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Alpena library looks to fill gaps in local women’s history

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Alpena County Library Special Collections Librarian Don La Barre addresses a crowd of about 40 people on Thursday evening during his presentation, Women Who Shaped Alpena.

ALPENA — The local history of the city and surrounding areas centers around men, because their traditional role more than a century ago was to build business and work outside the home, while most women took care of domestic and social tasks.

The library is seeking more information about the women who played vital roles in Alpena’s history.

On Thursday, Alpena County Library Special Collections Librarian Don La Barre presented Women Who Shaped Alpena to an audience of about 40 people, mainly women.

La Barre explained that the presentation is missing some pieces, since women in the early days of Alpena were often referred to as “Mrs.” followed by their husband’s name. So, in some cases, the first names of the women are still unknown.

He said when he first started this job Jan. 6, 2020, succeeding Marlo Broad, the library really didn’t have a lot of information on women in Alpena and Alpena County, which surprised him when he came into his current role.

Since then, La Barre has been digging for more information about the women who shaped Alpena’s history.

“The inherent biases in archives is something that all archives, especially in the United States, are dealing with,” 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 definitely is female stories in our community from the pioneer days onwards.”

During the program, he shared much of what he has learned so far.

In the 19th century, a Concept of Two Spheres noted that women were more inclined to remain in the private sector, centering on family morality, philanthropy, and social status, whereas men spent more time in the public sector, focusing on economics, politics, financial status, and competition. This information was provided by Dr. Graham Warder, Keene State College.

In his presentation, La Barre started with Sarah Carter, the first female white pioneer, the first physician for Alpena lumbermen and their families, and the woman who welcomed new families to Alpena. The Carter house was built in 1860, near where the sign to Harborside Center now stands, on the corner of State Avenue and Chisholm Street.

La Barre then talked about the Ladies’ Metropolitan Library, which was organized around 1864, with Diana (C.W.) Richardson as treasurer and librarian, Lucy (H.R.) Morse as secretary, Susan (La Barre is unsure if this is her real first name) (S.A.) Mather as president, and an unknown fourth. These women started the foundations of a public library around 1868. Meetings were held on Saturdays at the Richardson house on State Avenue.

The next well-respected and active woman that La Barre highlighted in his presentation was Lizzie Nason, who became city librarian in 1875 and also ran a book store on the Centennial block in downtown Alpena.

Harriet Comstock was another very important female in Alpena’s history, who advocated strongly for women’s rights.

In 1937, in a letter addressing the Michigan Works Progress Administration, Comstock wrote, “There never was a time in the world when women and what they have to contribute was so much needed. But first of all they must be willing to work and study and find out what is going on in the world all about them and how it affects the city and state in which they live. They need strong leadership and a spirit of unselfish service. They should think of their organization as something other than social gatherings and places to be entertained.”

Her sister Marie Comstock was also very active in the community, La Barre said.

Ella M. White, for whom the elementary school is named, and Anna Besser, for whom another elementary school is named, were both highly esteemed women in the community.

The Women’s Civic League, organized in 1913, sought to uplift lower status families, women, orphans, and find treatments for illness. The group established a visiting nurse program. They disbanded in 1991, due to low membership.

Wilma Johnson Henry, wife of Carl R. Henry, was selected as the city’s honor citizen, receiving the Alpena Exchange Club’s Book of Golden Deeds award. White was also a recipient of the same award in another year. The city’s “most useful and unselfish” residents were nominated for the award, which is still being awarded today.

Women of the Alpena Garment Co. were also highlighted during La Barre’s presentation.

Other women who played a vital role in the early days of Alpena include Mabel VanNocker, first female commercial photographer, Dr. Ida Ohman Potter, first female optometrist, Millie Alpern, Alpena probate court registrar, and Mary Veenfliet, owner of Alpena Business College. The library is hoping to learn more about these aforementioned revolutionary women, or any others who have played notable roles in the history of Alpena.

If anyone has any information, photos, or historical documents to share that would help expand the library’s collection pertaining to women’s history, please contact La Barre at specialcollections@alpenalibrary.org.

A program is planned for June 4, called Ladies Beyond the Gates, at Evergreen Cemetery in Alpena. The program will be from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. From a leading suffragette in Michigan to those who forever shaped Alpena, Marcia Simmons and Don La Barre will guide participants through a tour of Evergreen Cemetery’s most noted women.

Visit alpenalibrary.org or call 989-356-6188.

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