COLUMN: Bringin’ it all back home, again

This is my weekly column for the Nov. 14, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired as a commentary on 91.7 KAXE on Nov. 6.

Bringin’ it all back home, again
By Aaron J. Brown

When you live in the heart of the Midwest, in a little notch of the Rust Belt called the Iron Range, you are accustomed to wanting things back. If you are young enough to have taken a high school computer class in a place like this you almost certainly watched the computers replace your parents. By the time you were old enough to recognize places, those places were changing, moving, closing. And when the Chucky Cheese closed the Chucky Cheese stays closed.

As time passed on the Iron Range first the Woolworth’s, then the Pamida, then the Kmart closed. You watch schools close, perhaps your own, and when your school closed you were lucky if it wasn’t torn down. Mine became a bar. The institutions of your life almost always became something like a tattoo parlor, a pawn shop, or a less practical business that will itself soon close.

The Iron Range is a place where great things happened quickly, not so long ago. Dozens of immigrant groups converged on an unlikely stash of ore and timber in a forgotten region that spent a century along an unknown, barely disputed border between the British Empire and the emerging United States. In the century that followed the Iron Range produced resources that built modern cities, people who revolutionized the American workforce and won World War II. The Iron Range forged the modern age, which now teeters on the brink of a new age. In the skittering debris, even the most sophisticated among us must watch thing leave and want them back.

You might have heard of an authentic Jamaican Restaurant in the Range town of Gilbert called the Whistling Bird. My wife and I went there when we were first married and again every year on our anniversary. Smooth reggae played in low light over delicious tropical entrees. It reminded us that greatness can exist anywhere. Until one year the place seemed just a bit off and closed soon thereafter. I want that place back.

I want the Zim Store, the Forbes Store and the Cherry Store back, all the stores from the places I lived as a kid. I want the Red Owl back, the baseball card shop back, and the five and dimes that my parents went to when they were kids. I want the downtown theaters of the 1950s back, and the opera houses of the 1920s.

Sometimes living on the Iron Range in the year 2010 is only tolerable if you know what used to be here. A proper map of the Iron Range shouldn’t be limited to geography and landmarks, but also time. Layers of paper could be peeled away to reveal the buildings and earth that were once there but now aren’t. Bob Dylan, who’s from here, named an album “Bringin’ It All Back Home.” You can travel the world, but home is where your head is.

Here’s what I don’t want back. I don’t want Cummins Diesel back, or my dad’s lost job. I don’t want the mines back like they were in the ‘70s. It’s impossible and anyway the same things would just happen all over again. I don’t want all my friends who left for the Twin Cities to come back. They’ve moved, become other people. We need people who want to be here.

There’s one more thing we don’t need back, something that can’t be taken away: the future. Some believe the future is fixed in place. Others believe that we can change the future. Regardless, the future will come, its life and its death, growth and decay, new and old. The future is the only true comfort to be found on the Rust Belt, on the Iron Range or anywhere else. Everything else will disappoint. You can’t bring the past back to life. We have only one choice: to want things back, or to make things happen.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. Read more at or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. It is like the song about You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone. …bad grammar and all. I’ve been here since 1977, and I think I raised my kids in the Golden Age of our little town. There were so many more kids in the schools, more stores, even clothing and three hardware and grocery stores, and a theater, in this little tiny town. Well, we all didn’t want it quite enough to just shop in those stores. We just had to have Target, WalMart, and especially the Miller Hill Mall, made more accessible by the nice four lane road.

    Back when my kids were little, US Steel would bring wonderful programs to the schools and libraries. And the wood processing companies would replant after they had clear cut the forest that they owned. Now they just lease, cut, and run.

    Now the only people who can afford to live at the lake are those who are retired from a high income job, or still working in a high income job, so they aren’t at the “cabin” (McMansion) very often. They don’t seem to become part of the community.

    We’ve got too many people who don’t understand the reality of the decline and aging of the population. They want the past conditions to happen now, but that won’t happen. The schools have gotten too small to do right by the present generation of students. The oldsters are fighting to keep the tiny schools open, but combining will at least improve the choices that the students have within the buildings.

