Commentary

The humbling of giants: The rise and decline of the Iron Range — Essay

September 28, 2021 6:00 am

Original caption from August 1941: August 1941. “One end of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning pit, largest open pit iron mine in the world, near Hibbing, Minnesota. The pit is two and a half miles long, three quarters of a mile wide and about four hundred feet deep.” Medium format safety negative by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration.

Mesabi means giant. 

That means that I was raised in the land of giants on the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota. In my youth, I saw those giants as the elected leaders who fought for my homeland in St. Paul and Washington, D.C.

When I was 10 I watched my grandfather, Marvin Johnson, run for the first and only time in my life. Twenty years after his body was crushed in a mining accident, he sprinted into the street to shake then-Gov. Rudy Perpich’s hand at the Keewatin Fourth of July parade. His admiration was greater than the pain.

Perpich grew up in a company-owned mining location called Carson Lake, just east of Keewatin. He was just a few years older than my grandpa. Perpich and his three brothers all became educated professionals, with three of the four boys becoming members of the state Legislature at one time or another. But it was the oldest, Rudy, who became the first and, so far, only Iron Ranger to serve as governor. When things got bad he coined the oft-repeated local phrase, “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Then there was U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the most invincible giant of Mesabi Range politics. In second grade I won a trip to Washington, D.C. There, Oberstar spent two hours with my family, showing us every corner of the Capitol and letting me stand where the president delivers the State of the Union address. 

Oberstar was another poor miner’s son apprenticed to an earlier political titan, U.S. Rep. John Blatnik. He would take Blatnik’s place, both in Congress and as the nation’s leading voice on transportation and infrastructure. Together, these labor Democrats held Minnesota’s 8th Congressional seat for 64 years. They moved steel and hoped it would save jobs back home. 

It didn’t. 

A surname without significance

My father was laid off from the mines and from Cummins Diesel. From 1980 to 2000, local mining employment dropped by half. We retreated into the scrub brush outside town where I spent my childhood.

I didn’t come from a political family, nor was my surname of much significance. Our family’s last name is the color of mud, excrement, and a football team from Cleveland. But it seemed for a time, at least, that on the Iron Range this did not matter. 

My people came from Europe. Some of us were skilled craftsmen seeking opportunity. Others were dirt poor and running for their lives, seeking a foothold anywhere they could find one. They came through the copper mining towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and followed the booms to the iron mining towns of northern Minnesota. They married across ethnic lines, lived and died, depositing me under the steam cloud of a taconite plant some time later. 

Don’t get excited. Most of my childhood friends could tell the same story.

I found solace in books and eventually in school, where it seemed that people took education more seriously than you’d expect for a place like this. By my high school years, a decade after the economic collapse of the 1980s, some of my favorite teachers were being laid off. I was furious. With my new driver’s license I drove into town to volunteer for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. 

Here I met more giants. State Sen. Jerry Janezich ran a bar. He had a bartender’s ear. He listened to us kids and looked out for me. State Rep. Dave Tomassoni was a former hockey star with a distinctive laugh. Everyone loved him, but no one took him seriously.

I was probably most impressed and also intimidated by state Rep. Tom Rukavina. He spoke in human barks and knew everyone. Though I began a stranger to him, he quickly ascertained who my family was after a few probing questions. My grandmother confirmed the details. She knew him back when he was “a hippie school teacher.” 

Rukavina was no longer a hippie. He was something else entirely. He was the last Iron Range lawmaker to try increasing taxes on the mines, but he also had no time for Twin Cities environmentalists. He built his own sawmill, but he could also quote the 8th District’s only socialist congressman, John T. Bernard.

I ended up working on the 1998 DFL gubernatorial campaign of Sen. Doug Johnson. Most in Minnesota knew Johnson as the centrist chair of the Senate Taxes Committee. His opponents would tease that he thought the state’s motto “L’Étoile Du Nord” meant “Send the Money North.” I joined up with him on the basis of a speech he gave to a local convention. He said he wanted a future for the next generation on the Range. That was me.

These were the days of 50-point victories for the Iron Range DFL, an electoral bacchanal so euphoric that labor and progressives could easily look past their differences. My days as a political volunteer were mostly dedicated to finding people who forgot there was an election and making sure they voted. Persuasion wasn’t necessary. And the older the voter, the less you had to explain. 

Anyone over 50 remembered the big strike. Anyone over 70 remembered the spies and company policemen. The elders remembered the way mining companies used bribes and coercion to get their way. But, even then, this was a long time ago.

No matter. My first Election Day as a volunteer saw a sweeping victory for the DFL.

We gathered at a crowded curling club in Buhl. Surly men in mesh-back caps and work shirts let out a cheer when the television blared news that U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone had been re-elected. 

Yes, Wellstone! Author of “The Conscience of a Liberal.” This was not that long ago.

At one point I saw the local legislators gather for what appeared to be an important conversation. Reading their body language I naively thought that perhaps the votes weren’t coming in the way we wanted. But no. The votes were fine. A drunk at the bar had broken a window. The lawmakers were negotiating how to pay for the damages.

In this political tradition, gaining and keeping power became the means and ends. The Range produced committee chairs by giving its representatives seniority and using this leverage — and the threat of withholding votes — to secure more power. I thought it was brilliant at the time, because it supported my idea of how the world should work.

