A better welcome wagon means fewer farewells

This is my weekly column that ran in the Sunday, April 19, 2009 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Ironically, this piece written in an 18th century format was inspired by a prompt from the ProBlogger 31 Days to a Better Blog challenge. What a world!

A better welcome wagon means fewer farewells
By Aaron J. Brown

This week we learned that very dear friends of ours are moving to the Twin Cities. They aren’t the first friends to go. Being a fifth generation native Iron Range professional means watching talented people leave all the time. Our Christmas card list is checkered with strange addresses of former co-workers and departed friends who light out across the world after living here. And that’s not even counting the classmates who couldn’t find work after college. Those folks are everywhere, either mournful of their lost roots or embittered by the slow-changing society of the region that cast them out.

That’s the sad reality and the pressing challenge of the Iron Range and its people. It’s probably true of any Rust Belt city or rural region, but that’s no comfort. I know plenty of folks who would say that people don’t like what they see on the Range they should go. “Love it ‘r leave it.” Well, that works for country songs, but not for industrial regions in the 21st century. “Love it ‘r leave it” is a recipe for economic ruination that will creep across the Range until our towns are boarded up.

Iron Rangers often refer to out of town people who move here for jobs as “packsackers.” Only their children, if born here, may be called “pure” Iron Rangers. I wasn’t able to isolate the precise origin of the word “packsacker,” but the word as it is now used duplicates the word “carpetbagger” from the American South during Reconstruction. Carpetbaggers were northern opportunists who came to the South to work lucrative jobs that usually involved having authority over recently humiliated Southerners. I don’t know that “Post Civil War South” is where we want to go, sociologically or economically speaking.

I found a new blog last week written by a self-described Iron Range packsacker (www.mesabimisadventures.wordpress.com) who explains her experience this way: “Packsackers seem to shock the natives – ‘we know why we’re here, but why are you?’” We need to get over this shock. The Iron Range must attract new, creative people to augment our population and support our cherished institutions. Along those lines, I’ve put together some thoughts on what we need to do to welcome more (not less!) packsackers to the Iron Range.

1. Don’t call them packsackers.

Yeah, I’ve used the word about 100 times so far. I’m working on it! It’s good to be proud of your Range roots, but it doesn’t help that every new Range resident I’ve met usually describes being called “packsacker” within their first week in country. The term says “go away.”

2. Talk to the new people.

I’ve heard plenty of stories of people who visited the Range and never had a single person reach out to say hello. It wasn’t that Rangers were unfriendly, it was just that everyone assumed someone else would do the hard work of figuring out who these new people were. I’ve learned that Iron Range culture can be explained by its history, geography and economy. Tell people the story so they know. If you don’t know the story, learn it yourself.

3. Be willing to change.

New people bring new ideas. Young people often seek change. To dismiss new ideas out of hand is to tell the new people and the young people to leave. Sound familiar?

4. Make our communities inviting and vibrant.

Economist Richard Florida describes the “Creative Class,” the creative people who generate economic growth and wealth in the 21st century economy. These people go where they feel that their skills are valued and that tacking great challenges equals great rewards. Our towns need to be wired, attractive and ready for new growth in their cores and on their edges.

5. Support the arts. Even on weeknights or when it’s nice outside.

This one is selfish. I’ve been involved with so many arts and culture events that suffered from low turnout because it was a long weekend or just plain warm outside. Supporting the arts begets more art. The arts attract creative people while telling the story of this area to the outside world. If the outside world sees the Iron Range as a unique, historic but changing region full of opportunity it can grow.

No one has to follow these suggestions. Things can more or less continue as they have. A handful of hearty Rangers might remain here 100 years from now, polishing the robots that will mine the ore and extract the fresh water. Others will find work serving the tourists and seasonal residents, hoping that one day their children could be so fortunate as to leave with the masters at the end of the season.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more or contact him at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. His new book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.


  1. I guess I’m a packsacker who stayed 30 years. Well, actually, I’m sort of north of Da Range in the Friendliest Small Town Ever. But I’ve heard and experienced the ha?-packsacker sentiments. A new friend who was here on a one year internship was leaving. A long time resident said that she hadn’t become friends with her because why bother becoming friends with someone who would leave anyway? But she felt this way about another acquaintance who had already been here 10 years.

    I’ve heard that one of the reasons the Range cities have a hard time keeping doctors who move here is because the community isn’t warm and friendly to the doctor’s families.

    And, yes, when I am in a social group with people who have always lived here, the favorite topic seems to be about old neighbors and who they are now married to and what happened to their children and dogs. That’s certainly a turn off to those of us not born here, even if we’ve raised our own kids here.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.