    No, “it” won’t come back. We need to accept that and work for the future that fits the current situation, not live in the past with a crappy present.

  2. Wow, you said it better and shorter than I did. Thanks for the comment. Agree with your analysis on this. A tough road ahead, but a worthy goal as well.

  3. Just wondered if you’ve figured out my town. BTW, tomorrow or Tue I’m trying out Verizon for faster internet. I’m getting a thingy that goes into the USB port of the computer. I’ve heard both the good (from the salesman) and the bad (from online contacts,) about this system. Here’s hoping. Running at 42.6 kbps right now and that sucks.

  4. Wouldn’t be Cook by any chance, would it? 🙂

  5. 🙂 and my ‘net connection is 40 kbs today, the worst I’ve had. I don’t know why the dial up keeps getting worse. Good thing I have the accelerator. Now I can leave this with no regrets, even if the Verizon isn’t so wonderful.

  6. I also grew up on the Range- in a time when it was wholesome, family-oriented, and well-educated. We still own a cabin on Big Sturgeon and our family spends countless days and weekends “at the lake”, especially during hunting season. I’ve watched the decline of this town over the years- I barely recognize the people there. I remember going to friend’s homes and hearing their fathers declare that they “wouldn’t take a dime from the government”. They were too proud.

    No more. The pride has left this area, replaced by folks who live on entitlements and can’t understand why they can’t have more. They complain endlessly about their jobs, their situations, but refuse to do anything about it except complain.

    They have NO idea that every dime they take for themselves while sitting home has been earned by someone else. The work ethic is gone. Even those in the mines have become disgruntled- my father in law quit his job as a foreman when he saw the new breed of workers come into his plant. They wanted more pay, less work, more benefits, more time-off. He couldn’t understand their entitled nature and he left.

    A free market allows folks to move, to make the life for themselves that they want. What made the Range a good place was the people, not the location. The government cannot provide what these folks seem to think they deserve. It’s unsustainable. There is no free lunch, and when Americans realize that, only then will we be able to turn this unsustainable ship around. If life becomes equal, then we all live in communism and we all suffer. Anyone who wants to be prosperous has the ability to be- sometimes it means leaving your comfort zone, not sitting around complaining.

    You talk about the future. Can you see what direction your buddy Tom Anzelc wants for this country? No voter ID means more corruption. More perverted sex ed in schools (yes, he’s a proponent) means a loss of moral values in the family. More entitlements only lead to more folks being hooked on the government. It’s all going to collapse. The more we entitle people, the bleaker the future looks.

  7. I was with you for a lot of this, but obviously we part ways at the end of your comment. You feel the need to bring up Tom Anzelc again? What’s the deal, man? Are you the same person who does this every other week? What’s your reason for this pathological focus on my friendship with Tom?

    Minnesota is a state where we make it easy to vote legally. I find much of the criticism of our voting system to be based on the fact that a lot of transients and young people are able to vote when in other states they couldn’t. Partisan groups read into the politics of this reality. I like our system better than most and fail to see the corruption, at least as compared with other states. There will always be a small number of criminals and n’er do wells. Punish them.

    “Perverted” sex ed? Come on, Tom supports sex ed so that students of appropriate ages can make safe choices; so do I. Not relevant here anyway.

    Entitlements aren’t just a Range problem. Systemic entitlement reform is needed. But living off entitlements isn’t such a great life. Furthermore, the most expensive entitlements, the ones that weigh heaviest on the budget, are all medical or Social Security. I don’t have a real good idea of how we end those. The problem is generational poverty and resignation to a lousy life. That’s cultural, not necessarily political. And I hate that as much as you do.

    Listen, I am in the process of going through a mad journey of ups and downs thinking about the future of this place. I no longer have enough energy to bitch about the people who aren’t helping. I am interesting in enlisting those who are.

  8. Two comments:

    Voter IDs. How did we do so well for over 100 years without these cards that are now considered necessities, during a time when the vast majority of our population here were immigrants?

