In Conversation with Cookie and Lu Holmgren: working in mines
18:57 Oct 24 2016 Baraga County, Michigan
Why should we work towards a Great Lakes Commons and how ?As we ran around Lake Superior a main goal of ours was to pay attention and listen to the voices of the people who live closest to its shores. Our goal was to bring awareness to the concerns of the human and ecological communities that populate Lake Superior's watershed.
In partnering with Great Lakes Commons over the course of our journey we were able to connect these stories with a wider movement of people concerned with protecting water and the places they love. The conversations and stories that we documented throughout our travels each had their own specific location and concerns but were tied together through the binding themes of freshwater, resiliency and the health of Lake Superior and its communities.
The following conversation is about a couple who spent most of their lives working in mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and what it was like to be a part of changing cultural industry in the region.
How long have you lived up here in the U.P.?
Cookie: Well, I’ll speak for myself first but we were both born in Ishpeming [Michigan]. I spent maybe six months in the state of Texas back in the 70s. In 1976 I was hired at the mine. First of all, I’m 70 years old. I was divorced in 1976 and I started working for the mine then. I didn’t really know him [Lu]. I knew who he was but we didn’t have anything going on back then. So I was divorced for seven years and I had gotten hired at the mine in that time. I raised two daughters as a single mom. We had good benefits at the mine. The work was very dirty. And at the time when I was hired there were very few women. I think there were seven women hired before me. If you ever have the opportunity to see the movie “North Country,” it was pretty true to life. I didn’t have sexual harassment so to speak but, I did have several men tell me that I shouldn’t be working there because I was taking the jobs away from men who were trying to feed their families. Of course my reply was, “I’m a single mom trying to feed my family.” But I did get a lot of flak from some of the guys.
Generally it was really dirty work. It was hot. I worked inside a lot, in a place called “the mill” where the ore is processed. Where it’s made into the pellets and shipped out. It was hot, hot, hot and heavy. I was general labor. It was heavy work. I worked there for 23 years. During that period of time I met Lu and we started dating. He was separated and we started dating and then we were married.
I’ll tell you a funny story. We met in the unemployment line. There was a big layoff at the mine. He was a mechanic and I was a general laborer, so we never worked together. But we both had the same reporting date for our unemployment. Before our unemployment [collection] I would go down to this little Mr. Coffee place in town and have a cup of coffee and then go out for my unemployment check. He had the same digit for his last reporting number. So he would be down there having coffee and that’s how we kind of got together. After several weeks of us just having coffee and him going to his car and me going to my car, he finally asked me, “Why don’t we just ride together? We’re going to the same place.” So that’s kind of how we started dating. So I always joke that we met in the unemployment line.
So we were called back to work. He also has two daughters from a previous marriage. So we combined our families and had to try and raise teenagers on unemployment. We had to go on state aid for a while. That was no fun trying to feed the family on food stamps. We could only have assistance for our children, so we couldn’t have adult aid. We weren’t entitled to any adult help. In order to get what we got for food stamps he did volunteer work – we were given an option on how to earn that money, he worked at the Salvation Army and cut wood. He was working cutting wood for people who needed wood fires. I was an unpaid teacher’s aide. I worked with special education kids. That was fun.
Anyway, in 2001 he had 30 years at the mine so, he’s gonna get his full pension. I only worked 23.
Lu: And she wouldn’t work any longer. I only asked her once. Only brought it up one time!
Cookie: He didn’t dare say it again! I still would have had seven years to get my retirement. So I retired early and we have since been enjoying camping all summer every year. Our kids are grown. He has two daughters and I have two daughters. We have six grandchildren between us and four great grandchildren. The great grandchildren live down in the Milwaukee area. The rest of them live in lower Michigan and the others live up in the Ishpeming area.
What was the mine that you both worked at?
Cookie: It was the Empire Mine. It was an open-pit iron ore mine. It was the making of the steel industry, basically. So we used to say all the time that people who drove cars and parked in the parking lot, if they were foreign cars you really caught it. Because we were making steel for cars. So you didn’t dare drive a foreign-made. You didn’t dare! And I have always wanted a Toyota Rav-4 ever since they came out. I didn’t get one until four years ago because I wouldn’t buy one if I was making the steel for cars. The steel industry is a big thing. Although there are things happening at the Empire where they’re threatening to close. They were supposed to close back in August.
