were married at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Onamia, Minnesota. The unlikely couple was deeply in love. For Mary, love justified rebellion against her upper-middle-class Protestant upbringing. As for Harrigan, the son of German Catholic immigrant farmers, love prompted him to quit his job as a hotel bartender and take on physically rigorous and dangerous wage work in order to please his temperance-minded bride. And so began the first of my grandparents’ fifty-nine years together.

Their wedding day followed an intense period of illness for Mary. In late March 1918 she had “caught a bad cold and it kept getting worse.” No substitute teacher was available from the Park Rapids School in Hubbard County where she taught, so she soldiered on with the help of classroom aids. To protect her students, she practiced what today we call social distancing:  “I drew a line around the deck and told the children to stay outside that line and I would stay inside it.” Only Easter vacation saved Mary from a complete collapse, for by then she had pneumonia. A doctor ordered her to bed for the entire spring break. Although it appears no diagnosis beyond a cold was offered, she continued to cough throughout the summer.

Perhaps my grandmother did have just a “bad cold,” but I can’t help wondering if she was an early victim of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 9 April 1918

Although Mary dated the beginning of the pandemic in her memoir as October 1918, in fact it began months earlier. By the time she got sick, the “first wave” had emerged in many large cities, including Minneapolis, where her family lived. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on April 9th that nine soldiers from nearby Fort Snelling had died as a result of an “epidemic in influenza occasioned by weather conditions.” Nine days later, the newspaper reported that:

“the city’s mortality rate for the past week has been one of the highest known in recent years.” No longer citing weather conditions, the editor noted that the influenza epidemic was “country-wide.” 

Healthy by August, Mary enjoyed her and Harrigan’s small, traditional ceremony and the two-week traveling honeymoon that followed. Immediately afterward, she returned to Park Rapids to prepare for the school year, while Harrigan returned to his job as a locomotive fireman in the town of Hibbing, where he worked for the Oliver Iron Mining Company. Three months later, Mary was temporarily out of a job. The pandemic had forced the closing of her school after only six of her forty students showed up for class.

Though married for almost six months by Christmas 1918, Mary and Harrigan still did not live together. They celebrated the holidays with his parents in Waconia, Minnesota, then parted company. The Park Rapids School reopened in January, and Harrigan returned to Hibbing. The separation was tough. The pandemic remained active and, by March, national events outside their control compounded their economic problems. Harrigan faced an uncertain future in Minnesota’s mining and railroad industry and Mary was about to trade the status of a professional woman for that of a working class wife and mother. Her new status would bring responsibilities well beyond the range of her privileged upbringing.

Masabi Iron Range, Hibbing, MN. Wikimedia Commons

 

As World War I came to an end, Harrigan faced a work place where industrial leaders strove to keep profits high and wages low while workers fought for higher wages and improved workplace conditions through their labor unions. Corporate bosses responded with every method at their disposal—police forces, strikebreakers, even the Ku Klux Klan—in their effort to destroy unions in general and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in particular. Support for Big Business tactics by both Republican and Democratic politicians led a sizable faction of class-conscious workers, particularly Finns, Swedes, and Germans, to embrace socialism and to a lesser extent communism. Economically and socially, the war left the nation divided and fearful.

Harrigan’s employer, the Oliver Mining Company, was a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, which had long exploited ethnic conflicts among workers throughout the Mesabi Iron Range in its efforts to prevent strikes and destroy unions. The hiring of Southern Europeans, Mexicans, and African Americans as strikebreakers fanned ethnic and racial tensions between those groups and the “whiter” or more assimilated Swedes and German-Americans. Political leaders also effectively labeled labor unrest and immigrant opposition to U.S. entry into World War I as evidence of disloyalty to the United States. Soon, Minnesota organizations such as the Committee for Public Safety joined corporations and politicians in suppressing unions. The Ku Klux Klan, glorified and revitalized by the 1915 blockbuster movie, The Birth of a Nation (which Harrigan and Mary viewed in St. Paul), stepped in to serve as a terrorist arm of corporate America’s anti-labor, anti-radical forces.

Mary followed labor unrest in the city of Duluth from afar, hoping Harrigan would not lose his job in nearby Hibbing. In her memoir, she noted the problem created by soldiers returning home and seeking jobs: “Trouble was beginning in the mines. There was enough skilled labor there now that the boys were getting separated from the armed services. There was union trouble and Harrigan expected to be fired any day.” 

Harrigan’s expectations were met. Oliver Mining Company laid him off shortly after he visited Mary at Park Rapids in April 1919. Meanwhile, the post-war economic recession brought more strife and conflict to the nation. Frustrated workers, including the ore miners of Duluth, threatened violence and a halt to production. Invoking the Russian Revolution of 1917, politicians and business leaders insisted that Bolshevism and communism had infiltrated the unions. The same month that Harrigan visited Mary, a violent “Red Scare” erupted in numerous industrial cities, bringing arrests and deportations. The “Red Summer” of 1919 followed, ruining the careers of many labor leaders while threatening the efforts by working men and women to secure their jobs and protect their wages.

