Things You Will See at Your First Iron Range 4th of July

The Eveleth Clown Band performs during the July 4, 2008 Eveleth Fourth of July parade on the Iron Range. PHOTO: M.C. Morgan, Creative Commons license

The Eveleth Clown Band performs during the July 4, 2008 Eveleth Fourth of July parade on the Iron Range. PHOTO: M.C. Morgan, Creative Commons license

Most every little hamlet in Minnesota claims some special Fourth of July tradition. After all, Minnesota was born in the patriotic fervor preceding the Civil War, swaddled in the stars and stripes and raised to feed, build and Bob Dylan-ize America. A territory founded on the cornerstone of community (and large, powerful railroads), the Fourth of July is a special time in the North Star State.

But this time of year always reminds me of the special traditions that exist in my homeland: Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. This mining region in northern St. Louis and Itasca counties is sacred Ojibwa land that became home to immigrants from 43 nations on Earth. About the only thing everyone shared was the desire to have fun and demonstrate patriotism in the middle of the summer. So, sure, we do up the Independence Day parades and fireworks as well as anyone (though the locals would say that’s an understatement). But the entire Iron Range Fourth of July experience? Can’t be beat. It is a wholly unique cultural phenomenon.

Every year at my blog I detail the parades, street dances and fireworks that highlight the Iron Range Fourth of July. For many, especially those who only make one trip “home” from someplace else, these events are the apex of summer.

There’s a flip side, though. These Iron Range expatriates returning to their roots invariably bring new people with them. City people. Farm people. People from other states or even other countries. These new husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends are told precious little about what they will really see until they get here. As such, today I present the following …

Things You Will See at Your First Iron Range 4th of July

  • Everyone Your Loved One Ever Knew
    You know how your boyfriend/girlfriend told you about their first kiss, that jerk in high school, or that neighbor who carries around a bag of fingernail clippings? You’re going to meet them now. They are, more or less, right where he/she left them. And they have names: Jake, Bobby, Suzie, Mary, Tyler, Madison, Tiffany, Jennifer, Lindsay, Lindsey, Lyndsy, Lindsey P., Other Jake. Don’t forget these names, because one or two of them will be in a sleeping bag in your car tomorrow morning.
  • People Drinking More Than They Should In Places They Shouldn’t
    We have these things called “street dances” on the Iron Range during the Fourth of July and several other festive weekends throughout the summer. You will have to squint pretty hard to find any dancing, though. These are really just elaborate excuses to close the main streets of Iron Range towns and drink in public. Police spend the entire year planning how to hold down the number of fights. A good year is one where people don’t refer to the fights as a “melee” in the newspaper.
  • The Old “This” is Now the New “That”
    That place where your new husband or wife used to eat chicken? It became a liquor store when he/she was a child. Now it’s a clinic.
  • People Using Hair, Animals or Clothing to Express Social Disorder
    Whether it’s the lady with a ferret in her shirt, the guy with a bone through his nose or the lady with the skunk stripe down the middle of her head, you’re going to see people who appear in public just once throughout the year. It’s not clear how they support themselves the rest of the time. One theory is that they derive energy from glow sticks and cigarette smoke.
  • Clown Bands
    But, wait. Clowns aren’t known for playing music (true). Clowns aren’t supposed to be drunk (true). Dressing in drag isn’t the same thing as being a clown (true). These paradoxes are all part of the appeal of the Eveleth Clown Band and others like it. Membership in the band is nebulous. Leadership is unclear. The tradition stretches back past Watergate. The quality of the music is tied to an exponent based on the distance of the clown band from a working bar. The quality of the female impersonation is getting better with new technology. One gets a raw, Mardi Gras feeling from Iron Range clown bands. Something is being let loose here, and it’s OK so long as no one ever, EVER talks about it.
  • Cruising As One People
    People often forget that the Iron Range is one distinct region, much like a mid-sized regional city. The only catch is that “da’ Raynch” is organized as a string of small towns along a 130-mile stretch of iron in the middle of the woods. On the Fourth of July, the parochial borders that keep the towns apart disintegrate and roving groups of people intersperse the towns. It’s not unusual to plan a night around two parades, three street dances (and one, maybe two fights).
  • Actual Patriotism
    Never mind the nationalism of some cable news shows or jingoistic bumper stickers one might see in the parking lot, the patriotism of the Iron Range on Fourth of July is real. This region showed record enlistments in all the major American wars since immigrants started arriving 100 years ago. As a people, these new Americans wanted to show everyone they cared about their new country and would serve it to the highest degree possible. Iron Range steel quite literally built America. Despite the economic roller coaster of recent decades, most Iron Range families will tell you of an immigrant grandparent or great-grandparent who saw an impossible dream come true in the United States of America. That truly is cause for celebration.