Is that still one of the biggest employers in the area?
Cookie: In our area. In the Ishpeming-Negaunee area. Marquette has the college.
Lu: And the hospital and the prison. And there’s a lot of people employed in the logging industry. You’ve seen lots of logs going by. The majority of that is for paper mills.
I’ve never worked in a mine. What’s it like? How did you get started working there?
Lu: I was working at a job when I applied for work in the mine. You had to fill out an application and then they gave you an aptitude test at the time to determine what you would be suited for. I didn’t hear anything for quite a while. Finally I got a call and then I got hired. I didn’t have a choice of where I was gonna go. There was one underground mine open yet. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go under, if I had the choice I would have wanted to go to an open pit. I went to the Humboldt [Mine]. That was the first fairly good-sized open pit operation that they had with a pelletizing plant. There was another open pit mine smaller in size in Michigamme. So I worked five years at the Humboldt mine, in the pit driving truck.
Then there was a gas station in Ishpeming and the owner was retiring and I thought, “Doggonit, you know, maybe I wanna try that.” Well, I did. I quit the mine and my grandfather, oh boy, he didn’t want me to do that. He told me, “I’ll buy you a new car if you don’t quit.” Well, he worked in the mine his whole life and, it was always a good living. But the way things were going with my generation, you were laid off and then maybe you were working and then you were laid off. When I got hired they had just gotten done calling back – this was 1964 – they had just got done calling back the people who got laid off in 1959. So I was fortunate to get hired. I had the gas station for a few years and I was starting to get kind of tired of it. I was putting in a lot of hours trying to do everything myself. Working weekends too. One of my customers was a boss at the Hercules Powder Mill – explosives. “Hey Holmgren!” he says one time when he came in. “Know anyone looking for work?” I said, “Maybe, yeah! What kind of work?” He was that kind of guy. I said, “Yeah, maybe I might try it.” “What do you mean?” he says. I told him, “I’m thinking about giving this up.” “Well! Come on out,” he says. I got tired of that too. I was driving semi and working around the plant some days. I thought, when I quit the mine they told me, “If you ever want a job again, you let us know.” I had a good work record. So I called them and two weeks later I was back. I did get laid off again in 1982.
Cookie: That’s when we met.
Lu: That’s when we met. I went back in ‘84 – I did, she didn’t get to go back. And ‘86 I got laid off again. Then I got a job at a gold mine, north of Ishpeming. I worked there two years and then I got called back to the mine but it was only for a temporary job, four to six weeks. My two years seniority was gonna be stopped. That part time work from four to six weeks ended up being from 1988 to 2001. I never got laid off again. That’s the history of my work.
Cookie: If you’re familiar with northern Minnesota – the Mesabi range, the Hibbing area with pit mining – that’s pretty much how it was where we worked.
Did you see a lot of changes at the mine – in the type of work or way it operated – throughout your career?
Cookie: Not so much in the way it operated. They’re probably still processing things in the same way that they did. However, the attitudes of the people have changed. When I first started working there there were like 1500 people at the Empire. I think right now there are 600. When they went to a computer system, for starters, they started automating a lot of things and a lot of people got laid off. Year after year. And now that there’s talk of closing it, last week they laid off 56 salaried people.
I should tell you that I was a third generation miner. My father worked in the mine for 46 years, underground. His father before him worked at an underground mine. I’m third generation. The youngest of our four girls has been at the mine now for 24 years. She’s fourth generation mining. That kind of tells you that the industry has been there for a long time.
Lu: Over 150 years.
Cookie: So if the Empire does close down – there are two mines – there’s the Empire and the Tilden. Tilden is a smaller operation, however, range-wide if they shut down the mine the people with seniority, like my daughter, don’t have to worry about losing their job ‘cause they’ll get shipped over to Tilden.
