Celebrating midsummer night’s eve in the people’s park

I’ve written before about Mesaba Co-op Park near Cherry, the cooperative recreational facility built by Iron Range workers in the 1920s. Mesaba Park holds its annual midsummer festival this weekend. Cindy Kujala of the Hometown Focus in Virginia, Minnesota, compiled a historical column on Mesaba Park in a recent edition. You should read the whole thing, but you might enjoy some of the excerpts, which are shared below.

We’ve spoken here of the unique role of Finnish immigrants in the history of the Iron Range, which was central to the foundation of the Park by Finnish workers. This was reprinted in the story from a Mesaba Co-op Park book:

Anti-Finnish sentiment served to reinforce Finnish strength as a community. Finnish social clubs, drama groups, athletic associations and educational clubs flourished. Consumers’ co-operative stores and farmers’ co-operative producers associations expanded and prospered. Finn Halls, that extraordinary institution of Finnish immigrant life that served as cultural, associational and political centers, sprang up in every community. Still, the Finns felt the need for a larger meeting area. An area to meet recreational needs, an area where the summer festivals could be held. Traditional in Finland where it was observed particularly on mid-summer’s night with festivities, dancing and great bonfires, the “Kesäjuhla” or summer festival had already become a Finnish-American tradition as well. The first festival on the Range was held in Virginia in 1906. The Finns, however, still remembered the strike years when the presence of Finns at public grounds was frowned upon and, in fact, it was not uncommon to find signs declaring NO INDIANS OR FINNS ALLOWED.

And:

The history of Mesaba Park illuminates a distinct Finnish working-class culture in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan that was oriented towards ties of kinship and ethnicity rather than toward individualism. In a landscape where distant people, corporations, bosses and politicians had control of their lives, working people sought security and survival through a network of family ties and community relationships. In their efforts to make ends meet, raising families and building community, they also included protests, strikes and attempts to organize their ranks. It was the generation that matured just before the Great Depression who worked to achieve a higher standard of living and security for their members. It was in halls and places like Mesaba Park that immigrant communities could sustain and pass on to the next generation their culture while participating in the larger “progressive” culture.

Paul Seeba sang his song “Science Fair” in the Eveleth Great Northern Radio Show about Mesaba Park, which includes references to an FBI presence on the Range. This isn’t fiction:

Although the 1930s did represent a high-water mark in unionizing and politicizing workers, the dream of the greater advancement of the working class lived on at Mesaba Park. Because of this, the Park came under attack during the hysteria of the anti-Communist McCarthy period of the 1950s. People who came to the Park were harassed by FBI agents who parked outside the gates and recorded license numbers from cars that drove in. During that period the co-op movement lost strength and some co-ops disbanded, further weakening support for the Park. Despite the climate of fear and intimidation, the Park persisted through this dark period.

Today, the park is one of few remaining cooperative parks from this area out of hundreds around the country.

Mesaba Co-op Park, 1937

I always like learning new things, which this article delivered. North Star Lake, site of the Mesaba Park, represents a site of geological significance.

Mesaba Park in the early post-glacial time was actually the shoreline of a large glacial lake to the south known as Glacial Lake Upham. This shallow lake was large, extending as far east as Cotton and to the south and west to Floodwood and Grand Rapids. In the present, this ancient lakebed is known as the Toivola bog basin, just to the south of the Park. North Star Lake [the lake within Mesaba Co-op Park is named for its star shape] is a remnant of this glacial lake. The lake was created when a large block of ice melted that was embedded into the shoreline.

Having grown up in places like Zim, and the scrub brush south of Eveleth, I now know that I was raised at the bottom of a lake. If you’ve ever flown into the Hibbing airport from Minneapolis you know the land I’m talking about.

As temperatures warmed from the last Ice Age the lake dried up, leaving behind swampy lowland that was teeming with game and rice. The first peoples, called Paleo-Indians in the story, moved in and lived on the land for thousands of years. Though much is unknown about these people, archeology and oral history suggests that at least some of them would become the Dakota people, whom Europeans first encountered in areas near here.

The 84th annual Juhannus (Midsummer) Festival will be held at Mesaba Co-op Park this weekend June 21-23.

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