Notes on a changing Iron Range

Aaron J. Brown

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

The wheels of fate keep turning on the Iron Range. Over on the east central Mesabi, Mountain Iron-Buhl, Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert schools are considering a new shared high school. We await resolution of some sort on expensive, long anticipated mining projects like Essar Steel and PolyMet, all while the reality of our lack of economic diversity settles into aging communities. In short, we watch the Iron Range of the 20th Century gently slip away, buried 14 years under the present century within which we’ll live the rest of our lives.

What kind of century will this be?

It’s hard not to think about all these changes after weeks in which Hibbing marks the passing of two of its most influential citizens of the past century: Dr. Ben Owens and Gene Nicolelli.

Owens was the face and the voice of Hibbing’s medical community for 50 years. He dedicated his career and expertise as a doctor, and also his own resources and free time to the act of building a healthy modern city. In northern Minnesota, Hibbing represents a vivid beacon of medical care and service, employing more people in that industry than the local mines. It’s hard to imagine that happening without the work Owens did. How many lives did he save?

And what can be said about Nicolelli? He’s known for his work to single-handedly create the Greyhound Bus Museum, and it truly was a one-man mission in the early years. But it’s not just Gene’s love of the Greyhound story that drove him, it was a love for his community and its story. He could have retired after years as a grocer, kick up his feet and relax; but instead he spent the last several decades of his life working even harder, almost entirely for free. A modern museum stands in north Hibbing because of him, along with his work on the city council, boards and his charming cable access talk show (of which I was honored to be a guest on more than one occasion).

Regrettably, my last talk with Gene was several years ago: in his office at the bus museum. His characteristic voice and elaborate gestures filled the room. He was concerned that no one would take up the mantle of keeping Hibbing alive.

So, what can we do to make the Iron Range of the 21st Century the kind of place these men, and countless other men and women, believed in?

Action. Make your passion something the community can share. Invite others into your world. Give your time to something that matters to you. Include your kids. Welcome new people. Invest your time, dollars and hopes into the world around you.

Forgive the plug, but if you’re a writer or poet, even if only aspirational, you might consider entering the 2014 B.J. Rolfzen Memorial Dylan Days Writing Contest. Dylan Days 2014 is May 22-25 and, among many live events, features a published literary journal and reading here in Hibbing. You can find out how to enter the contest that bears Rolfzen’s name at

The contest was named for another influential Hibbingite, the late high school and community college English teacher B.J. Rolfzen. Rolfzen influenced two generations of Iron Range students to explore language, poetry and the meaning of life. Among his pupils: a young Robert Zimmerman, now known the world over as Bob Dylan. (And more recently for selling American-made Chrysler automobiles during the Super Bowl).

Having had the honor of several audiences with B.J. Rolfzen, it seems to me that the true miracle of the Iron Range is not just the ore that we mined over the last century, or in the century to come. Rather, the miracle is the way that poor, hungry people became successful, creative Americans who change the world with their lives. That’s what B.J. believed. And also Ben Owens and Gene Nicolelli. I don’t think we should ever forget that.

Change is all around us, but that’s nothing new. We can be the light keepers, the flag bearers, the builders and the poets; or we can be the logs floating down the river to the mill.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Lori Dowling Hanson says

    Thank you so much Aaron for this article! I was involved with the Essar project as an Itasca County Commissioner and now Polymet with the DNR. I am an alumni of the combined schools of N-K…..and was a 9lb breech baby delivered by Dr. Owens.

    Soo needless to say I can relate to your words and the restlessness of patiently waiting for the ranges next chapters to reveal themselves…..


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