‘The ore won’t burn up, won’t go out of fashion’

James J. Hill / Wikipedia

James J. Hill / Wikipedia

A friend of the blog recently sent me an old book: “Duluth and St. Louis County Minnesota: Their Story and People,” edited by Walter Van Brunt and published by The American Historical Society, 1921.

The 1890s in northern Minnesota were historic for transfer of public lands to lumbermen. In process, lumbermen either discovered ore or realized that ore was there. In this manner, the lumber powers of the 1890s became the fee holders that, to this day, have profited most from the advance of iron mining in the 20th Century.

From the book:

“[The] narrative by Mr. Pardee gives the reader an intelligent idea of the fundamentals of Hibbing history. The timber barons were the land barons, and are the lords of the manor today. They, or their heirs, are still enjoying the favors of Fortune, without risk or labor. A feeholder, royalty taker, has an enviable existence. “The ore is found, and he may, therefore, sit at his ease; the mining company will mine it for him.” If the mining company should fail, the feeholder need not worry. Another operators will “turn up.” Meanwhile, “the ore will keep.” As James J. Hill once said: “The ore won’t burn up, and it won’t go out of fashion.” His treasure is moth and rust proof.

That was the happy psychology of the land baron, the feeholder. The tragic failures of Mesabi history have been among the operators, the mining men; the great fortunes yielded by the Mesabi have gone to the land barons, the feeholders, mainly.

This was written in retrospect, in 1921. It was not a controversy, but a matter of historical understanding that mining in and of itself doesn’t give power and profit: controlling the minerals *before* they leave the ground does.

Is this understanding widely held among local leaders in 2014 as the Iron Range continues to look toward mining for our economic future? It seems not.

If the minerals are there, and it’s economically viable to mine them responsibly, and the minerals are really needed; they can and will be mined. But panic and desperation won’t help. If the minerals are extracted and we get a few years of moderate prosperity, before being dumped out on the same street, have we gained anything?

The ore still won’t burn up. And it still won’t go out of fashion. But if you don’t have the money to sit back and think in decades, you best get into another line of work.

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