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by Laura Fernandez

Cultural Change on Beaver Island: What was the effect of the arrival of the Beaver Island Lumber Company workers on the homogeneity of Beaver Island? How did the Irish culture change with the arrival of non-Irish immigrants?

During the second half of the 19th century, the dominant cultural group on Beaver Island was Irish. On December 27, 1902, however, the Beaver Island Lumber Company was established and with it came an influx of foreign laborers to the island (Gladish 1976:93) (Figure 1). With their arrival came an end to the Irish Gaeltachtthat had been created, for English became the primary language for business (Rotman 2010:22). The Lumber Company employed men from France, Germany, Austria, England, Denmark, Norway, and India (Rotman 2011) and became the Island’s largest industrial operation (Collar n.d). Though disbanded in 1915, many of the lumber company workers remained and intermarried with the native Beaver Islanders (Duke and Rotman 2011:239).

Figure 1. Beaver Island Lumber Company. Photo from Beaver Island Historical Society used by permission of William Cashman.

The arrival of the Beaver Island Lumber Company coincided with a cultural revolution taking part on the Island. The shift of values of the second generation Irish, those whose forefathers emigrated directly from Ireland, was strengthened by the arrival of new blood to Beaver Island. 

After the Mormon exodus in 1856, the Irish returned and established an Irish enclave lasting until the turn of the 20th century (US Census Enumerations 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900). Many of the native Irish members became accustomed to the homogeneity of the island, and outsiders were quickly incorporated into the Irishness of the community. A clear example can be seen in the DeBraie family, French-Canadians who migrated to Beaver Island in the 1860s. Local lore indicates that their surname was too hard to pronounce and thus someone declared at the pub one night that, “DeBraie is just French for O’Brien!” The name change was official in that in the census records and land deeds their name was listed as the Irish O’Brien (Collar 2005:37-38).

Though the sense of Irishness was strong in the late 19th century, at the beginning of the 20th century, those close ties to Irish identity began to subside. As the American-born second-generation Irish were coming of age, they began to challenge the social norms of their forefathers and wanted to reshape the traditional ethnic boundaries of the island and its level of interaction with ‘outsiders’ (Duke and Rotman 2011:233; Connors 1999). The emerging second-generation Irish leaders happened to coincide with the arrival of the Beaver Island Lumber Company. 

The arrival of the lumber company workers could be seen as a mixed blessing, for on one hand, it meant the end of an era, and a forced enculturation of the community, yet it still was quite beneficial. The Beaver Island Lumber Company accomplished many fruitful enterprises that included: being able to thin out and open up the lower west side of Beaver Island, provide an “infusion of fresh blood with the mainly Irish inhabitants,” boost the island’s economy at a time when the fishing industry was in decline, and add to the general music and atmosphere through their need for general entertainment (Cashman 2002).

Many subtle influences can be seen in the US Census Enumerations from 1900-1910. The census data from 1900-1920 illustrates an interesting occurrence at the time of the Beaver Island Lumber Company. For one, the population of the St. James Township increased by about 53.4% between 1900 and 1910 (US Census Enumerations 1900, 1910) and then decreased by about 11.4% between 1910 and 1920 (US Census Enumerations 1910, 1920). The dramatic change between the 1900 and 1910 Census Enumerations coincide with the large number of incoming workers. The smaller change in population between 1910 and 1920 reflects that many of the Beaver Island Lumber Company workers remained behind for, “Many of the loggers who worked here during the Lumber Company’s twelve years of operation fell in love with the community and decided to stay when it closed down in 1915” (Cashman 2002). The fact that the population did not plummet after the departure of the Lumber Company illustrates that the social structures were changing in such a way that outsiders were beginning to be accepted into the society.

Those that were most likely to leave after the dismantling of the Lumber Company were those who were listed as boarders and lodgers in the 1910 Census Enumeration. There was evidence that some who came as boarders intermarried with local Beaver Islanders, for they provided greater economic opportunities for the women of Beaver Island (Duke and Rotman 2011:240). The marriages between the foreign workers and the local girls were not as common though, because it would have been difficult for the boarders of the Lumber Company to marry into the community for, “The older generations sought to maintain the community’s ethnic homogeneity” (Duke and Rotman 2011:240) and were less willing to accept interethnic marriages. However, because of the changing social views of the second generation Irish, marriages did occur.

It was interesting to note that many who came to work for the Lumber Company brought their families with them (US Census Enumeration 1910). Those who brought along families were more likely to remain on the island after the lumber company ceased operations (US Census Enumeration 1920). It’s possible that those who brought their families along with them were more readily accepted into the culture because of the work centered nature of Beaver Island, they came with their families in the hopes of making a better life for themselves, as Roland Cull states, “they were here like everybody else trying to make a living” (R. Cull, pers. comm., 2011).

Though the Beaver Island Lumber Company workers experienced some tensions due to the views of the first generation Irish, the expanding views of the second generation Irish allowed for more fluidity between the two groups (Duke and Rotman 2011:239-240). Roland Cull, whose ties to Beaver Island follow back to Aranmore, stated that many viewed the Beaver Island Lumber Company as a welcome change: “they were good for the island” (R. Cull, pers. comm., 2011). He told the story of when a fire broke out on the island, the Lumber Company workers were working alongside the Beaver Islanders to help stop the fire, illustrating a communion between the Lumber Company workers and the Beaver Island community (R. Cull, pers. comm., 2011).

The arrival of the Beaver Island Lumber Company signified a turning point in Beaver Island history. It coincided with a movement of social change that emerged with the second generation Irish on the Island. The emerging social changes of the early 20th century and the role the Beaver Island Lumber Company played into that change raises a number of questions:

  1. How did the Beaver Island Lumber Company affect Beaver Island by leaving?
  2. Had the Beaver Island Lumber Company not arrived on the Island, how would the social structure of Beaver Island have been different? Would the changing views of the second generation Irish still have been as prominent?

Literature Cited

Cashman, William

2002    “Beaver Island Lumber Company.” Beaver Beacon. http://www.beaverisland.net/History/A_Brief_History/ Beaver_Island_Lumber_Company/index.htm. Accessed 28-31 July 2011. 

Collar, Helen

2005    Irish Migration to Beaver Island. The Journal of Beaver Island History 1 (1976): 37-38.

Collar, Helen

Subject Cards-Beaver Island and Michigan: Lumbering. Beaver Island History: Helen Collar Papers. Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI. http://clarke.cmich.edu/resource_tab/information_and_exhibits/ beaver_island_history/subject_cards/beaver_island_cards/lumbering.html.

Connors, Paul

1999    America’s Emerald Isle: The Cultural Invention of the Irish Fishing Community on Beaver Island, Michigan. Doctor of Philosophy Loyola University Chicago, Ann Arbor, MI.

Cull, Roland

2011   Oral Interview conducted by Kasia Ahern and Laura Fernandez. 14 July 2011, Beaver Island, MI.

Gladish, David

2005    Notes on Island Logging. The Journal of Beaver Island History 1 (1976): 93-94.

Rotman, Deborah L.

2011 Brief History of Beaver Island, Michigan. Ms. on file with the Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame, IN.

Rotman, Deborah L and Rhiannon Duke

 2011    Interethnic Marriage in the Irish-American Experience: Social Transformation on Beaver Island, Michigan. Senior thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.

Rotman, Deborah L.

 2010    Irish-American Identity on Beaver Island, Michigan. The Society for Historical Archaeology Newsletter 43(4): 21-22.

United States Bureau of the Census

1860-1920    Population Schedules. VIII-XIV Censes of the United States, Bureau of the Census, Washington DC.



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