    Looking elsewhere for someone to pay for our stuff: (I’m not calling that entitlements because I want the subject to be wider than that.) Well, yes, I did notice when I first moved here that people in my area were always wanting to get grants for streets, sewers, airport improvements, garbage handling, etc. I always wondered why we weren’t paying for these things “ourselves” but rather trying to get federal money (our own money anyway??? or borrowed money???)

    I think that there are several reasons: first, requirements are stronger now, for environmental reasons, due to poor decisions elsewhere, so we know the consequences of that.

    Second, the property taxes here have actually been quite low*** compared to other places, despite what people say when they bitch about taxes. So to get the money for something, we either look to ourselves or look elsewhere.

    I grew up in a neighboring state. When the streets were upgraded in that big city, the “assessment” went on the property tax bill for the next 20 years. It was high, but supposedly the property value went up because of the streets and sidewalks.

    Another comparison: My mom’s house is about 100 years old, in not so good repair, on a tiny lot, but she has city services in her town of 1500. Besides having taxes quite a bit higher than we pay here for the same size house, she is assessed $80/month for sewer, water, and garbage pick up. She isn’t living there, as she is in the nursing home. If she used more water, the price would be higher! So they are paying for their own stuff, their new sewer and water plant. People on the Range would scream if they had these fees.

    ***BTW, when we moved here, in 1977, the property tax on this place was $29/year. Even then I thought that was criminally low. I believe we need to pay our fair share.

  9. Different Anonymous Aaron…I’ve been busy deer hunting, just north of Wolf Lake trail.

    You shouldn’t be surprised by this commenter though. The majority of folks, including Rangers, think like us Anonymouses. i.e. 58% want obamacare repealed, 37% say it’s ok. You know the many other serious issues imperiling our future.

  10. And down the rabbit hole we go again.

    A majority of Americans want health reform repealed, until the individual components of health reform are explained. Nearly every substantive part of the bill, except for the health insurance mandate (which is despised), has broad support. The mandate is what pays for the popular parts, reducing federal costs of covering uninsured Americans through Medicare and Medicaid.

    You guys sure are wily and rustic, dispensing your supreme knowledge of what everyone thinks, but no amount of bitching about poor people and their poor people ways and the kids these days and the way the world is changing is going to move the immovable objects in this equation:

    *Social Security
    *A vast military that dwarfs anything seen in human history in both cost and powers, per capita.

    A lot of the budget mess has to with health care, which has to do with the cost of health care, which is choking not only the federal government and taxpayers but also private industry. It’s a damn mess that’s been gamed for A CENTURY by insurance companies while the rest of the world was implementing some version of universal care.

    So be pissed about “Obamacare” all you want. Vote Obama out. Replace him with ANYONE from the GOP side and show me how these problems go away. It’s a shell game. Same shit with an extra war thrown in. But by all means, continue to use the president’s name as a pejorative. That’s sure going to win me over, boy howdy.

  11. I should point out, in fairness, that the health insurance bill is loaded with unpleasant language and loopholes for the insurance industry, which was included to get the thing to pass at all. Pure reform, without the gimmickry, is something that the insurance industry won’t allow unless we get wise. Meantime, I’ll accept the new reality that people can keep their insurance even when they get sick and get insurance when they are born with or develop chronic disease. We aren’t barbarians on this anymore, I hope.

  12. And I was going for “feisty” on this response, not intending to get personal. Indeed, I don’t know who any of the anonymous-s are.

  13. I’ve had enough medical procedures to know that something needs to be done about health care costs, etc. But I have to say that even though we have decent health insurance, Obama care is helping us. We’ve been paying to have our kids on our insurance for all the years that they were growing up. They haven’t had any substantial expenses since 1988, except for minor check ups. The last child would be kicked off the insurance under the previous way of doing things, but she really really needs the insurance coverage right now and, because of the Democratic push to have better health care coverage for everybody, she can stay on our insurance. It isn’t easy for a young adult person to find a job that pays a living wage plus benefits, even if that person is a college graduate with tons of great job experience during her teen years. It is hard for me to believe that anybody with substantial experience with the health care system, especially with the expense side, can think that people can get by without insurance. Bills that aren’t paid end up being spread across the society one way or another anyway, so lets do it in an overt manner.