One month after losing his job, Harrigan learned from Mary that she was pregnant. Although they were excited by the news, the timing was lousy. Mary would no longer have a teaching position in the coming fall. Despite growing labor problems in Duluth, both were relieved when Harrigan quickly found employment at the Duluth, Missabe, and Northern Railway (DM&N), which hauled ore from the Vermilion and Mesabi iron range mines to Duluth and Two Harbors, Minnesota. Like his former employer, the DM&N was owned by U.S. Steel. But it was a job, and Harrigan prepared to move to Duluth.

As soon as her school year ended in June, Mary joined Harrigan in the DM&N Railway’s hotel to begin hunting for a place to live. At last, they would be together! But they searched in vain and soon realized the dismal living conditions of working families in Duluth. The best they could find for the rent they could afford was a third-story apartment equipped with nothing more than a two-burner gas hotplate for cooking. Running water was limited to the bathroom—which, like the hotplate, was shared among three tenants. “Pigs,” Mary labeled the landlords under her breath. Neither she nor Harrigan had ever lived under such conditions, and decided it was best they continue to live apart even with a baby on the way. Since her family did not approve of her marriage to Harrigan, their only viable option was for Mary to move in with Harrigan’s parents in Waconia while he lived and worked in Duluth.

Mary’s stepmother, Jeannette Daniel, with her half-brother Donald. Circa 1900

Unlike Mary, most working class wives had no choice but to suffer the conditions of life in Duluth. Perhaps more than she liked to admit, Mary enjoyed the comforts enabled by her Minneapolis connections. Although she now lived with her Huckenpoehler in-laws, she depended on her sister’s wealthy husband, a physician, for pregnancy check-ups. Visiting Minneapolis in turn allowed her to tool around the city with her stepmother Jeannette in Jeannette’s electric car, as well as enjoy pleasant restaurants meals and perhaps an afternoon at the movie theater.

Such pleasures soon ended. Mary had dodged life in Duluth as the wife of a mine employee, but by mid-August, her advancing pregnancy ended indulgent weekends in Minneapolis as well. At the same time, although Harrigan’s home town of Waconia had been a delightful place for Mary to teach and make new friends when single, that same small town proved a lonely place for a pregnant wife whose husband lived and worked in a different town. Compounding matters, she was an outsider in the close-knit German-American community in which she lived with parents-in-law whom she barely knew.

Not only was Mary without her husband and a social life, but she had few household skills to contribute (she barely knew how to cook) other than sewing in preparation for the expected baby. “Mother Josephine,” raised in a vastly different world from that of her new daughter-in-law, was a domestic powerhouse who preferred that Mary follow her simple directives or stay out of the way. Throughout the summer of 1919, Mary assisted Josephine as best she could without getting in her way. The two washed endless loads of laundry, and Mary snapped mountains of green beans. Harrigan remained in Duluth until August, when he finally made his way home for a one-week visit. He visited family and friends and took his pregnant wife out to a ball game and dinner, but left her home when he attended the state fair in Minneapolis. Then it was back to Duluth.

In an industry heavily dependent on immigrant labor, Harrigan benefited from being a native-born, literate German American whose first language was English. In September 1919, despite his sixth grade education, he advanced to supervisor at the railroad yards of Proctor, a trade union town near Duluth. Later that same month, the Great Steel Strike began. He sent Mary a newspaper article that brought her a bit of relief: “From all I could get from a thorough reading of it,” she wrote, “the steel strike ought not to cause Harrigan to lose his job on the railroad very soon.” But in October she learned that railroad men were being laid off on account of dock workers striking as the steel strike progressed. Mary then realized what Harrigan as well as the other workers faced:

“All the ore boats that load from the northern Minnesota mines at Duluth Harbor have reached the Pittsburgh docks full of ore and as long as no one would unload them, they just have to sit there and wait.” Further, she noted, “No more ore can leave the Duluth docks because there are no more boats. No more ore could be brought down from Hibbing because there was no place to put it. So there was no more work for trainmen and they were laid off.” Once again, Harrigan was without a job.

“He felt bitter at the system that had tossed him aside when he had a wife and expected to have a baby to support,” wrote Mary. She understood his anger, but she was nonetheless frightened by his response. “Harrigan was taking a Socialist paper just to get that side of the story,” she wrote. “He felt the Socialist paper was telling the truth.”

Mary, a devout convert to Catholicism—far more devout than her husband—had no tolerance for the “blood-red Socialism” that she believed sought the “downfall of all government, all authority, including the authority of the Church”. She comforted herself that “Harrigan was not really indoctrinated with the Socialist slant. His chief interest in the steel strike was because of his own job.”

