MinnesotaBrown’s Top Posts of 2017

This sign marks the end of our township road. MinnesotaBrown.com World Headquarters lies just beyond these trees. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Farewell, 2017! Another future year over and yet still no flying car in my garage. Nevertheless, the Minnesota Vikings are contenders and Donald Trump is President of the United States, so the past would still be baffled by our present.

Let’s take a look back at the year that was on MinnesotaBrown.com.

We cover news, politics and culture in Northern Minnesota. On that front, it was a full year.

Here on the Iron Range, mines reopened and entered full production. High ore prices created optimism in iron mining. But in other sectors of the economy, trends continue to create disparities between classes. Retail stores and restaurants suffered. Communities still struggle to keep institutions going amid aging demographics and changing society.

Politically, the region finds itself divided among ourselves and from the rest of the state. Controversial copper-nickel mining proposals — stymied by the outgoing Obama administration; bolstered by the new Trump administration — remain years from opening and highly dependent on volatile international mining markets. Nevertheless, newspapers, coffee klatches, and public officials can talk about little else. We endeavored to broaden the conversation here at the blog this year; however, most pews remained empty at this backwater church.

The author reacts to the yearly site traffic report.

MinnesotaBrown.com pulled in 267,000 page views in 2017. That’s marks a significant drop from the previous year, almost 30 percent. I hypothesize a few reasons why this happened:

  1. I posted 283 items, about 20 percent fewer posts than last year. I’m working on a book and continue to write and produce a radio show. I had to reduce production for my own sanity. Fewer posts means fewer views.
  2. Organic web traffic trends continue to change. People spend far more time on social media. While I have a social media presence (3,778 Facebook followers; 3,578 on Twitter), engagement on Facebook or Twitter does not directly translate to clicks. A post that draws 50,000 Facebook views might only lead to 1,000 actual clicks. I’ve concluded that most of what happens on social media stays there, and people spend more time on social media than on visiting specific web sites like this one.
  3. I always do a little worse during non-election years. And my page views weren’t struck by any insane Brangelina lighting this year.
  4. The world is sick. For the sake of my own mental health, I’ve tried to focus on positive messages, useful observations, and interesting historical stories. This is click poison. You want red meat and screaming. Not “you,” of course, but “all those other internet users.” Anyway, this site has a dedicated community, and I appreciate YOU more than the casual drive-by screamer or head-nodder.

One positive note, the average time users spent on the  page increased to 2:24 per visit. That means more people took time to fully read one or more posts when they where here. Quality, not quantity? Well, we need both if daddy’s gonna buy shoes, but we’ll take what we get. I am in this for years, not dollars. I continue to believe I am writing relevant material about a relevant place for relevant people. The work speaks for itself.

So, on to the top posts! A note on the methodology. These represent the top posts in terms of page views. However, a number of posts about similar topics ended up in the top 25. So I reduced the list to 20 and lumped similar posts together with “related top posts.” A bit of a cheat, but it reads smooth.

1 — Iron Range Fourth of July 2017
Always one of my biggest posts, my annual listing of Iron Range July 4 parades, street dances and fireworks displays scored the top spot this year. Independence Day on the Iron Range remains a cultural touchstone that unites us, even when we’re divided by everything from politics to pickup trucks.

2 — ‘All-218’ final for state high school boys hockey title
Both teams in the 2017 AA Minnesota State High School League boys hockey tournament were from the famed 218 area code of Northern Minnesota. This is extremely rare in the modern era. I wrote a post after the semis and it took off like some sort of flat disk propelled along a smooth, slippery surface by swinging a curved stick of some fashion.

3 — Culver’s to open in Grand Rapids
Wisconsin-based fast-food chain Culver’s opened a new restaurant in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, this year. If you like American-style greasy cheeseburgers and cold treats, you’ll like Culver’s. They serve frozen custard instead of soft-serve ice cream, which is a flavorful twist. My in-laws warned that my wife’s uncle had a heart attack the year after they opened a Culver’s in his hometown. Well, I’m happy to report no heart attack yet. But next year? Not impossible.

