History echoes through Iron Range politics

This image from the Minnesota Historical Society depicts John, Leonidas and Alfred Merritt exploring the Mesabi Iron Range in 1890. Albert Merritt’s grandson Grant writes about their travails and more modern concerns in his recent book “Iron and Water.”

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

In 1887, the Merritt Brothers and a crew led by Capt. J.A. Nichols discovered rich hematite ore under 14 feet of mud near the future townsite of Mountain Iron. After three years of wading through stinking mosquito swamps, alternating with hellish winter conditions, these men turned hope of discovering the Mesabi Range into reality.

Almost 30 years later, in 1916, Slovenian immigrant Joe Greeni stood in line to find out how much he’d earn in pay that week. He would utter the words “To hell with such wages. We’ve been robbed long enough. It’s time to strike.” Thousands would join him, shutting down all the mines on the Mesabi.

These moments shaped Iron Range history, leading to the Iron Range present. Not because they were successful at first. The Merritts would be undercut by John D. Rockefeller. The IWW strike of 1916 would be broken. Instead, these events reflect the twin human desires for materials and quality of life that still spark political action today.

Two new books from the University of Minnesota Press helped inform this view. Gary Kaunonen’s “Flames of Discontent: The 1916 Minnesota Iron Ore Strike” explores the conditions that created the largest labor uprising in Mesabi Range history.

“Iron and Water” by Grant Merritt

Meantime, Grant Merritt — grandson of Alfred Merritt — writes “Iron and Water,” detailing his family’s personal relationship with the iron ore business and his own efforts to balance mining with environmental protection as a government official.

Taken together, these volumes cast long shadows over current events.

“The reason I wrote the book is that I wanted to correct what many historians got wrong,” said Merritt when I talked to him on April 26.

He argues that financial records clearly show that Rockefeller mislead the Merritts, causing them to sign an agreement that was unfavorable to them. In years since, however, some historians portrayed Rockefeller as a financial genius. He simply took over for the small time Merritt family. Merritt obviously doesn’t see it that way.

“My dad had the great quote,” said Merritt. “He said the Merritts would have done a lot of good things for Minnesota had the money not be sucked out to Pittsburgh and New York. That’s one thing I’ve thought about all my life. On the other hand it’s certainly a joy to have known what they did. They certainly persevered and perseverance is one of the things I talk about in my book and applied to the work I did on Reserve Mining, going after them full tilt.”

See, Merritt would go on to become the commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. This made him a central figure in the efforts to stop Reserve Mining from dumping its tailings into Lake Superior. This scion of the first family of Minnesota mining had come to see regulation as a necessary part of the business.’’

“[In the late 1960s] we didn’t have regulations,” said Merritt. “We had a framework, but no regulations. We didn’t have regulations on asbestos or air emissions.”

And they had scant rules protecting Lake Superior from toxic dumping. Originally, the MPCA worked as a board of stakeholders who each offered their views on what would be appropriate environmental policies. In that structure, most modern regulations emerged being behind strong public support.

“We weren’t seeking to shut down the mine we just wanted to give them time to go to land,” said Merritt. “Every other taconite plant had a tailings basin. Nowadays you could build a better one with a liner but it was still much better than what they had at Reserve.”

If the Merritt story shows the need to balance the demand for ore with impact on the land, the story of the labor movement adds human needs to the equation.

“Flames of Discontent” by Gary Kaunonen

There, Kaunonen — a resident of International Falls with eastern Mesabi Range family roots — argues that the 1916 strike played its role in the development of our modern consciousness.

“If the 1916 Strike has one overarching, prescient lesson for today’s Iron Range workforce, it would be that the United States’ union movement shouldn’t just be about jobs,” Kaunonen told me in an e-mail. “That’s the proximal pitfall to avoid — defining a union movement with a unilateral goal. So often we tend to conflate ultimate, long term goals with a proximate, fixed short-term perspective.

“What happened in 1916 was organic, it was local, and it was multi-faceted in relation to its goals,” continued Kaunonen. “The strike wasn’t just about jobs, it was about so much more — better standard of living, opportunities for coming generations, better working conditions, and of course increased pay. It was a strike, and a movement, to transform the whole lives of those who lived on the Range.”

And while that strike failed in the short run, Kaunonen argues that it accomplished many of those goals in the long run.

In today’s discussion of labor issues, the refrain “jobs, jobs, jobs” has replaced talk about long term upward mobility for workers and their children. Kaunonen points out a quote from U. Utah Phillips: “Unions that insist on defining the labor movement [strictly] through jobs should take the union sign off the front of their building and put up a sign that reads ‘Employment Agency.’”

In other words, people came to Northern Minnesota to find the materials that made America great. But titans took the wealth. The workers prospered through the rise of the American middle class, but now that wages and quality of life are stagnant, a “job” isn’t enough. You don’t need to wonder how this turns out. Merritt and Kaunonen each argue in their own way that the past provides guidance.

We see history echo through Iron Range politics, even if we forget the original factors that created it. That only means we’ll repeat it. History provides ample evidence of that.

Merritt will launch his book June 7. He’ll be at the Zenith Bookstore on Central Avenue in Duluth from 7-9 p.m. on Tuesday, June 12. Kaunonen’s book won the 2018 Hognander Award for Minnesota History. His next event is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 16, at Scott and Morgan Books in Cambridge, Minnesota.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 3, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


Comments

  1. Brian Merritt Bergson says:

    Your caption on the photo is wrong it is Alfred. I’m Alf’s great grandson.

    • Thanks for the correction. I’m not sure if that was an error from the source or if it was an error I introduced, but I’ve since corrected it. It’s a cool picture regardless.

  2. Elanne Palcich says:

    These books are timely, as the Minnesota political structure is committed to selling us out to foreign mining conglomerates for a handful of jobs.

  3. I’ve interacted a little with Grant Merritt and he seems like someone to take seriously. I’ll order the book.

  4. Joe musich says:

    Thank Aaron

    Both books will be in my library….

    This statement in the article is so very important…”….In today’s discussion of labor issues, the refrain “jobs, jobs, jobs” has replaced talk about long term upward mobility for workers and their children. Kaunonen points out a quote from U. Utah Phillips: “Unions that insist on defining the labor movement [strictly] through jobs should take the union sign off the front of their building and put up a sign that reads ‘Employment Agency.’”

    In other words, people came to Northern Minnesota to find the materials that made America great. But titans took the wealth. The workers prospered through the rise of the American middle class, but now that wages and quality of life are stagnant, a “job” isn’t enough. You don’t need to wonder how this turns out. Merritt and Kaunonen each argue in their own way that the past provides guidance….”

  5. Grant Merritt says:

    Thanks, Aaron for covering “Iron and Water” so well. And I enjoyed your
    summary of Gary Kaunonen’s book. It made me think of the very early
    involvement of the United Auto Workers in environmental issues. The
    President of the UAW Walter Reuther appointed Olga Madar as Vice
    President and head of conservation for the UAW in the 1960″s. In
    1972 she sent me a letter that she was mailing to “Friends of Lake
    Superior” inviting them to a dinner and meeting the night before
    the International Joint Commission hearing on Dec. 7, 1972 in
    Duluth. The purpose of her meeting was to prepare for testimony
    at the IJC hearing. My book explains how this led to the
    findings that Reserve Mining’s taconite tailings contained asbestos.
    What a contrast between the UAW and the position of the United
    Steelworkers Union, which was opposing on-land disposal of the
    Reserve tailings,

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