What are your Iron Range Fourth of July stories?

 

# # #

This MinnesotaBrown classic was originally published July 3, 2014 and is cross-posted with my Up North Report blog at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Comments

  1. Nikolas says:

    This post is so spot on. I grew up in Duluth but my entire family, literally is from the Iron Range. grandpa Joe owned a dry cleaners in Eveleth that is now a liquor store. grandpa Mel worked at EvTac and he and his 5 brothers all served in WWII. My grandma Donna was a state champ swimmer from Gilbert and served in the Marines (she was kind of badass!) My mom and dad are both from Eveleth and brought us to the parade every year and I saw a lot of things you don’t normally see in Duluth, I.e. the clown band. I was served a drink in a bar when I was 11. The bartender thought it was for my Dad. No questions asked. I heard yelling, screaming, sirens, whistles, the distinct sound of tootsie rolls splashing on the concrete, and the sound of pounding drums from the clown band.

    To speak of patriotism in its truest form on the range I’ll share an example from when I was 17. We watched part of the parade at the Eveleth nursing home with my grandma who lived out her last few years there. We were sitting amongst the older folks in wheel chairs who couldn’t walk from their beds to the bathroom safely anymore. I remember the color guard marched by and there were relatives and nurses who helped pull these people to their feet when the flag came by. You could see they were in pain but it was such a priority for them. It’s a sight I’ll never forget, ever.

    Happy 4th Iron Range! I am glad I got to be part of it!

    • This..is beautiful. I haven’t been to my hometown of a Eveleth in 5 years. I’m a nurse now, because of my memories of the nursing home, and it’s nice to hear this place has given you a memory that you also will never forget.

    • Bob Oberstar says:

      Nikolas…I’m a native of Eveleth living in Brooklyn Park 79 years old EHS ’56…I have journeyed back to Eveleth for “the 4TH for at least the past 25 years but won’t be in attendance due some health issues. I’m going to miss standing in front of the Roosevelt Bar with a beer watching the endless parade of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.

      The grandpa you referred to was Joe Bayuk, alias The Pope…I kissed the Pope’s ring on many occasions.

  2. Aaron, you are right on with your post! I am from Aurora originally and have fond memories of the 4th of July. The bed races down the main street, the parade with the bands, the ring toss on the pop bottles, working in the Our Savior’s Lutheran Church food booth, winning money in the kiddie parade because our costume was awesome! Mesabi East and Aurora-Hoyt Lakes High School reunions take place during the 4th celebration and it’s great because we get to see everyone-even if the street dance can be a bit scary! I love the 4th on the Range!

  3. You missed a few things –
    Every person to whom you are introduced is identified by their relatives, their kinship to the introducer, the Location where they grew up, and whose house they live in (the original owner may have been dead for 50 years!)
    Every family has the best recipe for [potica, blood sausage, pasties, sourkraut, rhubarb wine, moonshine…]
    Every bar is referred to by old-timers by it’s original name, even thought it may have been opened and closed under several names since
    In the past, if you weren’t born on the Range to someone who was either born on the Range or emigrated there from Europe, you were referred to as a “pack-sacker” – and it wasn’t a compliment.

