ALPENA — The local history of the town and surrounding areas centers on men, as their traditional role more than a century ago was to build businesses and work outside the home, while the most women took care of domestic and social tasks.
The library is looking for more information about the women who have played a vital role in Alpena’s history.
On Thursday, Alpena County Library Special Collections Librarian Don La Barre introduced Women Who Shaped Alpena to an audience of about 40 people, mostly women.
La Barre explained that there were some pieces missing from the presentation, as the women of Alpena’s early days were often referred to as “Mrs”. followed by their husband’s name. Thus, in some cases, the first names of the women are still unknown.
He said that when he started this job on January 6, 2020, succeeding Marlo Broad, the library really didn’t have a lot of information about the women of Alpena and Alpena County, which made him surprised when he stepped into his current role.
Since then, La Barre has sought more information about the women who shaped Alpena’s history.
“The bias inherent in archives is something that all archives, especially in the United States, face,” La Barre said.
At conferences, he and other librarians have asked the question, “Where are the gaps in our archives?”
On Thursday he said: ‘And, for us, it’s definitely stories of women in our community since the days of the pioneers.’
During the program, he shared much of what he has learned so far.
In the 19th century, a two-spheres concept noted that women were more likely to remain in the private sector, centered on family morality, philanthropy, and social status, while men spent more time in the public sector, focusing on the economy, politics, financial situation and competition. This information was provided by Dr. Graham Warder, Keene State College.
In her presentation, La Barre began with Sarah Carter, the first white pioneer, the first physician to Alpena loggers and their families, and the woman who welcomed new families to Alpena. The Carter House was built in 1860, near where the Harborside Center sign now stands, at the corner of State Avenue and Chisholm Street.
La Barre then spoke of the Ladies’ Metropolitan Library, which was organized around 1864, with Diana (CW) Richardson as treasurer and librarian, Lucy (HR) Morse as secretary, Susan (La Barre not sure if this is her real first name) (SA) Mather as president, and a fourth unknown. These women began the foundations of a public library around 1868. Meetings were held on Saturdays at the Richardson House on State Avenue.
The next highly respected and active woman La Barre highlighted in her presentation was Lizzie Nason, who became a city librarian in 1875 and also ran a bookstore in the Centennial Block in downtown Alpena.
Another very important woman in Alpena’s history was Harriet Comstock, who was a strong advocate for women’s rights.
In 1937, in a letter to the Michigan Works Progress Administration, Comstock wrote, “There has never been a time in the world when women and what they have to bring were so needed. But above all, they must be willing to work and study and find out what is happening in the world around them and how it affects the city and state in which they live. They need strong leadership and a spirit of selfless service. They should think of their organization as something other than social gatherings and entertainment venues.
His sister Marie Comstock was also very active in the community, La Barre said.
Ella M. White, after whom the elementary school is named, and Anna Besser, after whom another elementary school is named, were both highly regarded women in the community.
The Women’s Civic League, organized in 1913, sought to uplift low-status families, women, orphans, and find cures for disease. The group has established a visiting nurse program. They disbanded in 1991, due to low membership.
Wilma Johnson Henry, wife of Carl R. Henry, was chosen as an honorary citizen of the city and received the Book of Golden Deeds award from the Alpena Exchange Club. White also received the same award another year. The city’s “most helpful and selfless” residents were nominated for the award, which is still awarded today.
The women of Alpena Garment Co. were also highlighted during the La Barre presentation.
Other women who played a vital role in Alpena’s early days include Mabel VanNocker, first female commercial photographer, Dr. Ida Ohman Potter, first female optometrist, Millie Alpern, Alpena probate court clerk and Mary Veenfliet , owner of Alpena Business College. The library hopes to learn more about these aforementioned revolutionary women, or anyone else who played a notable role in Alpena’s history.
If anyone has information, photos or historical documents to share that could help expand the library’s women’s history collection, please contact La Barre at [email protected]
A program is scheduled for June 4, titled Ladies Beyond the Gates, at Alpena’s Evergreen Cemetery. The program will run from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. From a prominent Michigan suffragist to those who shaped Alpena forever, Marcia Simmons and Don La Barre will guide attendees through a tour of the cemetery’s most notable women. Evergreen.
Visit alpenalibrary.org or call 989-356-6188.