Dylan Town: Minnesota Brown Talks About Life on the Iron Range and Its History, Past & Present

“If you’re travellin’ to the North Country fair…” — Bob Dylan

Mahoming-Hull-Rust Mine, Hibbing MN (post card)

When Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” was released a few weeks ago a friend shared with me how John F. Kennedy made three visits to this part of the world, creating quite a sensation each time. Two, in 1959 and 1960, were related to his running for the presidency. The third was in September of 1963, just weeks before his fatal visit to Dallas.

As I wrote about the visits I read the speech that JFK delivered in Hibbing. It intrigued me, but also raised some questions. In looking for answers I naturally turned to Aaron Brown, a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune and creator of the popular blog Minnesota Brown.

Just as many families have their genealogist who collects the family lore, so also many of our communities have local historians who research and share their region’s histories. Tony Dierckens ( Zenith City Press ) exemplifies this description for the City of Duluth. For the Iron Range we turn to Minnesota Brown, whose research has resulted in the book Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.

(MN Historical Society) More than 200 structures were moved, 1919–1921.

EN: The Mahoning-Hull-Rust mine forced the city to move. How many homes were transported to new foundations 2 miles away? When did that happen and are those vacated lots still visible?

Aaron Brown: The move of Hibbing was more complex and drawn out than most contemporary histories take time to explain. Indeed, the Oliver Mining Company made a deal with the Village of Hibbing to move the town so that it could access the rich vein of iron ore under the townsite. The exact terms of the deal were unclear, even to townsfolk at the time. It was broadly understood that the Oliver Mining Company would build a new high school and village hall, that it would pay for the infrastructure, and that it would build downtown commercial buildings for existing businesses using low interest loans.

The Oliver, as it was called, would buy North Hibbing lots at market value, allowing people to move the structure if they wanted. However, when major businesses and property owners began to move, the value of the real estate in North Hibbing plummeted. That meant that anyone who waited to sell was given a pittance for their land. This led to a protracted lawsuit that the village would ultimately win, but that arguably cost Victor Power the 1922 race for Village President, a humbling fall from grace for the man who orchestrated the town’s rise to prominence.

North Hibbing consisted of three 40-acre “additions.” The northernmost was the original townsite. Histories often refer to this as the “North Forty,” and it was subject to the most legal and political controversy. That’s also where the ore was located beneath a very dense, valuable commercial district. The North 40 was cleared first, very dramatically. Iconic buildings like the Power Theatre, Itasca Mercantile, and village hall, were razed while a steady stream of houses and stores puttered by on wheels. They were headed to a brand new townsite next to an annexed village called Alice. The new downtown was cut into undeveloped land to the northeast of Alice. All new, a city raised from the mud. For longtime residents of Hibbing, the sight was equal parts exhilarating and disconcerting.

Churches and other buildings had to be moved to expand the mine.

I don’t know exactly how many structures were moved. Hundreds. The entire North 40 was cleared quickly, but the other two additions of North Hibbing moved more slowly. Pillsbury (the middle section) and Southern addition moved bit by bit for decades. The last buildings weren’t moved or razed until the 1950s.

If you go to North Hibbing now you can still see the street layout from Southern Addition. Washington Street, Lincoln Street, Garfield and McKinley. You can see the foundation of the Lincoln High School and the old Carnegie Library. People camp there in the summer. But the heart of the old townsite has been atomized. Not only are the buildings and streets gone, but the very earth beneath them.

EN: The iron range is no longer just a blue collar culture here. What is the biggest industry on the Range? What are the signs that this is an uneasy synthesis of cultures?

AB: Mining remains a very large part of the Iron Range economy. It’s still the biggest industry in terms of GDP, but its employment numbers have dropped over the past four decades because of industry consolidation and automation. The Iron Range’s largest industry in terms of employment is health care. For instance, in Hibbing the largest employer is the hospital. Hibbing Taconite is #2. This is broadly true across the region. And more workers fall into the category of service workers than either health care or mining, but this is dispersed across many different kinds of generally low wage work and hard to classify.

The Colonial Hotel, up on wheels. (MN Historical Society)

Because mining is a dominant force in the culture of the Iron Range it has retained political and social power despite losing economic power. Mining companies and workers alike want consistency. They want to keep mining uninterrupted for any reason, for as long as possible. When this is happening, everybody involved is making good money and living their best lives. Anything that disrupts that goal — markets, regulations, technology — is perceived as a threat not just to mining but to the whole region’s culture.