4 — Outsider bid pulls off upset in Essar bankruptcy auction
So, there’s this huge vein of iron ore outside Nashwauk. Lots of people have mined it over the years, most recently Butler Taconite which closed in 1985. Ever since Butler closed, the persistent notion has endured that one could mine the quality taconite there and process it into higher grade iron ore products. Essar Steel Minnesota went so far as to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into a plant, but went bankrupt before finishing construction. A new company, Chippewa Capital Partners, won the bid for the project in bankruptcy court this year, but Cleveland-Cliffs still wants a taste of the action.

Gov. Dayton OKs Chippewa Capital Partners plan
‘Three’s company” in Essar bankruptcy case
Another salvo in Cliffs, Mesabi Metallics iron ore war
Land deal gives Cliffs edge on Nashwauk mine

5 — Boomtown Brewery to open in Hibbing at former Zimmy’s location
Before it closed two years ago, the former Zimmy’s in downtown Hibbing was a cool place that brought people from all over the world to the heart of Bob Dylan’s hometown. The proprietors of the Whistling Bird in Gilbert and Boomtown in Eveleth bought the place this year and will open a new restaurant and brewery there any day now. (Seriously, they’re almost ready). The new Boomtown captures the popularity of local craft breweries and will add a new dinner restaurant to a town that could use some shaking up.

6 — Animation depicts Hibbing’s new Beltline roundabout
This year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation opened the new Highway 169 roundabout in Hibbing. In Hibbing, you typically open conversations with commentary on the weather before moving on to business. However, in 2017 you would open all communication with expressions of fear and anger about the new roundabout. When I did the Great Northern Radio Show from Hibbing last October, people actually booed the roundabout on first mention. Booed it! But you know what, my commute into Hibbing averages 2-3 minutes shorter than before. And so long as the people ahead of you know how to use the roundabout, it’s remarkably simple and efficient. And no, contrary to rumors, they don’t have to rebuild it in the spring. Big trucks *are supposed* to drive on the raised inside brick lane. It’s OK to still hate it if you want, though.

RELATED: In the Oct. 14 Great Northern Radio Show we did a sketch about trying to move part of Hibbing again using the new roundabout.

7 — ‘Brew World Order’ in Grand Rapids, Minn.
As mentioned, the craft brewery trend finally reached the Iron Range in 2017. Grand Rapids was on track to get two new breweries. However, Rapids Brewing has yet to materialize. Meantime, what’s mentioned here as Cantankerous Brewing has opened as the Klockow Brewery to early success. They’ve become a popular live music venue and hangout over the last few months.

(PHOTO: Bridge Daze)

8 — Highway 53 bridge opens this week
In terms of things space aliens would have noticed about the Iron Range this year, I’d posit the Highway 53 bridge near Virginia as the biggest story. Now the state’s tallest bridge, this massive $210 million span ushers motorists on the Iron Range’s busiest highway past the back side of a neighborhood no one was supposed to see through the gates of Virginia’s retail sector. It was all part of rerouting Highway 53 for new mining activity near Eveleth. This is the most expensive thing the state will build for the Iron Range for at least a generation. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering given that it is very large, serves as a functional bridge and you barely notice crossing it. You have to get out of your car and hike across the trail to notice the striking view.

Highway 53 bridge name contest down to final vote
Iron Range readies for state’s tallest bridge
New Highway 53 bridge on track for 2017 opening
‘Cool View’ at new Iron Range Highway 53 bridge

9 — Dylan talks hunting, fishing and Northern Minnesota in new interview
The Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, now in his golden years, gives more interviews about his upbringing in Hibbing these days. Each one reveals the common experiences he shares with the guys drinking coffee at the Hibbing McDonald’s right now. He just mines lyrics and hauls a stage show over the road. That’s all.

