MinnesotaBrown’s Top Posts of 2016

Crews install new Paul Bunyan Communication fiber optic lines on a Balsam Township road. This is the road that leads to MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters, where on Dec. 22 high speed internet service became fully operational. (Aaron J. Brown)

Goodbye, 2016.

Hello, 2017.

As we mark this turn of the calendar page, let’s look back at the year that was at MinnesotaBrown.com.

This year I celebrated 10 years of blogging at MinnesotaBrown.com. Fifteen years of writing a column in the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Twenty years of work in Iron Range media, dating back to my first overnight shift at 97.9 WEVE in Eveleth. It was two days after Thanksgiving 1996 when I went on the air as a high school junior with almost no radio training whatsoever. Follow the log, they said. So I mostly did, except for the times I didn’t.

We’ve come a long way. Almost fifty miles to the west, in fact.

This blog had 378,355 page views in 2016, an almost four percent increase from the previous year. The last three years have hovered around that total. Nothing special, but this remains the blog of record for the Iron Range, to the degree that “blog” is still recognized as a relevant word or concept.

Thank you for reading! A special shoutout to the readers who take the time to respond to the posts or send me ideas or information. I’d encourage everyone to subscribe to my e-mail list and follow along on social media. Let’s keep the fun times rolling in 2017!

Here are my top 25 posts for 2016, according to Google Analytics:

1. Brangelina blowout happened in International Falls

People have been saying that 2016 was a hellish year. A hellish election. A hellish list of beloved celebrities and musicians that kicked the bucket. But if you want to know what really went wrong in 2016, look no further than my most viewed post of the year.

We don’t know and will probably never know the exact details, but we know something unpleasant happened between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on a September flight from Paris to L.A., which included a refueling and customs stop at the International Falls Airport. Days later, Jolie filed for divorce, and the tabloids continue to speculate about their lives. One article suggested an animated fight on the tarmac in International Falls.

This Brangelina post got more attention than anything I actually know about. This Brangelina post got more attention that any political writing about the election, or even my most heartfelt missives about the future of the Iron Range. And I knew it would. From the moment I saw the story, I knew that I could linkjack this for tens of thousands of views. I threw it together quick and dirty and watched the hits roll in like the tide.

And then I washed my hands of it. Sealing my fate. Who killed America? It was you and me.

2. Iron Range Fourth of July 2016

Always popular, my annual review of Fourth of July parades, street dances, and fireworks displays lived up to expectations. My secret to this thing’s success is knowing what people want to know and giving them nothing more than that. It’s a pain in the ass to write, which is why I’m glad it still charts well.

3. Aldi grocery chain to build in Grand Rapids, MN

Holy cow! An Aldi in Grand Rapids! Not many people on the Iron Range knew about Aldi stores when the year began, but those who had shopped at the German chain before knew getting one was a big deal. Why? Aldi stocks dirt cheap convenience items, produce and everyday essentials. It’s all store brands, but the quality (at least on most items) is good and it’s easy to get in and out quickly. Their secret is regional packaging and distributions centers (same as Kwik Trip).

My family loves the new Aldi, but not everyone in Grand Rapids sings its praises.

“But oh, jeez, did you know you have to put a quarter in to get a cart? Jeez, a quarter! You get it back, but jeez. And you have to pack your own bags. And one time I tried some new crackers and they were real bad, jeez.”

$1.89 milk you sons of bitches. $1.69 for raisin bran. Get down here on the ground and realize how it is.

4. Text of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech

It was a big year for Duluth-born, Hibbing-raised music icon Bob Dylan as the ever-traveling troubadour landed the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though he did not attend the Stockholm ceremony, he sent a fascinating speech to be read on his behalf. In it, Dylan acknowledges the Nobel committee’s bold decision to include songwriting in the pantheon of literature.

The speech is also a window into the way the man thinks and works. You might find that his work ethic and ethos seem more closely tied to his Iron Range roots than some skeptical locals would like to admit. At least most of the region now understand his place in the world and our place in his story.

See Also:
Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature
‘As Bob Dylan Turns’ in Hibbing
Bob Dylan’s ironwork built to last

5. Cliffs to buy Essar Project, make value-added iron

This was certainly what Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves wanted. Essar Steel Minnesota, the embattled prospective iron mine near Nashwauk was in bankruptcy. Goncalves had argued against allowing another traditional taconite producer to open on the Range, but was interested in the ore body and value-added iron capabilities of the Essar proposal. So he cooked up a plan that the state supported.

Goncalves almost got his wish, until a bankrupcty court stymied the Cliffs takeover attempt. It’s not over yet, but a new company has taken over Essar and will have another chance to get the project off the ground before Cliffs can make another bid.

See also:
Cliffs sees ironclad future for Iron Range (In which Cliffs got everybody to show up at the Nashwauk Township Hall to hear a proposal for “several” new value-added plants on the Iron Range. The move would prepare Cliffs for the electric arc furnace marketplace, starting with the Essar site.)

