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Where the Rivers Run North, Part I

Friday, 20 June 2003 12:00 AM

For the last 10 months I have been living in a small town in a region of Minnesota known as the Iron Range. The area is home to one of the largest open pit mines in the world and dozens of others, which have returned to nature as deep pools of fresh, clean water filled the manmade craters left after the iron and the will to mine it played out.

Many of the hills in the region are covered with young trees, some quite tall now – a testament to nature's regenerative powers. The hills in question are the towering piles of dirt scooped out of the iron pits over a century. However, since the '70s, iron mining in the region has left for South America or elsewhere as steel mills and heavy industry have also relocated to other parts of the world.

Often times competing against subsidized foreign steel dumped on any country willing to take it hasn't helped as things have gone badly on the Range. Some industry still exists, but tourism has become one of the major economic endeavors. It has done little to help most of the small towns that boomed because of mining, however.

Through two world wars the Iron Range did well by America and the postwar booms that followed. In 1951 the Range was providing 82 percent of U.S. iron ore to the smelters in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Iron mining gave rise to boom times after the timber industry departed for the West Coast in the early 1900s.

Old-timers tell me the timber wasn't just overcut by the logging industry; disease brought down thousands of acres, which then succumbed to fires that also destroyed the towns of Chisholm and Hinkley in the early 1900s.

Remnant industries in timber and mining remain. However, economic doldrums and declining school enrollments have replaced the boom times on the Iron Range. An aging population, transfer payments and not a little desperation.

While more than a few young people cling tenaciously to the land and the sense of place they don't find anywhere else, many have been forced south to the Twin Cities or Chicago in search of employment. Some few who remain find that diversifying is one way to stay on the Range.

A former miner said that after he was laid off from two mining jobs, he "got" the big picture. So he and his wife started a tree-trimming business and then a porta potty company, which is doing quite well. John provides up to 2,000 porta potties on the Range per month. I am trying to figure out how that many toilets and septic systems can go berserk, but apparently they do.

There are also what are known as the "stay the winter" people. Many of them have opened up combination operations that cater to the thousands of tourists that come north during the summer and, more often these days, in the winter as well. Businesses include bait and tackle shops, which may be combined with convenience stores or bed and breakfast operations or gift shops.

Although a handful of new companies have moved into the area, none of them offer the pay or benefits that the mines and timber offered a vast number of immigrants who flooded the area from 1890 to 1910. This part of the state is still highly ethnic, and ethnic infighting still takes place. Even intermarriage hasn't changed the situation all that much.

Up until it was turned into a local museum, the town of Virginia, Minn., sported two Catholic churches on the same block, separated by a Catholic school that my mother attended. One church was the Polish church, the other was the Irish church. The Poles, Czechs, Slovenians and Croats usually attended the Polish church, and everyone else the Irish church. The Irish Church won the battle of the ethnics and is still maintained.

A few years ago, Northwest Airlines had its arm twisted by Minnesota politicians and established one of its reservation hubs in Chisholm. What Northwest discovered was an invaluable work ethic and an educated stable populace that seemed to be representative of the area.

Of course, a Wal-Mart has opened up in Hibbing, just five miles down highway 169, and employs increasing numbers of laid-off miners and schoolteachers and workers who used to have jobs in mining-related business or in the school systems, which are downsizing due to loss of population and fewer taxes paid by the decline of mining.

But Wal-Mart wages and benefits don't even come close to the 30,000 lost jobs, along with benefits and tax base, that has left the Range since 1979. To many folks on the Range it stings, and that includes my Republican father and stepmother. They hate it that the Iron Gate Mall right next to Wal-Mart is almost empty of shops. Progress, I suppose.

As U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick stated not long ago: "The U.S. steel industry has been affected by a 50-year legacy of foreign government intervention in the market and direct financial support of their steel industries. The result has been significant excess capacity, inefficient production, and a glut of steel on world markets."

Notwithstanding, it is unfortunate that Minnesota is one of the top five high-tax states. Over a period of years, the Democrats controlled politics and the state legislature. Therefore, the nanny-state types held sway over the ideological direction of the state and high taxes became the norm.

Much of Minnesota is becoming more conservative, but I suspect that happenstance is still decades away on the Range. In last November's election, the Range still went 70 percent Democrat and 30 percent Republican while much of the rest of the state voted Republican.

On the Range the attitude remains that you give people whatever they want in the way of services no matter how costly it becomes, no matter how high taxes or regulations contribute to negative growth, because they deserve it and it is the job of the state to provide.

During my latest stay on the Range, one of the last mines in the region, EVTAC, declared bankruptcy and closed, taking 450 jobs with it. There was no way around it. Cheap imports and cheaper ways of doing business can be found in Canada, South America, Africa or Asia, and increasingly in Russia, Poland and China.

