Woody Guthrie, Mother Bloor and The New Marker at the Italian Hall Site

Here’s a recent local news story about the changing of the Michigan historical marker at the Italian Hall site in Calumet. The sign at the site no longer says that the doors of the Hall opened “inward,” as it did for years. As author Steve Lehto sees it, the story of the doors opening inward developed over time, to help people explain, and cope with, what seemed an inexplicable event.

Pete Seeger says in our film that Woody Guthrie took his version of events at the Hall from Mother Bloor’s autobiographical account of her years as a socialist organizer, We Are Many. Bloor had been working with Big Annie Clemenc and the ladies auxiliary to plan the party and she was there on Christmas Eve when the trouble started. She is careful to note in her account that “there were two doors to the box entry” of the Italian Hall, “both opening outward.” Here is the critical passsage from We Are Many.

What happened was this. In the panic a man with a child in his arms had fallen at the bottom of the stairs. There were two doors to the box entry, both opening outward. When the man fell, the child in his arms fell through one of the doors, out into the street. The deputies, who had been threatening to break up the entertainment, were standing outside of the door. They themselves had raised the cry of Fire! and knew what was happening. Someone, it was never known who, seeing the man sprawling on the threshold, quickly closed the door, and both doors were held shut from the outside, so that no one could get out.

Woody stayed pretty close to this account of the falling man and the doors held shut as he wrote his verse:

A few people rushed and it was only a few,
“It’s just the thugs and the scabs fooling you,”
A man grabbed his daughter and carried her down,
But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

One important variation he made was to change Bloor’s passive — the doors were held shut — to the active: the thugs held the door.

3 Responses to Woody Guthrie, Mother Bloor and The New Marker at the Italian Hall Site
  1. Janet Olson
    August 19, 2013 | 8:37 pm

    I had always heard that the doors opened in but after hearing Steve Lehto speak at FinnFest I realized that the doors did not open in but out. What a horrible tragedy to think that someone held the doors shut.
    I had also wondered why there was a question about how the doors opened as the building was standing until demolished in 1984.
    This should put the controversy of the doors to rest.

    • Louis Galdieri
      August 20, 2013 | 10:12 am

      It probably won’t put it to rest…
      And it’s still possible to doubt that anyone was holding the doors, even if they did open outward.
      My takeaway from this is: to talk about the Italian Hall story, you also have to talk about how history gets remembered, told and written — and rewritten, again.

      • Janet Olson
        August 21, 2013 | 12:23 am

        You are most likely correct about it not being put to rest. I guess I should say that it put it to rest for me. However I do wonder why there was a controversy.
        My comment about the doors being held shut didn’t mean to imply that I thought someone did it but that it was awful to think of it being done. I don’t think there is enough evidence to know.
        As you can imagine this story is talked about quite often in my family. Still so many unanswered questions to this event that changed the lives of my family
        Thanks, Louis, for your comments.

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