Speaking the hope of tomorrow’s Northern Minnesota

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

A few weekends ago I found myself in the rural environs of Northome, Minnesota. Two of my sons had a LEGO robotics meet there, an insanely long Saturday of watching LEGO robots intermittently pick things up and put them down again. The occasion left lots of time to wander the halls of Northome School.

Northome is a logging town located in southwestern Koochiching County. I live in the middle of nowhere. Northome is an hour north and west. We followed several logging trucks on the way up the road. Somewhere in the wilderness someone modified a road sign to read “Trucks Hauling Ass.” Towns within 45 miles include metropolises like International Falls, Bigfork and Blackduck. If you know those towns, you’re pretty good at Minnesota geography. Either that or you once got very, very lost looking for Bemidji.

What I noticed pacing the halls was an expression of all things Northome. Where many schools are homey, if a little bland, Northome really lets you know where you are. Taxidermy animals depicted a fascinating natural scene in the library. Memes had been printed off the internet and posted in places of honor, including several devoutly innocent references to “when sermons are too long.” The senior picture of every student who graduated from the school was framed by year. I happened to notice that one of the teachers graduated from Northome because I saw her picture with her graduating class — same year I graduated from a small school 100 miles away.

Not only that, but the walls of the elementary school were painted with elaborate, well-composed murals — some depicting local life, while others depicted the deep sea or deep space. Even the mascots and school logos painted in the gymnasium seemed to be bursting from the walls in a vivid artistic style. The school was small, but used open space to convey freedom of movement.

This isn’t the only school I’ve seen like this. Bigfork and Hill City have a somewhat similar look, and there are likely dozens of others in small towns around Minnesota. Whether they planned it or not, the message a school like this sends is simple: You are in an important, distinct place on Planet Earth — part of the world, not apart from it.

That is such a vitally important message for kids to see. Adults, too.

In recent weeks I’ve been on the post-election bloviation circuit. That is to say I’ve done a number of interviews about the voting patterns, economic outlook and cultural bugaboos of rural Northern Minnesota, the place where I live and work.

There was an hour-long show on MPR last Tuesday. MinnPost. The L.A. Times called the other night.

It’s gone a little like this:

“They voted for Trump.”

“That right. They voted for Trump.”

“It would appear, after a double blind biometric analysis of the voter demographic survey data, that they voted for Trump.”

Why? Oh, reasons and reasons. But no one specific reason, other than people in places like Northome (which narrowly backed President Obama in 2012, but swung to Trump in 2016) responded to Trump’s message that they’d been screwed over and that something should be done on their behalf.

Nevertheless, it’s been an opportunity to talk about some of the issues and concerns I’ve raised here: Rural economic development, diversification and home-grown job growth. But I must admit, the whole conversation has been a slog. After explaining why people in rural Minnesota are so frustrated, people tend to end the conversation with, “Is there *any* good news?”

The answer is yes, of course. I wouldn’t live here or spent my time thusly if I didn’t believe so. But I write for an audience that includes a disproportionate number of Northern Minnesota opinion leaders. Thus, I try to avoid statements that would suggest waiting for some outside force to come in with a magical “duex ex machina” solution to our region’s problems. Hope is a necessary condition, but it’s not a strategy. That’s a vital distinction.

Last week, I suggested that while short term indicators for Mesabi Iron Range mines looked pretty good, long term uncertainty endures. Keewatin Taconite remains closed. The iron mining industry needs billions in investment to make the leap to new technology. One could perceive that as bad news, or an overly cautious attitude, but I’d argue it’s really a sign of opportunity — just not the one people seem to want right now.

Mining may endure for decades to come. So will logging. But most now acknowledge that communities with a single-industry economy will always struggle. From these struggles comes, ever so slowly, the desire to change, or at least accept the eventuality of change.

Perhaps that desire has not yet fully manifested in Northern Minnesota, but it’s starting to. People might not yet know how to break out a new economy, but we’re open to the concept. And we’re looking for examples of how to move forward.

