Friday, April 17, 2020

Dylan Town: Minnesota Brown Talks About Life on the Iron Range and Its History, Past & Present (Part 1)

Mahoning-Hull-Rust Open Pit Mine--Hibbing, MN
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.

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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?

Moving houses to expand the mine. (MN Historical Society photo)
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.

Colonial Hotel being moved to a new resting place.
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.

Churches were moved, too. (MN Historical Society) More than 200
structures were moved from 1919 to 1921.
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.

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?

Mining was once far more labor intensive. (MN Historical Society photo)
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.

Tomorrow: Questions about CPUSA, Hubert Humphrey and Mining Today

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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

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