Would the real Iron Man please stand up?

Residents of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range know the iconic image of the Iron Man Memorial situated along Highway 169 in Chisholm.

This statue, the third-tallest free-standing statue in America (a very distant third, behind the Statue of Liberty and the Arch of St. Louis), was dedicated in 1987. It took 11 years to commission and complete the statue, the concept of which was actually proposed as early as 1947. The goal was to honor the iron miners of northern Minnesota who had immigrated from almost four dozen nations to build the American empire of the 20th century.

And it is a great tribute, though I’ve never been a fan of a creative choice made by the sculptor at the behest of local backers. The Iron Man is slumped over, to show the weariness miners felt as they left the mines to return home. This was meant to show the burden placed upon workers, the physical toll of their labor.

To me, born in 1979 as the Iron Range economy was beginning to crumble, the Iron Man always seemed to reflect the decay of the region itself:  Sad, defeated, standing on past accomplishments with little to look forward to. It didn’t help that in the ’90s they built a McDonald’s in Chisholm whereby the Golden Arches now frame the Iron Man as you approach from Hibbing. The original intent of the statue always has to be explained; the actual impression given to countless tourists and commuters is entirely different.

But over the weekend I encountered an image at the historical photography clearinghouse Shorpy that bears the same name, a photograph titled “Iron Man 1941,” that conveys an impression I very much prefer:

This image depicts a miner standing at the edge of Hibbing’s Hull Rust Mine in August 1941. He holds a lunch box bearing his name “S Dolz” (not clear whether that’s his full last name or an abbreviation). A steam shovel loads a steam train down in the pit. I’m not sure whether that’s Hibbing or a location in the background. I suspect it’s a location town, one that is probably long gone now.

This photo was taken at the start of World War II, the most intense period of northern Minnesota iron mining in our history. Modern mining owes much of its vital technology to the ferocious demand for iron that existed then, whether it’s taconite or scram mining, both of which were explored heavily at that time. The demand for labor cemented much of what workers had fought for in 50 years of labor struggle. Mine bosses finally gave workers respect, pay and safer working conditions, because they finally had no choice. So today we have modern taconite mines and miners that are among the best paid people on the Range. A strongly Republican region flipped to solid DFL at this same time, for the same reasons. (This guy and his peers, first generation immigrants, finally got to vote).

And we owe it to people like this guy, standing on the edge of not just a mine, but American history. That is the Iron Man in my view. We also owe it to the women who also worked the mines during the war and later reintegrated the mines in the ’70s and ’80s. We owe it to the families of people like this man, who demanded better schools and created the best educated workforce in the nation. Even as iron mining struggled through the ’80s and ’90s, when the Iron Man statue was dedicated, these accomplishments continued to yield dividends, evidenced by the fine education I received as recently as 1998.

But those dividends have paid out, now. Any hope for the future now rests with the question, “How will remember our history and create our future? Standing straight or slumping?”

Sources: Iron Man photo and background information, Iron Range Tourism. “Iron Man 1941” image by John Vachon of the U.S. Farm Bureau courtesy of Shorpy, referred to me by Stan of the excellent TYWKIWDBI blog.

Comments

  1. I can understand your point about the posture of the sculpture. I’ve never viewed him (it) that way. I did hear that there was a real person who was the model for the statue. Can you find that out? The Iron Man always makes me think of my Uncle Rudy, who never worked on the Range or in mining, but was, nonetheless, a very hard working man, in both Wisconsin and as a pioneer orange grove owner in Florida in the early 1900’s. I kept house for him one summer when he was about 90. He had the same posture. It was the posture of a slim, hardworking guy, who had had a major injury to his hip, perhaps a hip fracture, but continued working after it healed. He didn’t give up, even when he had to carry a stool with him so that he could sit down about every 30 steps on the way to the garden.

    So I view the statue as a symbol of the hard physical work and the toll it took on the workers, who kept on, both to support their families, and to build our nation.

    What would be the posture of the early mine owners, if they were to be depicted?

    I do like the other image you posted. That shows pride and defiance and hard work and accomplishment. Bravo to the men and women who worked so hard in our region.

  2. I, too, view The Iron Man Statue as a tribute to the hard-working miners of yesterday, and not as a symbol of defeat or decay.

    My late grandfather, Frank Janezich, was present at the statue’s dedication, dressed in his old mining garb & carrying his lunch pail, representing his fellow miners.

    So, to me and to so many Iron Rangers, The Iron Man Statue – slumped posture and all – is looked upon with great pride.

  3. Thanks for the comments, both. And please understand I certainly don’t mean to diminish the importance of the message the statue was supposed to send (which it does) regarding the physical sacrifice of the people who worked in the mines.

    My argument, rather, has to do with how we, the people of the Iron Range, see ourselves holistically. The statue was commissioned before I was born, but had I been able to comment then what I see now, I’d argue that the fitting tribute to the miners is not just the sacrifice they made for their families and American industry, but what those sacrifices won. It was pride and hope that sent thousands from poverty to prosperity.

    And as I said, my generation understand mining very differently. A lot of my friends dads/moms worked in the mines, but by no means a majority. Today, the number of dads/moms working in the mines as a percentage of employment in the region is even lower.

    If you only get one statue to tell the story of a whole people, to encapsulate the history and hopes of that people, it should project forward as well as backward. That is my opinion, and obviously there are plenty on the Range who might disagree with me for some of the reasons you state. But rest assured “the kids these days” don’t think much about what the mines did to a man’s body in 1940, they only know that the Iron Man looks tired, just like the towns around them.

    I argue for putting history in fuller context, and offering a message of hope for the future — a future that includes mining, but also more.

  4. When the unions demanded…and received 13 week vacations, the towns and worker pride began to deteriorate. They’ve never recovered.

  5. Library of Congress says:

    http://www.loc.gov/​pictures/item/​fsa2000044728/PP/

    John Palumbo, Jr. (1921-2008)

    Medium: 1 negative : safety ; 3 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches or smaller.
    Summary: Photo shows miner John Palumbo, Jr. (1921-2008), possibly during the summer of 1942. (Source: Palumbo’s family, 2009.)
    Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-fsa-8c20455 (digital file from original) LC-USF34-064024-D (b&w film neg.)

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