Now, the actual population could use some new industries, new people, new tech and ideas. But making that happen isn’t a priority for those committed to a mining-first culture. In fact, talk of bringing in people who either don’t care about mining or who might actually oppose it is broadly discouraged. People of that description generally find that there is a limit to how far they can go in local politics or cultural assimilation.

One specific example is the challenge in recruiting and keeping doctors and specialists. As I said, health care is the biggest industry and pays a lot of bills around here. But highly educated doctors tend to have highly educated spouses who want to do something meaningful with their lives. They struggle to find work outside of mining or health care, and are often stymied when they try new things. Similar for a lot of college educated professionals. If you like fishing, hunting and four-wheelers, you’re set. But if that doesn’t interest you it’s tough sledding. There is a culture of support for educated professionals, but it operates more as an underground network than as an elite society. And for many that’s just not appealing long term.

Economically, new entrepreneurs — no matter their politics — often feel it’s not worth trying to navigate a parochial network of local politicians and feckless bureaucrats that isn’t curious about anything other than mining. Especially when their high skilled human resources will have to come from someplace else, and might not be welcome if they do.

Mining was labor intensive as well as dangerous.

EN: With increased automation, it’s become apparent many of the jobs will never return. What are the mineworkers doing who no longer have work?

AB: Well, this is a little more complex than the question implies. Automation and job losses have been happening slowly over many years. Layoffs can happen, but so does attrition. Many of the workers first affected by automation have long since died of old age. But going back to the localized depression of the 1980s, you saw a lot of miners leave the area, while others retrained for new work. In 2001 when LTV closed many were retrained in health care or other industry. But a lot of them found their way back into the industry when older baby boomers began to retire. And highly skilled people are also finding their way into the industry. If you can understand the computer code that is used to load trains or operate automated machinery you can be a miner as long as you like. But that’s a small subset of the bigger mining workforce.

It’s attrition mostly.

EN: This didn’t really happen overnight. Were there promises made — by mining companies or politicians or union leaders — that were never kept?

AB: This is a tough question to answer. There is a long and winding promise that began a century ago and still persists. That promise is that if you put your head down and stick with the company (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the union) you will always have work in the mines. This is an impossible promise to keep, but it has endured because demand has persisted. When the steel industry convinced Minnesota to underwrite the development of taconite in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s they bought another half century of the same promise. But you can’t look at this from afar and say that it’s headed in a good direction for the long-term health of the region. A ton of ore can be mined with less and less labor each year.

More recent developments strongly suggest that the strength of unions in local politics was more a marriage of economic necessity than a “workers of the world unite” situation. It’s always been about keeping the trains rolling south while the checks wheel through everyone’s bank accounts.

Aaron Brown. Author, blogger, historian.

EN: The Northland once had a strong CPUSA component. During our Great Depression more than 10,000 people, especially Finns, were persuaded to join the future and go to Stalin’s Russia, primarily deceived by propaganda. How much did that happen here on the Range?

AB: Yes, early 20th Century Iron Range mining communities had lots of socialist and some communist activity. And I’ve heard, more second hand than first, of some who left for Russia after the revolution. These were mostly Finns and they headed for Karelia, the region that borders Finland. There was already a large Finnish population there. Keep in mind, these were mostly people from Finland, who still spoke Finnish as their first language. I can’t cite you dates or specifics, but I have heard that it proved to be a very bad decision for those who went. After about a year of living in a socialist utopia, with some American elements like baseball thrown in, Stalin grew wary of the Karelian Finns and threw most of them in the gulags. Some survived but most didn’t. It was a cautionary tale about revolutionary communism. These people who went were true believers in the cause. They didn’t anticipate how quickly men like Stalin would consolidate power at the expense of the original ideals of the movement.

Senator Humphrey campaigning for presidency, 1968.

EN: Hubert Humphrey made a name for himself by extricating the Communist Party USA from the DFL. CPUSA was a labor movement with strong roots in the Northland. Can you give a brief summary of that history for those who are not from this region?

AB: Of course, this is book. I’ll give you a paragraph.

When immigrants came from Europe to America, and then to northern Minnesota to find work, they brought with them many European languages and cultures. Some of them also brought political ideologies like socialism, anarchism, and communism and dozens of strains of all these movements. They were lured to America with promises of political and economic opportunity. When they realized that things here were surprisingly similar to conditions in Europe (and because they were too broke to go back) they set about to enact a democratic version of the same ideals they had been reading about back in Europe. Many who came to the Iron Range were already socialists. But, in time, they joined their own societies and clubs here as well.