Consider this story by Staci Matlock of the Santa Fe New Mexican, “How a rural town recovered after mining’s death.”:

For many towns, the disappearance of mining has proved a death blow. But Raton’s officials and town leaders have an economic strategy that doesn’t rely on coal, oil or gas — or cannabis, the crop that’s boosted economies just across the border in Colorado. Today Raton is betting on a whole new type of economy, a mix of small manufacturing businesses, health care and specialty services, and hospitality for travelers. Raton may lack a college and expansive recreational facilities, but it has plenty of advantages: lots of water, high speed Internet, a major transportation corridor and cheap commercial real estate – all pluses for a town trying to attract new ventures.

Raton’s leaders also know what they don’t want: One or two big companies that would make the town dependent yet again on one primary source of revenue. “If we had 20 small manufacturers that each employed 20 to 30 people, that would equal the jobs lost when the mines closed,” said Ron Chavez, a Raton city commissioner.

Raton isn’t planning to double in size or restore the boom times of its past. Rather, the town is pursuing a simple, flexible goal to create a sustainable economy and durable, pleasant community where people enjoy life. That’s what people on the Iron Range want, too. You’ll note, we have the same tools available to us that Raton has. Perhaps even more, if you consider the small business lending capabilities of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

In a Daily Yonder article by Lorin Ditzler, we read about Albion, Michigan, where Albion College began renovating dilapidated homes in the former steel town. The private college would then turn the homes around and sell them to faculty and staff at affordable rates. The college also renovated the city’s downtown theater and embarked upon a major program of restoring cultural and economic life to the city. Perhaps not replicable everywhere, this example shows that leadership on these matters doesn’t necessarily have to come from the government.

You can’t start with just money, because no one gives money out of the blue. You can’t start with just some whiz-bang idea, because the old cronies shred those to ribbons. What has to happen is a community awakening. That’s what I saw on the walls of the Northome school, and what I saw last year on the Cuyuna Iron Range.

One of the biggest barriers we face is not in our capabilities, but in how we think and talk about our place.

Case in point, this editorial from the Timberjay. Marshall Helmberger found a section on the Ely Area Development Association website that seemed odd compared to what other small towns say about themselves:

Here, by contrast, is what you’ll find for background at the website for the Ely Area Development Association, which begins with a recitation of the history of declining school enrollment since the closure of the Pioneer Mine. It informs prospective business owners that the community’s population has declined by 28 percent since 1980 and that its percentage of residents living in poverty is well above the state and national average. And to further make the sale, the EADA adds this enticing bit of news. “A survey has revealed that 29 commercial properties are listed for sale on Sheridan Street with still more properties offered for sale on Chapman and Camp streets.  Almost all indices confirm that economic development and job growth in the Ely area is stagnant and in decline.”

If the purpose of the EADA is to actively discourage new business recruitment, information like this should do the job quite nicely. If the group’s volunteers are focused, instead, on sending a political message about the woes of their community, even at the risk of harming economic development, mission accomplished. But if the EADA is actually hoping to attract new business or encourage expansion of existing business, this is entirely counterproductive and it should be removed from the Internet, immediately.

I agree. But more importantly, this sentiment is hardly unusual here on the Iron Range. The region seems almost pathologically fixated on what it was, and on whether or not it can become “like it was” again. As I wrote in one of my favorite columns, desperation must be rejected.

Another recent piece in the Daily Yonder relates this topic. Aaron Phelps, director of an anti-poverty organization in Appalachia, writes “Just Say ‘No’ to Poverty Porn.” That is to say, resist the urge to play into stereotypical fantasies about what it’s like to live in rural places.

Writes Phelps:

We will not discuss poverty without discussing the solution. It’s a disservice and a cause of hopelessness to only showcase what’s wrong without discussing the efforts of the many organizations, local leaders, people, and politicians working to alleviate this issue. We are not just some backwater, woe is me, group of people. The people of Appalachia have heart and we have real solutions coming from inside our borders. We’re making real progress. Yes, we do have less of an advantage than other areas of the country. Yes, we could use more support from outside groups. But we will never have people willing to invest in this area of the country if they think it’s a lost cause, and the portrayal of many media outlets paints us as just that.

No town can ever become what it was. We turn away people away, without even knowing it, every time we throw up our hands, lament the loss of the good old days, and refuse to invest in new ideas. A town or region can, however, realize new purpose and foster community pride. From this will grow a new future, to be tended by our children and their new ideas.

