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Henry Hobart’s Christmas in Clifton

In 1862 during the Keweenaw copper boom, Henry Hobart of Vermont, a young school teacher and active member of the temperance movement, came to Clifton. The remote frontier mining community located just south of Eagle River was the company town for the Cliff Mine.

When Henry arrived in Clifton, the mine was highly successful. But the community dealt with issues stemming from six-day work weeks and strenuous working conditions. Holidays, such as Christmas, provided a welcomed reprieve.

On Jan. 1, 1863, Henry started a journal chronicling life in Clifton. In his initial journal entries, he reflected back on the previous month’s Christmas celebrations.

“The holidays ‘Christmas’ and ‘New Year’s’ are celebrated by all the mining class. No business is transacted and everyone old & young is on a spree. Ale & Liquors of all kinds are made free use of; therefore to see persons in a state of beastly intoxication is a common sight. Ale is used very freely to fit each one to enjoy the sprees. At Christmas the miners go round to each house singing Christian songs for which they are treated with ale, etc. It is very amusing to one unaccustomed to such scenes. To see a party of fifty or one hundred men with enough down to make them lively, all singing a song is a very amusing sight. To be a sober witness of the antics and speeches of a party of men, who have labored under ground for a long time without having a spree, in a state of semi-intoxication, has been my fortune the past Christmas.

“I had no school for four days at Christmas time which I spent preparing and decorating the Episcopal Church preparatory to the ‘Festival.’ Christmas night I spent at a social party at Mr. Brockway’s Hotel in Eagle River. Custom makes it binding on the respectable class to attend this party. Thus I passed one Christmas very pleasantly in the northern part of Michigan.”

Journal entries from Christmas 1863 included the following: “It has been very mild weather for this week and bids fair to continue. Snow falls some every day but it is not cold. My school is small and few preparatory for Christmas. There are many things pleasant about the way the people spend Christmas here . . . Many families trim a tree in their houses and make it a gala day for the children. But it is generally made a day for carousing and drinking.

“I dismissed my school Wednesday night before Christmas – the vacation to continue during the next week. This would of course include Christmas and New Year’s. These holidays are observed in this country and no work is done at this time. When miners have a spree, it always takes two or three days to “tapir off” so there is not such doing between these days, except drinking. This is done to excess. I hear that two barrels of beer and gin to one flour are consumed in some places.

“Everything passed off pleasantly at the church Christmas Eve. The tree was trimmed finely and all were well pleased. The miners went around singing for beer as usual. Five of my boys went around singing as a temperance party. I gave them seventy-five cents. I visited at different houses and spent the day pleasantly.

“Saturday morning [December 26] Joe Retallick, Ed, John, William Penberthy & myself started for Portage Lake in Anderson’s stage. I doubt whether a party ever set out in better spirits from severe confinement. The snow was about four feet deep; still the road was very good. The distance is about 35 miles through dense forest of all kinds of timber. There is one small hut called the Half Way House after passing the Albion Mine two miles distant. Every tree and bush was loaded down with snow, and it was well that the wind did not blow. I never was on a road through a large forest before. The ground is rough – very level with exception of a few small hills.

“While getting ready here we saw a drunken man in the snow not far from the house. It was bitter cold so we went in & pulled him out . . . . He was just finishing up his Christmas spree. We set out from the store singing John Brown. I believe we were singing songs all the way through the bush.” On this trip Henry spent several days in the Houghton/Hancock area. He stayed at “a fine place,” the Douglass House, and was able to hear “the best preacher” at the Episcopal Church.

Henry continued to teach in Clifton until summer 1864. He was asked to stay on at the end of his contract, but decided to return to Vermont.

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