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I began my archives career at Berea College, collecting the papers of formidable women. I traveled the Appalachian Mountains, acquiring records from the Settlement Schools of Appalachia. Two of the schools – Pine Mountain and Hindman – were founded by women: May Stone, Ethel DeLong and Katherine Pettit. As devotees of Chicago’s Jane Addams, they wanted to bring progressive ideas about health, nutrition, and home and farm management to Kentucky’s Knott and Harlan Counties. They operated medical clinics and espoused the cultural value of Appalachian music, dance, and arts and crafts.
I had a great job in Berea. So when a work colleague brought Calumet businesswoman Maggie Walz to my attention, it did not take me long to appreciate that Maggie was part of that progressive era of women who championed voting rights, challenged the notion of what women can do and worked toward improving the lot of all women.
Maggie Walz and the Calumet Suomen Nais-Yhdistys
Margareeta Johanna Konttra Niiranen of Tornio, Finland, settled in Houghton County, Michigan at the age of twenty (c. 1880). Like many immigrants, Margareeta changed her name to fit into American society. Becoming Maggie Walz, a domestic servant, she learned English at night school and was able to work in sales and as a language interpreter, helping her fellow Finns with business ventures. Walz earned a business degree from Valparaiso College, Indiana.
Returning to Calumet (1894), she and her friend Linda Malmberg, an instructor at Suomi College, organized the Calumet Suomen Nais-Yhdistys (Calumet Finnish Women’s Society). Laverne Chappell describes the Society in her article, “A Northern Star” (Michigan History Magazine, November/December, 2002):
At meetings, women were exposed to biographies of famous women, the rights of women in different countries and the need for women to develop their intellectual potential. Radical for the time was the suggestion that women’s pride must come from themselves, not their husbands. Moreover, women had potential to contribute to mankind that had barely been tapped. “Women should take personal responsibility to develop an independent status and move their mothering skills to the larger world.” (p. 41)
Maggie moved her mothering skills to the larger world as the Society published a newspaper, the Naisten Lehti (Women’s Paper) from 1899 to 1905. As the editor and publisher, Maggie often used her own money in order to get the paper distributed. The paper addressed the isolation inherent with being an immigrant and a single female:
They [women] were urged to avoid dance halls and saloons. They were warned against the temptation of entering into a loveless marriage—better never to marry at all then to face the physical abuse and poverty that could come from a drunken husband. Instead, self-improvement and community action were advised. Women’s work in the home was promoted even as nontraditional careers were encouraged.” (Chappell, p. 41)
A Nontraditional Career
Maggie’s nontraditional career continued as she built a large, three-story brick building on Pine Street in Calumet. The Walz building was designed by Charles K. Shand, the architect responsible for the Red Jacket Opera House (now the Calumet Theatre). The newspaper, the Amerikan Suometar (American Finlander) occupied one storefront, and Maggie opened a women’s clothing store directly behind it. (Walz also served as the newspaper’s business manager.). Offices and apartments occupied the upper floors of the Pine Street building.
In 1903, Walz set her sights outside of Calumet by becoming a federal land agent for Drummond Island, Michigan. There she established a Finnish colony that espoused temperance, cooperative capitalism and Christianity. This venture, however, failed within ten years as some of the farmers found the soil to be “thin and unyielding.” (Chappell, p. 43). Walz, in turn, dissociated herself with the community, blaming Socialist influences on the Island (1914).
Maggie remained in Calumet until her death in 1927. Her business acumen and tireless work ethic gave her economic clout. She became the “Jane Addams of Northern Michigan,” helping her fellow Finns assimilate into American society. Maggie, the local activist, achieved national notoriety as she advocated for women’s rights and Christian temperance. By the 1920s, her influence on the Finnish community diminished as many Finns left Calumet for more prosperous areas. She became less necessary, as public schools took over the education of immigrants. At the time of her death, her economic fortune had been exhausted.
Chappell writes that the posthumous reviews of Maggie Walz are mixed. The negative: she was too opportunistic and sold lands of limited farming value to fellow Finns. This is juxtaposed against a successful entrepreneur who befriended many in need. The final assessment: “Maggie Walz served a bridge between the old-country culture the Finns sought to maintain and the new, disconcerting world in which they had chosen to live.” (Chappell, p. 43.)
For More Information:
Papers and photographs documenting Maggie Walz can also be found at the Finnish American Heritage Center and Historical Archive, Finlandia University, Hancock, Michigan.
Special thanks to the National Park Service, Keweenaw Historical Park for images used in this article!