The "taconite tax" that was imposed on every ton of ore mined from the Mesabi area paid for the schools and infrastructure of the area and allowed property taxes to remain low. Local politicians have been fighting tooth and nail against dropping the tax or cutting it in half. Even when mines close, there is no compromise on things like taxes for the region's democratic leadership.

The new conservative governor, Tim Pawlenty, has made more trips to the Range than any Minnesota governor in decades. Having instituted a "rapid response" economic team to such hard-pressed areas, Gov. Pawlenty is one of the major cheerleaders for tax-free zones in Minnesota and has been pressing Range politicians to give it a try.

Given the anti-Republican attitude on the Range, it is amazing he should care at all. However, he does seem to care and that is one reason he is one of the better state governors in memory. Not to mention that he signed a concealed-carry permit law, a task that Jesse Ventura didn't seem able to accomplish, and he has reformed or dumped the gosh-awful "Profiles in Learning" educational disaster favored by the "let's dumb down America" bunch.

Meanwhile, he is dealing with a $4.5 billion budget deficit. Although the sad fact is the Democrats and certain leftist cities like Duluth have gutted concealed carry and fight to maintain the illusion that business will come to the region no matter how anti-business the region remains.

Brave efforts by companies like Northstar Aviation and Ceres Aviation to begin a regional aviation stronghold is fighting an uphill battle. One thing Minnesota still has is a trained and educated manufacturing/engineering/CNC computer high-tech base. Minnesotans have produced some of the best machine and manufacturing companies in the world, many of which are now headed to China, Mexico, Russia or wherever labor is cheap and educated.

Shortly after Pawlenty took office, local Range politicians sued him because he felt forced to take a hefty chunk of state-endowed monies for the IRRB (Iron Range Rehabilitation Board) and use it to help pay the $4.5 billion state deficit.

The money was meant to attract business and help business set up on the Range, but not much was being done with it. It just sat there as politicians were holding onto it for some future mining effort that doesn't seem any closer to actualization than when the monies were first accumulated.

It is becoming more apparent that Iron Range Democrat arm-twisting of politicians and corporate boards no longer seems to work. And Range politicians continue to think in the mining box rather than in specializing or diversifying in some particular area like high-tech machine tooling or production.

They also don't seem to be very careful about the kinds of business they have provided funds for. In one case they offered a company the sun, moon, stars, infrastructure, land and building plus money to set up shop in Eveleth, Minn. The company folded when its single customer took his business away. Now the company owns the land given to them by the Range authority, but no jobs exist.

There are too many other options for corporations and politicians to be attracted by monies that offer only a short-term lift. Tax-free zones work elsewhere, like in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but Range politicians wear blinders and continue as though Hubert Humphrey was still alive and the mines were producing full tilt and the unions could actually get things done.

The only salvation on the Range may lie in regional economics and cottage industries, diversification in one small effort at a time.

Northern Minnesota has always been a highly unionized area that is one of the last die-hard regions that cling to the populist and nanny-state philosophy proposed by men like Hubert Humphrey and FDR. Even now, to many Rangers, FDR is an American icon who loved the "working people."

No one can convince them that the old Democratic Party is long dead and an urban radical elitist left party has taken its place. That a recent list of what has become known on Capitol Hill as the Indian Caucus is comprised of 3/4 Democrats. The Indian Caucus encourages the interests of Indian – people from India – economic interests at the expense of American workers and industries.

Nor can Rangers be convinced that the national Democratic Party doesn't care about the concerns of miners, loggers, ranchers or farmers, for that matter. Republicans are not a whole lot better, having bought into the globaloney one-world-fits-all of the establishment elite, who defy party labels and the self-interest of the United States.

The local Democratic reps like Thomassini and Rukavina and Oberstar talk the talk of old-time Democrats, in other words it's "us against them." For Democrats that means Republicans only care about big business and socking it to the "little guy," while Democrats are still the party of FDR, Truman, Humphrey and JFK and live, breathe and exist to advance the "little guy."

Frankly, I don't think either party cares diddlysquat about the "little guy." In fact, the loss of mining jobs and resource industries began with JFK, and most Republicans are so much into one-way "free" trade they refuse to acknowledge the obvious. .

The Range is the birthplace of Gus Hall, deceased head of the U.S. Communist Party, and Judy Garland, as well as Bob Dylan and the Greyhound Bus Company. It is where the "Seven Iron Men" began to utilize the millions of tons of red gold, iron ore, buried deep in the earth that glaciers rolled over 10,000 years ago. It is where J.D. Rockefeller developed the notion of controlling the supply line, the resource and the production of resources as an industrial system.

A couple of years ago the LTV mine closed, leaving thousands out of work and houses by the dozen for sale. Some are still for sale and even more will be for sale now that EVTAC is gone. On the Range, it is not unusual to be able to buy a decent house for less than $50,000. Some retirees come back, and that is what they do as they return to a way of life and a pace that doesn't seem to exist in more urbanized areas of the U.S.

