Countless women have helped shape Alpena’s history
ALPENA — A faded newspaper clipping depicts the details of an elegant banquet in an Alpena church parlor. A golden lace tablecloth was set to honor the recipient of the Exchange Club’s annual Book of Golden Deeds Award.
The honoree whose serene face peers from the past in one corner of the clipping isn’t identified by name.
In the words of the 1937 writer, the honoree is merely, “Mrs. Carl R. Henry, home woman and mother of three daughters.”
Like so many women in Alpena’s history — many of them not feted with lace tablecloths — Wilma Johnson Henry stepped out of her home and stepped up as a leader, fighting for the people of her community, not for recognition but from a drive to improve their world.
More than simply wives — more than the mothers of their children or the presence that makes a house a home — countless strong women of Alpena’s past made the city what it is today.
Old news clippings and historical documents share some of their stories.
An active member of the Women’s Civic League, Henry vigorously fought against the spread of tuberculosis. Always concerned about young people, she organized the Campfire Girls, advised young women in the Alpena Girls League, and pulled local women together to form the Alpena Girls Recreational Club — a place for “girls who were growing into young womanhood without any opportunity to express themselves in terms of play, talent, and handiwork,” according to a news clipping.
Henry was also the force behind the creation of a Social Service Center at the courthouse and an acknowledged leader who excelled at drawing together other women with a passion for helping the disadvantaged in their community.
Sarah Carter and her husband, attracted by the plentiful white pine of the region, were the first permanent settlers of Alpena. The Carter house, surrounded by swamp and brush, became a boarding house for other settlers working on their own homes, and Carter worked long hours to care for her guests.
A skilled caregiver with knowledge of medicines, Carter earned the title of the first doctor of Alpena, and her home became the community’s first hospital — and, later, its first church. As described in the book, “The History of the Lake Huron Shore-1883,” Carter was “possessed of a robust constitution, courageous spirit, and kindness of heart … admirably adapted to the manifold emergencies of that time.”
A young woman not yet 30, energetic Lizzie Nason moved to Alpena from big-city life in 1871 and immediately began leaving her mark. She took charge of the reading room of the White Ribbon Society — a pioneer temperance order — and was shortly named city librarian, earning fifty dollars per year.
Nason opened a book and stationery store in the newly constructed Centennial Building, taking the library with her until it was moved into a larger space a few years later. She was tireless in her work with charities through her church, and when she died at a young age in 1899, her funeral was one of the largest Alpena had seen.
“Probably no woman is better known or more loved and has exerted greater influence in the city’s history, both public and private, than the woman whose death yesterday has brought a sense of sorrow to innumerable persons whom her modest life benefited,” Nason’s obituary read.
Setting aside her small-town roots to attend a prestigious women’s college and live in Paris for two years, Harriet Comstock came home to Alpena and dove into community service. She organized and was the first president of the Women’s Civic League in 1912. She was the first life member of the Alpena chapter of the Red Cross during the first World War and was Alpena’s deputy welfare commissioner.
In 1916 Comstock was third vice president of the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association.
Launched from a philanthropic beginning in Alpena, she held multiple state leadership positions helping the underprivileged, especially women and girls.
Teamwork was a natural for Anna Besser, acknowledged by her husband and those who knew her as an equal half of the twosome that made Alpena the world leader in the concrete masonry industry.
Accompanying her husband to conventions, Besser forged connections with leaders around the nation, and her keen intellect and sound business sense contributed to the success of Besser Company, of which she was first-vice president.
The Besser Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by the Bessers, has donated millions of dollars to benefit the people and communities of Northeast Michigan.
A local powerhouse in the first half of the 20th century, Ella White worked for Alpena schools from 1896 until 1950 — first as an elementary teacher and then as business secretary of Alpena Public Schools, with a one-year stint as city editor of The Alpena Daily Echo in 1913.
She was one of the founding members of the Alpena chapter of the Red Cross, eventually rewarded with a trip to Europe in recognition of her efforts on behalf of the organization.
White was the second president of the Women’s Civic League and a winner of the Exchange Club’s Book of Golden Deeds Award. She served many years on the Alpena County Welfare Commission and took leadership roles in several Alpena organizations supporting children.
Hard-working Alpena women — 1,200 of them — made 7 million dresses a year during the Great Depression, the sales highpoint for the Alpena Garment. Co.
A 1939 employee strike, fighting for better wages and a safer shop, lasted 16 weeks. Violence necessitated the calling in of the National Guard, with baseball bats, umbrellas, and bricks tossed at the mostly women-organized picket lines.
Before the strike, though, a mostly-female workforce made the Alpena company the world’s largest manufacturer of popular-priced women’s dresses during its heyday, with branch sales offices in New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, and Paris.
Actress Rue McClanahan, of Golden Girls fame, has an Alpena connection. During her first summer stock season, she acted with the Jatoma Players — a precursor to Thunder Bay Theater — in the early 1950s, after her sophomore year in college. There she met the man who would later become her second husband. Still known as Eddi Rue, she played the female lead in William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
A small-town girl made it to a big sporting stage when Angie Herron became the first Alpena native to be in the Olympics. A 1979 Alpena High School graduate, Herron moved from the Michigan State University rowing team to the medal podium, claiming gold medals at the 1984 World Rowing Championships in Montreal and Moscow’s Goodwill Games in 1986 and placing 9th in the 1990 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
She coached the rowing teams at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and has been inducted in the National Rowing Hall of Fame.
News intern Alyssa Ochss contributed to this story.