Mary’s view of socialism reflected not only mainstream political fears of the time, but also her strict adherence to the conservative Catholic doctrine she heard and read on a regular basis. Whether Harrigan’s interest in socialism was as limited as she asserted is impossible to say. But no matter how serious it may have been, socialism was crushed as a viable political movement during the nation’s Red Scare hysteria. In contrast, the Ku Klux Klan began planting “Klaverns” in many of the steel towns rocked by labor unrest.

After losing his job, Harrigan returned to Waconia and worked local labor jobs while awaiting the birth of his and Mary’s first child. In January 1920, the Great Steel Strike collapsed in defeat. In the meantime, three years of business and government-sponsored “America First” loyalty campaigns fired up by the Klan’s emphasis on “100% Americanism” had frayed and tattered the nation’s social fabric both inside and outside the workplace. In Duluth, tensions mounted, especially after rape charges were filed against six black circus workers. On June 15, 2020, as they awaited trial, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were lynched in full view of thousands of towns people. All the horrors of a rural South lynch mob were present: black men accused of raping a white woman; the forced opening of jail cells; an excited crowd gathered to watch a festival of murder; photographs of the murdered men that soon appeared on postcards.

Memorial to the men lynched on June 15, 1920 in Duluth, MN

But a lynching in a far-Northern state like Minnesota? And in a city like Duluth with a relatively small black population? Nor had blacks been employed as strikebreakers in Duluth since its workers had not gone on strike. But what had occurred in Duluth was U.S. Steel’s importation of black field hands directly from Southern plantations in order to defeat workers’ threats to strike.

On June 19, Duluth’s Labor World decried the lynchings as “anarchy and murder” and called for an end to hate, whether generated by race, nationality, politics, religion, class, sectionalism, or neighborhood.  One week later, in a column titled “Not the First Lynching,” the newspaper reminded readers that Olli Kinkkonen, a Finnish dock worker who opposed U.S. entry into World War I, had been lynched during the war.

As author Michael Fedo writes, after the war, many whites in this already ethnically and economically divided city believed that blacks were getting hired at the expense of the Great War’s veterans. Some even talked of running all blacks out of town. Then came the rape charge, followed by the cry, “They’re taking our jobs; now they’re raping our women”! The scene for a racial lynching was set.

Mary and the Huckenpoehler children in the family’s 1920s home.

After spending Christmas 1919 with his family and new daughter, Harrigan took a job at the Waconia ice house that ended quickly when the Oliver Mining Company rehired him in January 1920. During that month, he roomed at the La France Hotel in Duluth. I’ve not been able to determine whether he still lived and worked in Duluth in June, when the lynchings occurred. It seems likely, however, that he heard about them at some point. Mary’s memoir is silent until 1925, when Harrigan began delivering petroleum products on salary for a Waconia salesman. By then, he and Mary had three children. These were the best economic times of their lives, never again to return. They briefly owned a home and no more socialist talk from Harrigan disrupted Mary’s peace of mind.

Then came the Great Depression. In 1931, fifty-two year old Harrigan lost his sales job. From that point forward, he relied on public road work that often required his absence from home. Meanwhile, Mary and the four children, the latest born in 1932, scrambled to make ends meet on his meager income. They could only hope that the “New Deal” offered by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt would bring them relief. But in truth, it was World War II in 1941 that presented their three grown children with economic opportunities that finally lifted them all out of poverty.

 

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Mary Daniel Huckenpoehler Memoir and Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, Minneapolis, MN.

Thomas Mackaman, New Immigrants and the Radicalization of American Labor, 1914-1924; Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co, 2017.

Richard Hudelson and Carl Ross, By the Ore Docks: A Working People’s History of Duluth, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Paul Lubotina, “Corporate Supported Ethnic Conflict on the Mesabi Range, 1890-1930”, presentation at The Center for Upper Peninsula Studies, Northern Michigan University.

Michael Fedo, The Lynchings in Duluth Minnesota Historical Society, 2020 (originally published in 1979 under a different title by West Coast Publisher).

Interview with Michael Fedo by Christa Lawler in Duluth News Tribune, 20 March 2020.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 8 March 1918 and 9, 16, and 18 April 1918.

Labor World, Duluth, MN, 19 and 26 June 1920.

 

 

2 replies »

  1. Vicky, you mentioned that ore traveled from Minnesota to the “Pittsburgh docks.” I looked at a map and couldn’t figure out the water route. Can you shed some light on this? Thank you! Stephanie Bodden

    • Thanks for visiting Renegade South, Stephanie.

      The mention of the “Pittsburgh docks” are not my words, but a quote from my grandmother, who had been reading newspapers sent to her by my grandfather. As Metalibrarian Greta Bohnemann explains in a teaching guide for “Mining on the Iron Range,” after miners extracted the ore it was “shipped to Duluth via railroads which were built and operated by the mining companies. The ore left Duluth on lake freighters or oreboats [as referenced by my grandmother] bound for Detroit and Pittsburgh where the raw ore was smelted for the automotive and construction industries.”

      Where direct waterways were not available, ore was moved by freight trains. As mentioned in my post, my grandfather worked as a locomotive fireman on these trains.

      Vikki

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