Talking Iron Range on Strong Towns podcast

Cooley, Minnesota was an Iron Range location town near present-day Nashwauk, depicted here in Alan Stone's railroad model.

Cooley, Minnesota was an Iron Range location town near present-day Nashwauk, depicted here in Alan Stone’s railroad model.

A while back I had a conversation with my friend and fellow Northern Minnesotan Charles Marohn for his Strong Towns podcast. Chuck is an engineer, planner and nationally-renowned thinker on the topic of sustainable development and small town survival.

Aaron Brown — author, college instructor and radio producer from Minnesota’s iron range — joins the podcast to talk about the history of the Iron Range, economic development issues and cultural obstacles to change. Listen here

The podcast starts out with me telling the story of how the Iron Range got where it is and ends with Chuck and I discussing possible future scenarios for the Range. Over the course of an hour I do a quick and dirty history of the discovery of iron in Minnesota, immigration, the contract labor system, the labor movement, growth of Range towns, the taconite era and the rise of the DFL. I also break down the creation and purpose of the IRRRB and explain how it all leads up to the modern state of Iron Range politics and economics. And that’s just the first half hour!

It’s been a while since I’ve done a long form interview like this and it was great fun. I didn’t use any notes for the history, so there were a couple instances I may have fudged a date or simplified something complicated, but it was good to work that part of my brain again.

Anyway, if you follow this blog or liked my book, you will enjoy this podcast.



  1. Mr. Brown,

    It was a delight to listen to this podcast. I’ve been living in China for the past five years, away from my adopted homeland of the Iron Range (I moved up to the Range from Texas when I was 17). There were a great many though provoking comments, like the Range being a brother to us (something I recently caught myself writing), and how once we leave the area it never leaves us. That’s part of the reason I came across your blog (the other being I was once one of your online students around 2004).

    One of the parts I enjoyed the most was the historical account. While living on the Range, I always found myself befriended by the older generation more than those my age, and got to hear a great many stories. But it hasn’t been until I left that I’ve learned more about the history of the Range. While it was a great history, I found myself rather disappointed. Not with the historical expect, mind you.

    Any great historian learns history in part to apply it to today. And so I was disappointed when I later heard in the podcast, and as I’ve read a great many times, your advocating use of our water to areas that will need water in the future. Perhaps while maybe you never directly said you support it, the tone of your message says otherwise. With such deep knowledge of the history of the Range, and realizing how areas that have resources are so often exploited with very little of the profit trickling back to that area, I can’t see how anyone who wants their children, their children’s children, and so on, would even want others to consider the idea. The Range did manage to do well for a period because of the mines, but the vast majority of that revenue has gone outside the area to support others. Today, as you mentioned in the podcast, taconite mining is even more globalized than the mining of the past. Watching China grow empirically with a front row seat, I see them suffering drought just as California is and can’t help but worry that perhaps the resource which matters most to the Range will be exploited and ultimately leave the area gasping, just as the many fish which are caught on Range lakes.

    The Range desperately needs economic diversification, and could use any sort of help along the way to finding it, but I strongly urge you to keep recommending folks on the Range to support, and develop things locally. Building from within is often slow, but it is how all great things have started.

    • Hi Clinton — Thanks so much for the thoughtful response. To be clear, I do not advocate exporting Minnesota’s water to other locations. When I refer to our water as a resource I am referring to the fact that our water in the ground will make Northern MN an attractive place to live when other areas find it difficult to sustain themselves. Any extrapolation from this basic idea is not my view. For the last 10 years or more I’ve advocated homegrown economic diversification and innovation in my writing and work. Yes indeed, I aim to continue. Thanks!

  2. Ah, I apologize for my misunderstanding your meaning. Thank for you clarifying. Perhaps the nuances of the word resource. I automatically think of a resource as something to be extracted, and likely to be profited off of somewhere else.

    Thanks for keeping up the good work and planning to continue doing so. I only bother myself to read two blogs on the internet. So you’ve earned my praise and admiration!

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