  4. Hi Aaron,
    I lived in Minnesota for several years but was never familiar with the Iron Range 4th celebrations until I started working at Ohio University Press and discovered that we have a book about how these unique celebrations incorporate European ethnic traditions in ways rarely seen anywhere else. Thought you might enjoy knowing about it for future posts on your homeland. http://ohioswallow.com/book/One+Day+for+Democracy

    • Thanks Samara. I found this at the library. Seems sort of like the original carnival or Mardi Gras. There is an inverted hierarchy type of thing. This is a good book. Glad I learned about it here.

  5. I grew up in Eveleth. We had the best parade and party on the Range. Clown Band, sawdust pile digs (for coins), shoe races, etc. One year all of the kids present received a Kennedy Silver Dollar. There was a foreign car (80’s Japanese steel crunch) to beat with a sledge hammer, $1.00 per hit. The one rule: when the Clown Band came through the bar, everyone had to pour beer on each other. It was a serious honor to march with the VFW band, and the variety of people, groups, kids in costume, baton twirling troupes, etc. made the parade authentic. While living all over the country, I find the 4th of July to be a private affair of invite only parties with parades of businesses and HS bands. I miss home.

  6. My son who grew up in Eveleth comes home every year from NYC where he lives now to be a part of the Eveleth Clown Band. He always brings friends from NYC home with him. They choose to come to Eveleth over the Hamptons!!

  7. Cheryl Anderson says:

    The Fourth of July in Eveleth is a STRAND family tradition. We gather on STRAND corner, the site of the old STRAND theater! We face into the bright sun, squint, sweat and love it all. of course, the BEST part of the parade is singing along with the Eveleth Clown Band…..Roll out the Barrel, You Are My Sunshine, and others. SEE YOU THERE!!

  8. Steve Johnson says:

    I introduced my TN wife and stepdaughters to Eveleth’s 4th of July a few years back. Let’s just say the “Culture Shock” was a bit much for them to take in. Now my wife is an honorary Ranger, and I’m so proud of my roots.

  9. Barb (Rozinka) Christen says:

    Don’t forget the 2nd floor of the Elks club .my cousin Paula and a few of her friends climbed up and sat on the radiators that are hung on the walls by the ceiling to watch the clown bands final performance of the day. It is an old building and many times I thought the floor was going to cave in from the dancing and amount of people there. You could actually feel the floor going up and down! My mom had her own seat saved for her at the window of the corner bar. Also very few people born there were ever called by their given name. right? Nonnie, Buzz, Mouse, Tuna,Digger, Nonnie etc the water towers used to be named hot and cold.Everyone had a Church and went to them, Catholic (2 Italian and Slovenian (where the Polka Mass was started) Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and a Synogogue hope I din’t miss any I could go on and on. Once a “Ranger always a Ranger! Wanna go show? Love my Eveleth! And the 4th is the best ever! Biwabik isn’t too bad either occasionally made it to Virginia but not often I think its North of Eveleth Ha ha

  10. It’s been 4 years in Southern MN now, and it is my annual rhetoric to the farmland folk that no one does the 4th like the Range. My partner puts on a fireworks show in Hammond MN which is worthy of an Iron Range hoopla; however, there is nothing anywhere down here to rival the Biwabik Calithumpian, the Gilbert 3rd, the Eveleth Clown Band, the patriotic kiddie parades, my parents’ DFL picnic for parade dignitaries and all bipartisan needs for a hot dog, and the mingling of anyone and everyone on the streets, truly celebrating Independence Day. My youngest was crowned First Runner Up for Miss Biwabik this year, which was an enormous warm fuzzy to me, so far from home. Be sure to catch the Karish Berg Families Iron Range humor entry in the Calithumpian parade. Eat your fill of egg rolls and/or fried bread in Gilbert (definitely and). Stand in line Tuesday morning at the Eveleth bloody mary stand, and DO run to Aurora parade line up with moments to spare with whatever costume you can manage because there are prizes to be had! Wave to the Veterans and Auxiliary groups who personify the joy we all feel up North. America Is Beautiful.

Speak Your Mind

*