The CP-USA was never all that big or important in local politics on the Range, but many immigrants were sympathetic to it. But the peak of socialist thought probably occurred before WWI and the first Red Scare, which caused Range miners to avoid talk of socialism for fear of economic reprisals.

Copper miners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 1905

EN: It’s my understanding that the Iron Range also has abundant copper reserves, but that there’s been an almost impossible barrier erected to prevent copper mining from occurring. It’s also my understanding that the environmentalists who oppose mining are opposed to gasoline powered cars and want more EVs. EVs are battery powered and copper is a primary resource required to make battery-powered cars. Is there no way to find a middle ground and have the mining and Green advocates find a solution that is safe and economically beneficial here?

AB: The chief barrier to copper mining in northern Minnesota is and always has been the cost of production. The general understanding that copper and other elements could be found in the region has been broadly understood for at least 80 years. The problem is that the ore is diffused within a vast amount of overburden and waste rock, requiring significant processing to extract. This has never been commercially viable. Nonferrous mining was seriously explored back in the 1970s with a large amount of political support. But that effort was abandoned because the companies doing the promising could never put the money together.

Some twenty years ago (!) talk of mining nonferrous minerals rose again, this time under the umbrella of PolyMet. In the aftermath of LTV’s closure in Hoyt Lakes there was a sucking void of political hopes and dreams, and this fit the bill. The argument was that by using new technology the company could crack the cost/benefit code to mine this site profitably. Not only that, they purported they could do it cleaner than any other copper mine in the world. Twin Metals joined in some years later promising the same near Ely.

Since then, most of what we hear about is related to the environmental risk of this form of mining. And that’s important, but not for the reasons most people think.

It might appear, for instance, that these mines would be running right now were it not for the obstinance of environmentalists. And it’s true that environmental opposition to these projects has been consistent, coordinated and, at times, effective. You might blame regulatory agencies like the MPCA or EPA for their cumbersome red tape and the piles of legal documents they collect and produce. But most of the longest delays have been related to asking the companies for cost-specific information that was withheld for strategic reasons.

PolyMet and Twin Metals are shell corporations, or what the business calls “junior miners.” There won’t be a PolyMet mine or a Twin Metals mine. Rather, there would be a mine run by a real mining company, probably Glencore and/or Antofagasta, respectively. Companies like these are cutthroat international wheeler-dealers. They won’t come in here with their billion dollars a pop unless they are getting a very good deal. So these junior miners, whose targets are really these big corporations, want to make these mines look as good as possible. That means vague permit language and non-binding promises about labor, production, and environmental impact. They don’t have to lie, they need only create enough gaps in the language for a company like Glencore to tear into vast chasms with their team of lawyers at some point in the future.

That’s why you see them talking about using union labor for construction (because all the local construction companies are union anyway) but not signing a non-compete clause with the United Steelworkers of America to seek to represent the workers in the eventual mines. The prior is an assumed cost, but the latter is something that would cost money down the line.

Chalcopyrite from Peru.

Copper prices are low now and always volatile. It’s copper prices and cost of production that will really determine whether these mines open. The rest is rhetorical noise. Yes, demand for copper might increase going forward, but that assumes no other developments that might make copper wiring obsolete, or that recycling or other sources won’t be able to provide what industry needs.

To your question, is there a way to mine Minnesota copper in an environmentally responsible way? The answer is yes, but that it’s very expensive and that efforts to make it less expensive in order to attract investors will lead to it being less environmentally responsible in the long run. The fear isn’t necessarily a large scale disaster while the mine is running — though that’s technically possible — but that the costs of mitigating the mine site after the mine is closed will be placed entirely on the state. Eventually, this would likely negate or even reverse the economic benefits of opening the mine in the first place.

EN: How long have you been writing Minnesota Brown?

AB: I’ve been writing this site since 2006. Prior to that I had used the site as a place to post my weekly newspaper column for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. (I left the Tribune in 2003, but continued to write a column on contract for them. In fact, I still do). But in the fall of 2006 I added the blog component.

EN: Thank you for taking time to share some of the insights you’ve gained during your life and career on the Range.

Related Links

Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range
Minnesota Brown
JFK’s Speech to the Northland Shows What Hibbing Was Like During Dylan’s Youth
Pussyfoot Johnson Arrives to Clean Up Hibbing
Zenith City Press
Karelia: A Finnish-American Couple In Stalin’s Russia, 1934–1941

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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