National Register adds Michigan’s Rice Bay, historic Ishpeming building

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By Eric Freedman

Capital News Service

Rice Bay on Lac Vieux Desert. Image: National Register of Historic Places

Rice Bay on Lac Vieux Desert. Image: National Register of Historic Places

Two sites in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have been added to the National Register of Historic Places — one culturally important to members of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and the other related to a strike important to labor and women’s history.

“The National Register is the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” according to the National Park Service, which administers the program.

Rice Bay in Gogebic County is a traditional wild rice-growing area covering a square quarter-mile on northeastern Lac Vieux Desert. Wild rice is an aquatic grass that is culturally important to the tribe,

The 6.6-square-mile lake straddles the Michigan-Wisconsin border and is the headwaters of the Wisconsin River. Forested hilly terrain, with cottages and seasonal resorts, and swampland surround it.

Rice Bay, which borders tribal land surrounded by the Ottawa National Forest, is part of a “wild rice district” with hundreds of sites, including more than 300 in Wisconsin but many fewer in Michigan. Most Michigan wild rice sites are within 10 miles of the state border.

“We’ve maintained that for hundreds of years with continuity,” tribal historic preservation officer Giiwegiizhigookway Martin said of Rice Bay.

In making the National Register nomination, Martin said the tribe relied on “our traditional knowledge and wisdom passed on by our elders,” unlike the evidence used for nominating a building, for example. “That was a challenge.”

She told how the oldest living member of the Lac Vieux Desert Band grew up near Rice Bay, and there were winters she remembered when they would have died from starvation without it.”

The nomination said, “Although the cultivation of wild rice in paddies began in the 1960s, most rice in the district is still procured from wild stands in the traditional manner – both for personal as well as commercial use – by hand from canoes, in a process known as knocking. This
includes the rice harvested at Lac Vieux Desert.”

The nomination warned of threats to wild rice there, including pollution from agricultural run-off, a fungus, emissions from mining operations and changing lake levels.

And Martin said there have been incidents of “intentional destruction” by users of water skits and jet skis.

An adaptive management plan to protect the rice beds is awaiting Environmental Protection Agency approval, she said, although some tribe members oppose the plan because “traditional knowledge tells us any change or fluctuation in the water levels could be very detrimental to the rice.”

In downtown Ishpeming, the 128-year-old Braastad-Gossard Building dates to 1888 and was expanded in 1903-04, according to the nomination submitted by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

Braastad-Gossard Building in Ishpeming. Credit: Flickr

Braastad-Gossard Building in Ishpeming. Credit: Flickr

The sandstone-trimmed brick building served as a department store and a factory that manufactured women’s undergarments before being renovated for an interior mall and offices.
It won National Register status for its connection with historical events and people, including industrial and social history and the “industrial pattern of textile plants setting up shop in mining towns to take advantage of a potentially large and low-cost labor force of women from the mining families who would be willing to work to supplement the family income,” the nomination said.

The original owner was Frederick Braastad, a mayor and long-time local business and mine owner, and his department store was a leading commercial institution until its closing in the early 1920s, the nomination said.

It quoted a delivery wagon driver for the store as saying, “You could buy anything in the store…Flour, straw, hay, furniture, toys, fruit, butter, watermelon, carpets, clothes, grapes, pins, needles. I guess you could buy a mine in that store if you wanted to.”

The H.W. Gossard Co. then used the building as a factory to make corsets and bras. With a peak of 659 employees, it was Ishpeming’s leading employer for a time.

The factory was the scene of a 1949 strike “that is important in UP history for the leading role played by women in beginning and carrying out the strike,” the nomination said. Workers represented by the International Ladies Garment Workers walked off the job in a dispute over wages and other issues.

Between April and August of that year, a local newspaper wrote that “most strikes are inspired by the Communists,” the Ishpeming Chamber of Commerce asked Gov. G. Mennen Williams to send troops to reopen the factory – Williams refused – and police arrested picketers.

The strike was settled after the company agreed to a wage hike and union shop.

A local writer later said, “Unknown to the strikers at the time, they had earned their place in UP history. This was the first time women had taken up picket signs and went on strike in the UP.”

To qualify for the National Register, sites must be significant “in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture” and if they “possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.” They must be “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history or with the lives of significant persons in our past.”

Under federal law, listing generally doesn’t limit how owners use their property, although state and local preservation laws may impose restrictions, according to the Park Service. Listed sites are taken into consideration in planning federal and federally funded projects, and owners may qualify for tax credits and historic preservation grants.

Listed sites are taken into consideration in planning federal and federally funded projects, and their owners may qualify for tax credits and historic preservation grants.

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