COLUMN: Pioneering Range leader speaks of history, hard times

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Some additional notes that didn’t make the cut for print are at the end.

Pioneering Range leader speaks of history, hard times
By Aaron J. Brown

In 1978 women had been working at Iron Range mines for just a few years. The region hurtled out of a decade of relative prosperity after the great taconite experiment had proven wise. This was the year Lona Minne, a 35-year-old township clerk from Stuntz Township, was elected as the first woman to represent the Iron Range in the legislature.

Minne, now Lona Schreiber, is remarried and lives in Brooklyn Park. She spoke to me last weekend from her place south of Hibbing, the town that now includes Stuntz. She recalled her first election, a five-way DFL primary including incumbent Rep. John Spanish and current Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam), then a teacher at Hibbing High School, who has represented neighboring District 3A since 2006. Schreiber said her gender wasn’t an overt part of the campaign, at least not at first.

“I tried to downplay it,” said Schreiber. “There was a screening by some feminist groups and I don’t know that I scored all that highly. I couldn’t be radical. Once I was elected the [Equal Rights Amendment] was a big deal along with a number of other issues, such as comparable pay for comparable work. The librarian in Hibbing with a college degree was making less than the guy riding the garbage truck and it wasn’t fair.”

She said her early years in the legislature provided an unexpected opportunity to make a difference for women, particularly on equal pay, which she was proud to do. Being the first woman from the Range was a much bigger deal among metro lawmakers than it was on the Range, she said. Nevertheless, critics in town let her know that they thought this married mother should be home in Hibbing, not pursuing the grueling legislative schedule in St. Paul. Her first term included an even DFL/GOP split and six special sessions.

“I felt such guilt,” she said. “I would bake and cook for the kids all the time when I was home, but I could only do so much. It was very difficult to balance.”

The prosperity seen at the start of Schreiber’s term would soon end.  Schreiber would serve throughout the 1980s, watching Butler Taconite close to the west of her District 5B and mines across the region shed thousands of jobs.

“I remember all the parents and others looking for work for family members,” she recalled. “That was upsetting.”

She said some opportunists would pitch expensive solutions to the Range’s economic problems, which usually delivered more profits for them than real jobs for Rangers.

“We would have to say, ‘the candyman is coming.’ We would have to be the gatekeepers on this,” she said.

Schreiber described how home values plummeted on the Iron Range through the decade. “A lot of folks found they owed more on their mortgages than the houses were worth on paper.” The similarities to the housing crisis in the recent economic drop were not lost on her.

“I think the Range has experienced economic booms and busts for so long that I don’t think there’s a resigned attitude when people lose jobs, rather a resilience and toughness that I don’t observe in the metro area,” said Schreiber. “My observation is that in this last bad slump the Range didn’t experience the same downturn. I think the Range has an inborn ability to weather some of these bad financial problems.

“I’m very optimistic about the Range,” she said. “I wish things were better, but if more of us former Rangers decide to move back we can help the economy.”

Rep. Carly Melin’s victory in this month’s special election to replace former Rep. and current IRRRB commissioner Tony Sertich hearkened some of Lona Minne’s 1978 win. Like Schreiber, Melin told me that her gender was a bigger point of discussion outside the Iron Range than it was here.

“Maybe there is still some sexism here but we’ve come a long way since Lona was in office, since [the Eveleth Mines case],” said Melin. “We’ve come far. Now we can show the metro area some of this progress.”

Lona Minne may have piloted a difficult path in 1978, an unknown journey of whispers and economic hardship. But thanks to her story Melin made only a small amount of history when she was sworn in last Tuesday. She became the first state representative sworn in at Hibbing City Hall and the second of what will become many female lawmakers from the heart of the Iron Range.

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


I couldn’t fit all of my conversations with Schreiber and Melin into a short column like mine, so here is some bonus content:.

In describing a recent tour of Hibbing Taconite with IRRRB and other House members, Melin sees some of the same encouraging signs as Schreiber.

“It was good to see they’ve hired a lot of younger people, a lot of the drivers of the big Cats are women,” said Melin. “We’re going through tough economic times but hearing some of the numbers is good. There’s hope that things aren’t as bad as the 1980s and that things are getting better.”

Like most matters of sociology Iron Rangers talk about matters of gender politics and social progress in hastened terms, they way you’d describe a rash. For better or worse the Range demonstrates progress in its own time. Maybe the challenges of living and working here have always required more attention.

When asked, Schreiber said she only had one piece of advice for Melin as she starts her new job, and it has nothing to do with gender.

Answer all your constituent mail,” said Schreiber. “Don’t forget the folks at home. Always answer the letters and phone calls. That’s more important than almost anything else.”

Other notes:

  • Schreiber said that her primary campaign didn’t include much talk about gender but that some underground negativity emerged after she won the primary. Most of this came in the form of anonymous letters.
  • Though there was no Republican running that year, Rep. Spanish ran a write-in campaign against Minne after losing badly in the primary. 
  • At one point Christian fundamentalists with the then-emerging “born again” movement organized a meeting to “testify” against Minne and pray for her defeat in 1978. The talk centered mostly on her being a mother who was not home with her kids.
  • Melin said that gender politics in her 2011 race weren’t much of a factor, nor have they been a big part of her life. “I come from a family where women have been making big decisions for generations.”


  1. I appreciated learning this history . I moved here on 1977 so I don’t have a perspective on the history of that time.

    I sometimes think ot is wrong of me to be critical of SP because she isn’t home with her kids, but I guess the difference is that they were part of her shtick.

  2. The boom/bust cycle has been with us since I can remember. My father and our neighbors were on and off work for a large part of the 60’s. We’ve been able to handle that pattern in the past by banning together and everybody in the neighborhood helped each other. Those days are behind us now. We live in a “how about me/I need mine” era. Thanks to the “safety net” mentality where everyone is guaranteed a job, right to unionize and work, whether you work hard or not. My father worked in the mines prior to unions, his line was “unions were the best thing for the mines at the beginning, became the worse thing for the mines in the end”. This coming from a man who went to hiring shack every morning hoping to get chosen for a job for the day when he was a young man. I was working at MinnTac when women came into the mines. I was appalled by the language used not only around them but directed at them. My Dad would’ve beaten me to a pulp, even at my age, had he heard me say anything like that around a women. Crazy times on the Range, but some of my most vivid memories of growing up a Ranger.

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