It’s called hope.

That’s what I saw on the walls of the Northome School. That’s what should be on the walls of every school and public place in Northern Minnesota. That’s what should emanate from every one of our pores.

And yes, hope alone is not a strategy.

Recently, I was invited to a book club to discuss my 2009 “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.” The book holds up OK, but I told them I’ve learned a lot more since I wrote it in 2008. One woman asked “If we want the Range to succeed, what should we do?”

I had to think about that.

After a long pause and several bites of food to further delay my answer, I concluded this.


Do something that expresses pride in your community, whatever that means to you.

Starting and maintaining a book club is better than a tapping out a scathing Facebook comment. Forming a group to advance a recreational hobby in your town is better than futilely trying to get some partisan elector from Texas to switch their vote. You don’t control Russia, big city liberals, the EPA, the FBI, and certainly not Donald J. Trump. So make art. Build a machine that works. Fix the broken things you see. And never be afraid to work alongside someone who votes and thinks differently than you.

Pay attention to government, not politics. Mind your manners, not your status. Look for actionable solutions in your community right now. Then act on them. If you want to sign a state or national petition, immediately act on something local after doing so.

If you don’t like organized groups, do something on your own. If you don’t like government, form a private non-profit. If you don’t want to run for office, then form relationships for nonpolitical goals. You can always change your mind later! Or not!

As another mural on a school wall reads, this one at Pequot Lakes: “I am responsible for how I feel, and today I choose happiness.”

Turn the “I” to a “we” and our community mission in Northern Minnesota becomes clearer.



  1. Beautiful piece Mr Brown. Powerful examples that apply to not just small towns but neighborhoods in urban areas as well. The niighborhiod I live in Minneapolis as well as others I know turned around using exactly for the attitudes taken on by the people you list.. Your comment on government as opposed to politics holds sway. And your last line knocks it out of the park. Thanks you

  2. In Enterprise, Alabama, there’s a statue honoring the Boll Weevil, a bug that wiped out the cotton farming in the area 200 years ago. This forced them to diversify their one crop economy, bringing on increased prosperity far beyond what cotton brought. Maybe we need to erect a statue to the electric arc furnace?

    • Too soon, B. 🙂

      I’d be open to building an actual electric arc furnace. Seems like a hop, skip and a jump from building a statue of one, right?

      I do admire the big picture thinking of those folks in Enterprise. I have concluded that there are some on the Iron Range who will never look beyond mining so long as the mines are running. A couple years without mining, though, and the converts will fill the pews. Such is human nature.

  3. Bill Hansen says

    Thanks for the well thought out and well written post, Aaron. As you are well aware, language matters, so how will your area ever progress in the manner Suggested when it is known as the “Iron Range?” I don’t intend any disrespect toward the long and proud history of iron mining, but isn’t this a problem?

    • I get what you’re saying, but I don’t see it that way at all. The name “Iron Range” is far more than a technical term, it’s part of the culture. Few who live in the heart of the Range would ever want to give it up. So long as there is iron mining, there will be the name Iron Range, and that name will probably last a generation or two after the last mine closes, whenever that happens. Northern MN is funny that way. Part of it is the Iron Range. Part of it isn’t. Yet the rest of the state often looks at everything north of Duluth as “the Iron Range.”

      Seventy years ago the region sought a name to unify itself. The choice of the chambers of commerce and tourism people was “Arrowhead.” You still hear that one banging around, though no one seems to respond to it emotionally. That’s what would have to happen for people to adopt a new name.

      Nobody will give the region a new name unless people who live here start calling it something else. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. And I must admit, I don’t want to. The U.P. has Copper Harbor, even as the last copper mines closed decades ago. I have a visceral, emotional reaction to the name Iron Range. I can’t think of a name that would hearken the same feelings.

  4. Great article. It’s good to see the step through to actually answer the question of ‘what should we do?’ in terms of real actions. You have hit on the key there, I think.

  5. Beautifully said, Aaron. Change comes from within. So much common sense, and great suggestions for things I – we – can actually do.

  6. What an inspired and inspiring piece of writing. Thank you.

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