The enemy: The Cities

The enemy was, of course, The Cities. We didn’t trust Minneapolis or St. Paul, but the Range DFL held special scorn for the suburbs. That’s where the wealthy lived, where they parked their big boats that clogged our roads every Memorial Day. They voted against our interests — our school funding, our public works. It even seemed they opposed our very right to exist.

Every election became a zero sum game. If only we could get Mike Hatch elected governor then things would be different. But Hatch lost, so our giants again pitched at windmills in St. Paul.

But the long slow decline after the closure of Butler Taconite in 1985 and LTV Steel in 2001 gradually stewed resentment. As locals became convinced that the only way out was by going all-in on some long-shot proposals to mine copper and nickel, statewide Democrats started becoming the enemy.

In 2010, Oberstar was felled by the Tea Party revolution. After a few years of struggle, Republicans now seem to hold a lock grip on the 8th Congressional District. Part of the issue is the district is so big and includes vast amounts of territory and population nowhere near the Iron Range. But even here on the Mesabi, it’s reverted to 50/50 party ID at least, and trending toward the GOP.

A generation of elected leadership turned over, just in time to meet this more competitive environment. The response has been to seek middle ground, to maintain the local machine while eschewing the changing realities of national party politics. For Range Democrats this strategy has been a failure, one that will soon require a total reorganization. 

This place has been fighting the Twin Cities for generations, for reasons both noble and foolish. Few remember why this war started, but I know. 

For five years I’ve been reading old newspapers for a book project. This animosity goes back a century. Our political parties have shifted and realigned several times, and yet the animus remains. But when it started — at the very beginning — it had to do with the power of the mining industry over the lives of everyday citizens. U.S. Steel — then the world’s largest corporation — had total control. And they secured this dominance with political support provided by Duluth and the Twin Cities. 

But the industry learned. As Range leaders scored fleeting victories over the Steel Trust, the industry found ways to change the story. With a combination of money, power moves, and what is often termed “paternalism,” the Company framed itself as the region’s savior.

The unions knew better. They’d seen the truth. But the unions aren’t what they were. And there are so many fewer miners, that the ones left have become wedded to the views of their salaried managers. The giants of Range politics once preached independence from the region’s largest industry. But they all gradually came to accept the company’s view as the only defensible position.

Thus, as far as politics is concerned, it turns out that the issues are not the issue. The only issue that seems to matter now is the industry — specifically, the iron mining industry and its smooth-talking cousin, the speculative copper-nickel mining industry. Throw in pipelines — and their fleeting employment booms — and you’ve got the trifecta.

The Iron Range political ethos projects strength, solidarity and industry. But despite such burly nouns, some of the most powerful people around Range politics seem fantastically sensitive when this industrial fealty is questioned. Even faint criticism ties them into angry knots.

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For instance, 2020 U.S. Census data shows that the Iron Range will again lose political clout once new redistricting maps are drawn early next year. This was no surprise. As political commentators began to speculate about next year’s governor’s race, some pointed out that the Range no longer provides enough votes to dramatically impact elections.

A mining trade lobbyist was quick to stoke the culture wars, suggesting that such talk is evidence of some kind of disrespect of the Range and its vaunted “way of life.” 

Solidarity, boiled long enough, becomes pure grievance. 

Now impromptu rallies by mining trade groups excoriate environmental regulation of any kind. They demand total trust in foreign companies with long records of busting unions and sticking local governments with big bills.

The general population seems much more concerned about the prospect of wearing masks and getting vaccines to prevent COVID-19. People stand outside schools to scream at children and teachers as they arrive for the day.

It is in this climate that state Sens. Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni flipped parties, joining the Republican caucus while claiming independence. It is here where state Rep. Dave Lislegard flirts with endorsing Republican state Sen. Paul Gazelka for governor, a likely foreshadowing of a future party switch. 

Indeed, the whole region may soon elect entirely GOP leadership, a complete reversal of the Range political world I grew up in. And I’m sure those Republicans will seek seniority and chairmanships, promising voters that things will be different if they win a few more elections.

I expect some of their young supporters will think this is brilliant, because it supports their notion of how the world should work. 

At fault: The nonbelievers

The final trick of the tent show evangelist is to blame a lack of miracles on the nonbelievers. There isn’t much that a writer can do to change the political outcome at this point. Maybe the political outcome is less important than we all think. Perhaps some just fear that the economic outcome is revealed for what it really is: the result of human exploitation over time.

The giant Mesabi, in Aninshinaabe tradition, is the great, stout man who guarded over this land long ago. He melted into the earth, leaving behind treasures for people to use. Of course, this giant was the glacier that receded from the last Ice Age. He dug the lakes and filled them with fish and wild rice, the prophesied “food that grows on the water” that drew the Anishinaabe from their ancestral homelands. 

He also left pine forests and exposed rich deposits of iron ore. In a flash-bang century, what we now call the Iron Range burst into existence, human history converging in awesome nuclear fusion.

People prospered on this land, and still do, but those who seek dominion over it always seem to fall away after a few short generations. Once resources have been exploited the people suffer until another of the giant’s treasures is revealed.

Some say the next treasure is yet more minerals under the ground. But it could be anything. It could be us, if we allow ourselves to imagine. 

This is hard to do. We remember when we were giants. And the remembering is what hurts the most.

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.

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