A monument to honor one of Michigan’s most fearless labor activists – “Big Annie” – is in the works, with plans for a life-size bronze sculpture of her in downtown Calumet, her hometown.
Fundraising efforts are underway, and artists are being sought to conceptualize what a sculpture of Anna Klobuchar Clemenc might look like. Big Annie, as Clemenc was affectionately known, stood 6-feet 2-inches tall and had a personality to match her stature.
Supporters want to honor Clemenc for her remarkable service during the Copper Country Strike in the U.P. in 1913-1914, a pivotal early period in the development of the U.S. labor movement.
“Her legacy will educate young people and visitors to our area about injustice and the need to speak out against it,” says Vada Riederich, who is chair of the Team Annie Committee, formed under the umbrella of the Keweenaw Community Foundation as a special project.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Keweenaw NHP, C&H, Capello, Strike Album, #164, Annie Clemenc Heroine of the CC Strike, 1913.
The team has spent the past year raising awareness of the legacy Big Annie has left “in our community and our goal to raise $150,000 for a bronze statue to honor this historic woman who was slowly being forgotten locally,” Riederich says. “Many people recognize the name 'Big Annie' but are not sure what she did.”
The wife of a copper miner, Clemenc served as president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the local branch of the Western Federation of Miners union during the early 1900s. She initiated a movement to improve working conditions
for the copper miners, leading daily parades of strikers to buoy spirits during the strike.
Clemenc and the 6-foot-by-10-foot American flag she carried on a 10-foot pole became the face of the strike in national news media.
Her activism and determination reached far beyond the bounds of the Keweenaw, playing a role in the early development of the U.S. labor movement, says Kayleigh White, who is content manager for Visit Keweenaw and a member of the statue committee. For her bravery and heroism, Clemenc was inducted into both the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame and Labor's International Hall of Fame.
The deposit of copper in the western U.P. -- still known as Copper Country -- was at that time one of the richest in the world, and the mines employed thousands of men. Ten- to -12-hour workdays were the norm, and safety standards were bleak, and pay was low.
In addition to rallying strikers, Clemenc also carried the flag as she led the funeral procession for the 73 people— 59 of them children— who were killed in the Italian Hall Disaster
, which marked its 110th anniversary last year. In that tragedy, families of strikers were trampled to death in the panic that ensued when an unidentified person yelled “fire” at a Christmas party organized by Clemenc and Women’s Auxiliary. There was no fire.
“Many books have been written about the Michigan 1913-14 Copper Mine Strike. Annie Clemenc led that strike daily and planned the Christmas Eve party. The agony and grief by the people who lived here was unimaginable,” Riederich says. “Generations went by who never spoke of it. Therefore, today's young generation does not know what happened here.”
The strike didn’t end until months later, when management made some concessions but required workers to quit the union in order to return to work.
While Clemenc has not gotten formal recognition in her hometown, though others have. There is a monument to George Gipp, a famous football player, a bronze sculpture of an unnamed copper miner and a monument for a tall man known as "Big Louie."
"Annie's legacy is far more important than any of those honors. I don't want to take anything away from them, but I felt this woman's legacy who had no vote and no voice in 1913 left a historic footprint in the early labor movement and should not be forgotten," says Riederich, a retired hairdresser and salon owner who lives in Lake Linden. "What she marched for at that time are still issues today. Fair wages, job safety, and social justice."
The excitement for the proposed statue in this community of about 600 people is palpable, says Megan Haselden, Calumet village manager.
“Residents recognize her pivotal role in the labor movement and her significance to Calumet's history,” she says. “Many view the proposal as a fitting tribute to a local hero who tirelessly fought for workers' rights.”
The statue holds great symbolic importance for the community, she adds, and serves as a tangible reminder of Calumet's rich history and the struggles faced by its residents, particularly in the mining industry.
“It also fosters a sense of pride among locals,” Haselden says, “honoring the legacy of a fearless leader who fought for justice and equality.”
The area's mining history holds significant interest for visitors, drawing people from near and far to learn about Calumet's past, she says.
The Keweenaw National Historical Park was formed in 1992 to help preserve and interpret the history of the copper mining industry. The park has inspired many travelers to explore the rich history of the Copper Country region, Visit Keweenaw's White says, adding that books such as Mary Doria Russell's The Women of the Copper Country
have engaged readers' emotions across the country, motivating them to travel to the area to learn more.
Visiting the Keweenaw Peninsula is like taking a step back in time. Many of the buildings you see today were built during the bygone era of copper mining in the Keweenaw and retain much of their original appearance and character,” she says. “From towering smokestacks and shaft houses to underground mine tours and museums, our region is full of relics of the past that simply can't be ignored.”
Haselden says many visitors are often captivated by the stories of the miners, their families, and the labor movement's impact on the community.
The effort to erect a statue honoring Big Annie symbolizes resilience, solidarity, and the enduring spirit of the labor movement, she says.
T-shirts designed by artist Lynn Mazzoleni will be available at all events and fundraisers.
"It's a reminder of the power of ordinary individuals to enact extraordinary change and a testament to the ongoing struggle for social and economic justice. This initiative not only celebrates Calumet's history but also inspires future generations to advocate for a more equitable society.”
Plans call for the statue to be located in the village’s new greenspace park
(currently the farmers' market) between the Calumet Theatre and Shutes 1890 Saloon.
Fundraising started a year ago with just $60, and by January 2024, $20,000 had been donated even before the first fundraising event at the Orpheum Theater in Hancock that month.
The committee will launch its major fundraiser June 22 at the Calumet Theatre. Plans for this event are underway and attendees will be encouraged, though not required, to add to the fun by wearing 1913 attire
A bronze sculptor has not been commissioned yet.
“That will happen as soon as the funding is met
,” Riederich says. “We are researching our options for a sculptor and have had several broad quotes between $50,000 up to $150,000.” The goal is to raise enough funds for a life-sized statue with as much detail as possible.
To invite community input, a contest inviting local artists to create a rendition painting of their vision of the statue will be juried and presented to a sculptor as an inspiration from the community. Deadline for submissions is March 1 and notifications will go out on April 15.
Specially designed T-shirts by artist Lynn Mazzoleni will be available for purchase at events and fundraisers. Also available are “Annie” pins/magnets and coloring books created by artist Kristan Coleman and books, “Women of the Copper Country,” donated and signed by the author, Mary Doria Russell.
Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange, UPword and other Issue Media Group publications.