Women in the Workforce – Women’s History Month

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we will share three stories of women in the workforce. Throughout history, a women’s role according to societal standards has gone from marriage and motherhood being the most important job to celebrating women as equal and valuable members of the workforce. The women we feature this month stepped outside the boundaries of what was considered normal for their time or joined a trend that has brought women’s labor rights to where they are today.

*Check back each week for another featured Woman of Leelanau!

Dr. Isabel Copp, Physican

Dr. Isabel Copp was born in December of 1848 to parents Alex and Frances Fall. They lived in Maine at the time of Isabel Fall’s birth but soon moved to the midwest where Isabel met her husband, Thomas Copp. Thomas and Isabel are listed in the 1880 census as living in Chicago, Illinois where Isabel was studying medicine. In the late 1880s, the couple moved to Leelanau County and took up residence in Northport, right next to the school house. While Thomas took on the role of running a general store, Thomas Copp & Co., Isabel became the local doctor serving the community at the northernmost tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. She was well known for her long black dress and the team of horses she used for house calls. The horses were kept in the stable on the corner of the school lot. She was listed as “Dr. I. Copp, Physician” from 1889-1903 in the Northport Business Directory.

Isabel Cropp in her iconic black outfit and buffalo hide coat with her medicine bag. (Click on the image for more details.)

Dr. Copp is a wonderful first choice for Women’s History Month, because not only was her profession as a doctor in the late 1800’s rare and hard to achieve for a woman, she also started the Northport Woman’s Club. This club helped educate women on a variety of topics and disciplines, some of which were traditionally only taught to men during this time. A description from Eloise Wrisley, a club member, in 1935 states: “For a few years we were not organized, but Dr. Copp was our leader and inspiration. We met in the evenings at various homes, the hostess presiding at each meeting. Our first work was the study of American literature, music and art; lives and the works of poets, composers and inventors. The trouble between Japan and Russia and the Spanish American War of 1898 gave us an incentive to study about these countries, about their government, schools, religion, music and art. We also studied about the Philippines and Hawaiian Islands,” (A History of Leelanau Township, Pg. 216). 

Northport Women’s Club in 1895. Dr. Copp is the second from the right with a gavel in her hand. (Click on the image for more details.)

In the early 1900s, Dr. Copp and her husband moved to Mississippi. She left an impression on those in the Northport Community and the Northport Woman’s Club continued on in her absence. It is inferred that she passed away in 1917.

Deborah DeCostello, Parachute Jumper

Deborah DeCostello was an early aeronaut and professional parachute jumper. She was born in 1893 in Spain, little is known about her early life. She became prominent in the US for performing at various fairs by parachuting out of airplanes.

She was in her twenties when the Village of Empire, in rural northern Michigan hired her and her pilot. It was for their annual Empire Fair in late September of 1920. For the two days of the Fair, Deborah was unable to perform due to poor weather. She and her pilot decided to proceed with their airshow the day after the fair, on October 1st, 1920. On that day, the conditions for flying and parachuting were still poor but they decided to proceed with what they had been hired to do. Unfortunately, Deborah did not survive the jump and her body could not be recovered according to accounts until December. 

Source: Findagrave.com

An Account from Frank Fradd of Empire:
“…Finally, they took off, and swung around up to the northeast. The pilot made a circle or two up there, and suddenly began going west, and kept right on going. I just couldn’t believe it. Why were they going away over there for (toward Lake Michigan). You know, she was going to jump out, and parachute down near the Fairgrounds.

“Finally, they went over Perry Lake, or North Bar Lake, and kept right on. In the meantime, I had come home, and was out in my backyard, and when I saw the plane going way out there, I climbed on the roof. There was a ladder there, and I climbed up so I could see over the woods. It was just short stuff.

“They floated right over across the top of the hill where Mr. Grattop used to live, and on the other side of that, she dropped the parachute, out over the lake. It must have been about a half mile out there. It started coming down. And I couldn’t believe it. I could see the black object, the little black object under the parachute. She had black boots on and a black suit. Then the plane started to circle around, trying to get on the backside so the propeller would force her into shore. The black thing landed there right in the water. You could see it in the water for a few minutes, and then it disappeared.” – Some Other Day, Remembering Empire

Gertrude Coppens added:
“…My husband was with the Coast Guard. They went down to rescue her, and just when they got down there, the parachute was still floating, but it went down. Apparently she couldn’t cut herself loose. The pilot said it probably got tangled some way, so she went right down with the parachute. But the parachute was not with her when she was found.” – Some Other Day, Remembering Empire

They could not find any relatives of hers to notify of her death and she was buried in St. Philips Cemetery in Empire, MI.

At a time when aviation was only in its beginnings, it was still rare for a woman to not only have a job but especially one such as this occupation. Deborah DeCostello may not have been the first woman to jump from a plane or be an aeronaut daredevil, but she was certainly one of the few during her time with such a daring profession. 

Although Deborah’s story is an extreme example, her career highlights a common experience for many women working in the early 20th Century. Working conditions could be far from safe and injuries were common. Change began to occur with the rise of unions in the 1920s and 1930s, introduction of workers’ compensation in the 1940s and 1950s, and introduction of Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards in 1970. 

Mrs. Boston, Lumber Camp Cook

Our last featured woman in the workforce is one who’s story is yet to be uncovered – Mrs. Boston from England, who was a cook along with her husband for 300 lumbering men in Crescent City, MI. From 1907-1917, Crescent City was the hub for lumbermen and their families on the west side North Manitou Island. When you think about lumber camps you normally think of lumberjacks, but there were many women that helped these camps function. Feeding 300 men is no easy feat. We know little about Mrs. Boston, which is not uncommon for many women working during this time. Many of the jobs they filled were temporary, transient, or seasonal making it hard to find archival records documenting their full story or even their first name. LHS is fortunate to have this photograph within the archives with the following inscription on the back: “Cook – wife – & asst. (Assistant) No M. Isl (North Manitou Island) Camp. 1907. Logging on w. side. Mr. & Mrs. Boston & helpers from England cooking for 300 men lumbering.” It’s the only known clue to Mrs. Boston’s time spent working in Leelanau County, MI.

1978.7.50 – Mr. & Mrs. Boston & assistant in Crescent City, MI

On this final day of Women’s History month we honor all the women past and present working in Leelanau County. Take a look at the photo gallery below for examples from our collection of how women supported themselves and/or their families in the 1900’s. Professions spanned from working on the family farm, serving as a hotel maid or housekeeper, caring for patients as a nurse, teaching in a one-room school, or picking cherries in a local orchard. These are just a handful of the many ways the Ladies of Leelanau earned an income.