10 — FARGO, Season 3 premiere: “The Law of Vacant Places”
Noah Hawley’s Minnesota-set “Fargo” aired its third and probably last season in 2017. I again provided Minnesota-centric reviews analyzing not only the artistic merits of each episode, but checking the cultural and physical continuity of the show’s Minnesota details. Season 3 started slow but rallied. Stylistically, this storyline departed from the previous two seasons. I love this show and will miss it. Hawley hasn’t ruled out bringing it back someday, but only if he has the right story.

RELATED: My “Fargo” review page, a Minnesota-centric companion for viewing any of Fargo’s three seasons, whenever you might watch them. And you might enjoy the video I produced extolling my credibility as a “Fargo” reviewer.

11 — Iron Range ore to play big role in #Harvey recovery
A historically bad year for natural disasters in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and along the east coast of the United States prompted much speculation that rebuilding would provide a temporary boom to domestic steel producers. Steel demand has indeed remained higher than usual throughout the year, but hopes of outrageous demand proved to be an exaggeration. The steel market is vast, international and complex.

12 — Trump’s budget betrays rural America
This was my most-viewed newspaper column of the year, showing the demand for political red meat I mentioned above. It was one of the few pieces in which I directly criticized the President. In the time since this column ran, everything I talked about only gets worse. From a tax bill that favors the rich to a health care “fix” that will actually make it worse for middle income people buying their own insurance, Trump’s policies are a con. Lots of people don’t believe me. Time will bear the truth.
Northern MN Trumpism endures for lack of alternative
From pipelines to mines, Trumpism on the march
Analyzing President Trump’s inaugural address
Given my biases, 2017 was a mixture of denial, bargaining and anger. Acceptance? It’s hard to be a historian in real time, but I do believe this will all make more sense eventually. You can’t tell people how to feel.

Craigsville on a Saturday night in 1937. (PHOTO: Russel Lee, U.S. Farm Security Administration)

13 — Cheers to Craigville, where everybody knew your name
Another fun historical piece connecting a Northern Minnesota story to national pop culture. Perhaps you’ve never heard of “Craigville,” an old logging location town along the Bigfork river on the Koochiching/Itasca county line. You’d be well served to learn more. From the turn of the century through the 1960s, this non-town town remained a remote, sometimes lawless escape for roustabouts and young rebels. After writing this I asked my Grandpa Brown, a well-traveled 1950s Iron Range brawler, if he had a Craigville story. He then spun me an elaborate tale of a drunken spin up the one lane road to Craigville, a head-on crash with another drunken set of revelers, and teenage girls sprawled bleeding across the landscape. But everyone was OK. He thinks. The other guy’s girlfriend broke up with him, though. Scarred by what she saw. She’s still alive somewhere. He died some years back. Cancer, you know.

14 — Iron Range newspaper profiles early ‘silence breakers’
The Mesabi Daily News largely suppressed news of sexual harassment at Iron Range mines in the 1980s. In 2017, the newspaper of regional record corrected that wrong with an in-depth profile of Lois Jensen and other miners who successfully sued local mines for better working conditions. In context of the year’s #metoo movement, this stands as a powerful example of change being possible, no matter how difficult it seems at the time.

15 — Leah Phifer announces DFL challenge in MN-8

Rick Nolan

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan overcame a huge challenge winning re-election in 2016 amid a sizable Trump wave in Northern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District. Now 2018 looks more favorable for Democrats, but Nolan may yet face the challenge of his career in a growing two-front battle.

Leah Phifer, a former FBI and Homeland Security intelligence analyst from Isanti, will seek the DFL endorsement. She’s running a campaign that is one part “time for new blood” and another part “run to Nolan’s left” as he tilts toward Republicans on several controversial mining bills. The Democratic Party and its aligned groups will likely seek to help Nolan keep a seat that could be integral to taking over Congress. But dissatisfaction within the DFL mounts, especially among a younger, liberal base in Duluth. Philosophical and political bickering threatens a longstanding labor-liberal coalition on the Iron Range. And Phifer is more than a protest candidate. She carries the profile of a contender, although without the money.

The district is changing. Probably not fast enough for Phifer to win endorsement, but the fact that she’s trying shows how much has already shifted. For Nolan, the threat isn’t Phifer winning. It’s the damage he sustains in the process. I’ve called Nolan “wily” more than once, though.

