On this date in 1923, Warren Harding, an amiable, if corruptible president who sometimes questioned his own abilities to govern, died of a heart attack in San Francisco. Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in during the night by his own father, a notary public. On this same date in 1928, President Coolidge became the first chief executive to visit Minnesota’s Iron Range, the only to do so outside the context of a campaign.
My favorite legend of the Coolidge visit to the Range comes from his Hibbing stop, mentioned briefly in the Time story. In the story he climbs a new viewing stand overlooking the Hull Rust Mine. Local historians have told me that many expected Coolidge to give a speech at the Hull Rust to inaugurate the new viewing stand and commemorate his historic visit. But the understated Coolidge, known to history as “Silent Cal,” merely watched the shovels and trains, turned and said, “That’s a pretty big hole,” got back in his car and left for Virginia, Minn., where he was presented with animal pelts.
Coolidge kept a summer office in Superior, Wisconsin, near where Iron Range ores were loaded onto lakers for eastern steel mills. No American president has ever personally witnessed as much of the Range economy as Coolidge.
Harding, Coolidge and their successor Herbert Hoover topped the GOP ticket during the golden age of Iron Range Republicanism. In the 1920s GOP headquarters could be found in the Delvic Hotel on the corner of Hibbing’s First and Howard, when Mayor Vic Power was the progressive Republican favorite to be Minnesota’s governor someday. Powers’s own girth and heart disease prevented this from happening when he died just two years before Coolidge’s visit. (The ’20s would have been very different with modern heart medicine).
During the early 20th century political records show the Range as a GOP stronghold. Logging camps would report unanimous Republican returns, same as many mining locations. The Range’s merchant and professional classes were almost all Republicans, either conservative or progressive. A handful of farm-country transplants or Catholic immigrants would have composed the Democratic minority of this era.
But once the Depression hit the region began to change. For one thing, a massive generation of working class immigrants gained enfranchisement as they toiled in dangerous mines for low pay. Unemployment and the New Deal rather suddenly turned many against the merchant Republicans in Range towns. In the ’30s, the Range drifted toward Roosevelt and the Democrats in presidential years and the populist Farmer-Labor party in local races. After the first successful labor strikes of the 1940s and the consolidation of the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties into today’s Minnesota DFL, Range Republicans entered a minority status they’ve held since.
In 2010, Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack won northeastern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District in an upset over Iron Range DFLer Rep. Jim Oberstar. Cravaack did better on the Range than any Republican since the ’40s, but he didn’t come close to carrying it. You have to go all the way back to Silent Cal and the Hull Rust, the Crash of ’29 and Hoovervilles to see a time when Republicans held the Range. I’m not sure even Republicans would want to do that.
The patterns replay over time. The shovels run and then they stop and then they run again. New viewing stands are erected every couple of decades for various dignitaries. Big shots give speeches while the people wait for something significant to be said. Watch the shovels. Watch the trucks. The hole is pretty big. The hole gets bigger every year.
(Photo: President Calvin Coolidge, Mrs. Coolidge, and John Coolidge in their car driving through Hibbing, Minnesota, during visit to the ore mines. Behind them is the Northland business car of the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railroad. New York World Telegraph and Sun photo collection, 1928, Library of Congress).