There’s gonna be a lot of people hurting. The young people – I hate to use you guys as an example – but your age group when they get hired at the mine they don’t know how to live. They know that they’ve got a good income so now…“I’m gonna go get that new truck! Gonna get that camper! We’re gonna buy a new house! We’re gonna buy a snowmobile! We’re gonna buy a motorcycle!” There so deep in debt! And those are the people who are gonna lose their jobs first. So right now everyone is kind of running scared because they’re deep, deep in debt. When I got hired at the mine I went out and bought a new truck, simply because I needed wheels to get to and from work. But I knew how to handle money. I had been on my own for seven years, basically without any income. I had learned how to budget. He [Lu] was raised the same way. Our generation was raised that way. But the young people that are there now, they’re selling their trucks, they’re selling their snow machines. They’re getting rid of their toys.
Lu: They’re getting repossessed.
Cooke: The mining process itself hasn’t really changed. At the time when we were both still working it was actually fun going to work. We enjoyed the people we worked with and we had fun at work. He was telling me about this one time when they took a Styrofoam coffee cup and superglued it to someone’s hard hat and he walked around all day with it.
If the bosses walked by and I was using the firehouse to clean up a mess I would take that hose and spray them. Just enough to get them just a little bit. But you can’t do that by the time we retired. Everyone was unhappy with their jobs. It wasn’t a fun place to go anymore. And now my poor daughter could just pull her hair out. She trains people for the different jobs and the attitudes are really bad right now.
Lu: Morale was sour by the time we left there.
Cookie: Everyone is bad-mouthing each other now and out to get someone.
And this has been influenced by the fact that everyone is stressed about losing their jobs?
Cookie: I think so.
Lu: Well at the time though we were threatened by layoffs but management was different.
Cookie: Yeah… if I had done that, flipped the water at one of them presently, I would probably get fired.
I don’t know why their ideas of how they should treat us changed. I don’t know why but, all of a sudden you were expected to by working every minute. It wasn’t like that before. When you’ve got someone looking over your shoulder while you’re working you don’t feel like doing it right. Most of the time they hire a young guy that don’t know the job that he’s bossing and he’s trying to tell guys who have got 20 or 30 years how it’s should to be done.
Cookie: Or engineers who come fresh out of college and have never worked in a mine, they never had that environment. They think they know it all. I always remember my dad coming home from work – after 46 years in the mine he knew everything there was to know about the job – I always remember him coming home one night and saying, “Those damn college kids!” Some college kid would move into a position and he’d be telling my dad what to do. My dad was a captain at the mine and there was a 22 year-old was telling a 65-year-old man what to do or how to do it.
Cookie: Yeah, so things are different but, the times have changed. People are different nowadays.
Lu: You kinda didn’t have any respect for the boss you were working for. The first 20 years weren’t like that. Your boss would come through the process just like you. He would know about each of the jobs but he would listen.
What would you tell your grandchildren now? Would you tell them don’t go in the mine – take another path? What do you see for their future?
Cookie: Well, our grandchildren are all on different paths. Our youngest grandchild is now in nursing school. His sister is already an RN. They’re downstate. One of our granddaughters just graduated from Northern [Michigan University] in Marquette and she’s now working downstate in a children’s hospital. We have another grandson up at [Michigan] Tech in a forestry program. So none of these kids are probably ever gonna live around here. If the mines collapse there aren’t gonna be any jobs for the young people anyway. Ishpeming is kind of a dying town because all of the young people are moving away. We’re kind of a ghost town. All of our downtown businesses are gone. We have more antique stores than we have anything down there.
Lu: We had more than 12,000 people in Ishpeming at one point and now we’re under seven [thousand]. Yeah, but there were a lot of underground mines running too. There were 10 or 15 underground mines right in the Ishpeming-area alone.
We’ve heard that story often since we’ve been traveling around the lake. A lot of towns are facing these challenges. When these things happen to a small town people end up moving. Would you say that has one of the main challenges living in this area? Are there other challenges?
Cookie: All we really know in this area is the mining industry.
Lu: Mining and logging.
Cookie: As far as other things go, it’s really popular for skiing and winter sports. We get a lot of snowmobilers. Downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing. When you’re living in this climate you learn to go with whatever’s happening.
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