  14. I don’t like the representative form of government any more than you Aaron…I’d prefer some form of totalitarian oligarchy as would you. Why/ Because we both know what’s best for everyone better than they do themselves.

    However, until we get to that, we’ll have to live with what the majority want. At this moment, they don’t want a 2,800 page obamacare law…

    They want our current immigration laws enforced…they want government to stop spending money they don’t have…they don’t want government printing more money thereby reducing the value of all our money…they don’t want guys marrying guys, girls marrying girls and calling it a typical marriage….they don’t want political leaders acting like they’re entitled to their jobs…they don’t want government owning car companys…

    So…we’ll have to go along with them, the majority. Nothing personal, no hard feelings, nothing feisty..just the way it works in our messy democracy

  15. I highly doubt that “they” know what is in that lengthy Obama Care bill any more than some of the elected officials who voted for it without reading it did. Just like the people who want the government to keep their hands off of “their Medicare” didn’t seem to know that it is a government program that they’ve been paying for.

    The problem with the health care reform ideas bandied about by so many people is that they want something for nothing. It doesn’t work that way. People need to pay in to get something out. Don’t expect that health care (insurance) will be cheap when the bills aren’t cheap. Besides, as long as there is such a major shortage of doctors, there will be clinics and hospitals bidding up the salaries of doctors. Then the doctors get into a system where they have to work like crazy to meet the manager’s expectations, and they can’t do the type of medical care that they were trained to do. Then they quit that clinic. Let’s just say that I’ve heard some good stories about such things from reliable sources.

    But back to the other points: Smaller government would, by definition, keep the government out of decisions made in the bedroom. While I might not appreciate other people’s choices, if the government can decide that Tony and Tom can’t have an official relationship, then what would keep the government from deciding that Bill and Susan can’t get married just because they have certain traits? We’ve been there back in history, and many people don’t want to see a return to that era. Likewise for religion: if we let overt Christian proselytizing in our classrooms, then the next thing we know, we have to let in the devil worshipers and the tree worshipers, and whatever else we might not like. This type of thing cuts both ways.

  16. I’m certainly ok with Tony and Tom having an “official relationship”…but geez, calling it marriage? When it gets to the point of Bill and Susan not being allowed to get married just because they have certain traits, we’ll deal with it. Long way off though…

    You raise a very good point in that all these issues cut both ways…I’m listening.

    But I’m sure there’s a middle ground between Judeo/Christian values playing a key role in founding America and the role the tree worshipers played….or Muslims.

    We’ve digressed…You summed it up well in your first post – “it won’t come back. We need to accept that and work for the future that fits the current situation, not live in the past”…(but appreciate it).

  17. Maybe we can leave it at this. Following the logic espoused herein, if the congresses of 2006 and 2008 were elected to pass a Democratic health care bill, which for hook or crook they did, the 2010 congress was elected to address the budget deficit and national debt. Far from implemeting my will on an unwilling population I shall eagerly await serious debt reduction.

    And, full circle, all of this partisan complaining aside, this was a post about the attitudes on the Iron Range, which could use a healthy dose of self-determinism regardless of politics.

  18. Amen, Shalom…makes sense. And once again…grew from it.

  19. Hi Aaron:

    I liked your original post!

    (Awkward silence would sort of go here regarding comments about health-care, immigration, and that all important marriage topic … hmm … “How about those Twins?” …)

    That’s how I feel a lot, too, having lived here my entire life about all the things that “were”. A little sad about things that are gone, but still hopeful about my choice to stay here and be a part of it all.

    I am proud to have grown up here, and I am proud of my choice to stay here.

    Not anonymous,

  20. Thanks, Amy! Yeah, sorry you had to see all this. It gets a little rowdy here after hours.

    I am VERY glad you made the choice you did. There are a few of us out there.

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