The Range is home to one of the best small-town papers in America, the Mesabi Daily News. My folks gave up on the Duluth News Tribune because it was as leftist as the Minneapolis "Red Star." But Mesabi Daily News in Virginia, Minn., is published by an Iron Ranger and an admitted Democrat named Bill Hanna.

It is one of the best-written most evenhanded papers I have ever read. It deserves the numerous awards it has received. That is why my folks take it and support it.

My other favorite paper is run in logging country, the Northome Record. I meant to visit the people who run it because they often run abbreviated columns of mine. Maybe next time.

The northeastern quadrant of Minnesota is part of the Laurentian Plateau, one of the oldest landmasses on earth. Two miles north of Chisholm, the rivers run north toward Hudson Bay. Outcropping of basalt and granite and hematite give testimony to the rich geologic history of the area.

The rivers and lakes are reminders of the great inland sea that once covered the upper Midwest after the glaciers melted. It isn't odd to find lakes that have numbers rather than names, there are so many of them.

Some areas are hilly and covered with birch, spruce and pine and on the Western edge of the Mesabi Range near Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids is at the headwaters of the Mississippi, and large oaks and maples predominate. Other areas on the Range are little more than swampy areas home to moose, eagles and stunted tamarack.

Along the North Shore of Lake Superior, towering cliffs and a vast inland sea are associated with names like Grand Portage, Grand Marais, Baptism River, French River, Two Harbors, Split Rock Lighthouse and Gooseberry Falls.

The French discovered Minnesota about the same time that the Pilgrims were landing at Plymouth Rock. Etienne Brule is credited with the European discovery of Lake Superior before 1620. The names of counties and streets and towns reflect that discovery. Radisson, Hennepin and Duluth are but a few Gallic names that may be found.

At that time the Lakota or Sioux tribe controlled most of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin before being driven out by the Ojibwe in 1745. The Sioux or Lakota left for the plains and the Dakotas while the Objibwe or Chippewa still reside in that part of the state. The Red Lake band of Ojibwe is the only American Indian tribe that has never signed a peace treaty with the U.S.

The northern part of the state saw white men even before Lewis and Clark left the East to map the Louisiana Purchase. Northern Minnesota was the hub of fur trading from the early 1600s until it died out in the 1840s.

Then that part of the state became a prime location for hunting minerals, gold, copper, nickel and finally iron ore. Timbering brought many immigrants to the area, but logging petered out when disease and over-cutting devastated the forests of the upper Midwest.

At the center of it all was Grand Portage, at the upper end of Lake Superior on the U.S. side. That was where fur traders met to cross the great inland seas of the Great Lakes, more particularly Gitchigoomee, "the big sea waters," better known as Lake Superior.

Voyagers and Indians alike paid homage by leaving gifts to the spirit of Manitou at an ancient tree dubbed the "Witch Tree" because it looks like a woman with her hands reaching toward the heavens, gnarled and twisted and spooky-looking.

During the '90s, I attempted to travel to view the tree and take some pictures because it figured in a mystery story I was writing at the time. Four years in a row my dad, my stepmother, Connie, and I made one vain attempt after another to see Witch Tree, driving cross-country 40 miles on a gravel road on dad's shortcut to Isabella and then up the North Shore.

The first couple of times I wasn't allowed to view the tree because the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources considered the trail leading to Hat Point, where the tree is located, to be unstable for foot traffic. Then I talked to a resort owner on the North Shore who told me that other resort owners and businesses had collected $250,000 to buy the property where the tree stands and gave it back to the Indians. Then they were shut out.

These days, in order to get to see Witch Tree, one must listen to a long lecture given by an Ojibwe elder at the casino. Taking pictures of the famous tree is totally out of the question. I was told that would amount to stealing the spirit of the tree.

I have another theory, however. American Indian casinos are a big deal on the Iron Range and in St. Louis and Arrowhead counties. The one at Fortune Bay, Lake Vermilion, employs a significant number of former miners and loggers in $10-$15 an hour jobs as blackjack dealers or kitchen or security help. The one at Grand Portage attracts seniors and tourists from Canada and the U.S.

Last time we went to Grand Portage, the folks and I stayed at the Indian casino hotel and peered at the Witch Tree through binoculars. Dad handed me the binoculars and said, "Here, this is as close to that damned tree as you are ever going to get." Although I did win $150 in quarters at the slots and that almost covered the cost of the gas to drive to Grand Portage four years in a row. Not to worry, that was the first, last and only time I have gambled using a mechanical device. I cannot afford to morph into a high roller like Bill Bennett.

Check out www.aldenchronicles.com and write Diane at

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For the last 10 months I have been living in a small town in a region of Minnesota known as the Iron Range. The area is home to one of the largest open pit mines in the world and dozens of others, which have returned to nature as deep pools of fresh, clean water filled the...
Where,the,Rivers,Run,North,,Part
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2003-00-20
Friday, 20 June 2003 12:00 AM
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