Leah Phifer


Pete Stauber

16 — Might as well jump: indoor trampoline park slated for West Duluth
So much fun, you have to sign a waiver. No, really. We must insist you sign the waiver.

17 — Truth behind the numbers on mining jobs
Mining was an oversized issue in the 2016 election, not just in Northern Minnesota but across the country. Many people held and still hold earnest belief that a certain course of political action will send tens of thousands of new miners into new mines all over the country. This is quantifiably impossible and a dishonest idea to sell. Automation already changed mining so much that our old notions of what it is and what it does economically must change for everyone’s good.

Pinning hopes to billions we don’t have
In another popular column, I explore the fact that the next few years of mining hopes in Northern Minnesota are pinned to someone (not us) putting billions of dollars into projects for them to actually happen. For most of these projects, the make or break moment will occur in a distant board room, not the legislature or Congress … and sure as heck not related to whether or not your city council signs another letter provided by a lobbyist.
Delays to steel tariffs show complicated problem

18 — Format changes shake up Iron Range radio dial
Several Iron Range commercial radio stations changed hands in 2017. Some took on new formats with new owners. The end result: more consolidation. I’m a local ownership/local operation advocate. Doesn’t do me any good, but that’s what I am.

19 — The pasty, perfect food above ground or below
Another of my favorite columns this year proved popular with readers as well. My ancestral Browns found their way to Northern Minnesota from Cornwall, England, home of the the buttery meat and potato pie known as the pasty. I share some pasty history with breaking news of the pasty’s ascent beyond the surly bonds of Earth.

20 — Blandin layoffs highlight divided economy
The economy is “good.” So why is there so much economic uncertainty in Northern Minnesota? The complicated answer highlights why the simplicity of our rhetoric on the economy will only hurt the people who need the most help.


Favorite overlooked posts

Victor Power

Favorite Columns

I wrote scads of columns repeating versions of my overarching message:

Diversifying Northern Minnesota’s economy should be our top priority, a goal that must originate from within our own communities.

If you want to read that many different ways, peruse the Columns tag. I’ll keep doing this. Sons of bitches, I’m crazy. I won’t stop.

Great Northern Radio Show

Northern Community Radio broadcast three special Great Northern Radio Show events this year. Each airing includes two one-hour episodes themed around the place where we broadcast and the people and things that make it interesting. We bill it as music, comedy and storytelling from your hometown.

We had a hitch in the audio at our first show in Bemidji. It was a great live show featuring an all-star multi-generational band of Bemidji musicians. We lost some of it for rebroadcast, though. We melded the good parts into a single episode well worth your time.

The last two shows were among our best. On June 17, we broadcast from the Reif Center in Grand Rapids. Them Coulee Boys performed, along with violinist Olivia Skaja.

We opened our seventh season at Hibbing Community College, where it all began in 2011. On Oct. 13, Hobo Revival, Pat Eliason and our house band rocked a tight broadcast.

Dig Deep

Did you know I have a regular podcast now? It’s not MinnesotaBrown branded, but I’m doing a political conversation podcast with Chuck Marohn and Heidi Holtan for Northern Community Radio. Chuck’s the conservative, I’m the liberal, and Heidi is the producer. We tear apart a single issue into three short episodes that come out once a month. We’ve been doing this a year now. I’ve heard from people on both sides of the aisle who enjoy the way we do this. Check us out.

Other fun stuff

The Finnish-American club in Hibbing invited me to tell my Gus Hall story in June. They liked it so much they sent up the Finnish “lepakko signal” and I ended up speaking at FinnFest in Minneapolis.

I also spoke at Policy and a Pint, an event sponsored by MPR’s The Current and the Citizen’s League. In the post previewing the event I strained to use a “Hunt for Red October” metaphor.

If you like “best of” posts, read last year’s list.

Whew, I’m spent. You still here? Go home. No, wait. Click on stuff. Just keep clicking on stuff. Then go home.

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