6. Hibbing must right discrimination wrongs

Several of the controversial items on this year’s list relate to the way public officials made a controversial issue worse by handling it poorly. That’s how I’d classify this story about a Hibbing administrator found to have discriminated against female students in a state investigation. Eventually, parents and community members successfully argued for action.

See also:
Embattled Hibbing school administrator resigns

7. Cliffs to close Empire, move production to Eveleth

When several Mesabi iron mines were closed early last year, many correctly saw this story as a break in the slump. With Cliff’s Empire Mine in Michigan reaching the end of its life, we knew that the company would need to look back to Minnesota for pellets to feed customer orders. Eventually this contributed to the reopening of United Taconite in Eveleth and new investments at that plant.

See also:
Cliffs CEO: Utac to reopen in 2016
Cliffs to unveil ‘Mustang’ pellet project

8. Essar layoffs signal project hibernation

Early in 2016 we learned just how bad the financial situation had become out at Essar Steel Minnesota near Nashwauk. The halting, erratic construction schedule was part of a larger problem, and the project stopped cold. First the construction crews were laid off. Contractors were stuck with millions in unpaid bills. Later the company would go bankrupt and Cliffs (see above) would make a stab at a takeover. However, a new company led by an investment bank installed a new CEO, Matthew Stock, with international mining experience. The new venture is called Mesabi Metallics. They have until February to announce how they will finish the project.

See also:
Bankruptcy court lets Essar keep mineral leases
Essar owes $1.1 billion in bankruptcy

9. Chisholm council ruffled by criticism over failed studio

So, the principal investor behind a new film studio in Chisholm was arrested for fraud. The city of Chisholm had helped the company set up shop in City Hall, assisting Ironbound Studios in finding funds for infrastructure. I wrote about this (it made the top 25, lower down). Perennial city council candidate Brandan Fiedler shared the story on social media with some critical words about Chisholm officials. Nothing outrageous, just some generalized indignation.

Well, the city council asked Fiedler to approach the mic during a city council meeting and proceeded to dress him down for the criticism. It was like nothing I’ve seen at a local government meeting before. It was the first of a handful of posts that delved into the Peyton’s Place of Chisholm politics.

I’m sure revisiting this issue in my top posts will again set tongues a-waggin’ in Chisholm. Maybe I’ll have more sternly worded e-mails coming my way! Once again, a more measured response that acknowledged people’s concerns would have closed this matter months earlier. Another PR disaster with lots of onlookers here at MinnesotaBrown.com.

See also:
Writer Explores Inflated Claims at Chisholm Studio (Fantastic investigative journalism by John Ramos, who spent months working on this story simply because of how badly the city council reacted to questions.)

10. Highway 53 project forces city to borrow $3.4 million

The Highway 53 relocation project, including a huge new bridge, made significant progress in 2016. However, it remains the most expensive Iron Range public works project this generation has ever seen. Some of those costs creep down to local governments. We have yet to see what this project will end up costing in the end. The result will be Minnesota’s tallest bridge across a mine pit outside Virginia and the relocation of Highways 53 and 135. The move will add years to the life of United Taconite.

See also: Highway 53 bridge progress seen from the air

11. Busy Hibbing intersection to get roundabout

Next summer, one of the busiest intersections in Hibbing will get a large, two-lane roundabout. Hibbing has never had a roundabout before and is also not known for handling change very well. That’s a recipe for Iron Range internet magic. The social media discussion and comments went crazy.

Cliffs Notes version: “You ever try to run a lowboy through a roundabout? I’d like to see you try!”

Coming Summer 2017!

12. The man who saw the forest and the trees

Jack Rajala flashes a thumbs up to his daughter on the stage of the Great Northern Radio Show on June 18, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota (Grant Frashier).

Legendary logger and timber executive Jack Rajala passed away last summer. I got to know Jack in recent years. He spent the first half of his life cutting down red and white pines and the last half planting them. He planted trees right up until the end. His family planted trees after he died. My son’s scout troop will be among those planting trees in Jack’s honor for generations to come. Rajala is widely attributed with saving the white pine population in Minnesota.

Jack was a Republican who documented actual effects of climate change on Northern Minnesota forests, which wasn’t an easy position for a Republican to have. You couldn’t pigeon-hole him. It was an honor to know him. His last public appearance was on my radio show last June.

13. LIVE BLOG: Primary Night on the Iron Range

It’s interesting that the primary night live blog did so much better than the general election. We had an compelling story that night as teacher Julie Sandstede staged a major upset in the Iron Range House 6A DFL primary. MinnesotaBrown was one of few online sources of news about the race. I also had some excellent help from sources in getting early returns quickly.

When Carly Melin first announced she wouldn’t seek re-election at the beginning of 2016, no one would have predicted Sandstede. But some of the stronger candidates gravitated toward the county commissioner race, and the large field and lack of a party endorsement split support four ways.

The general election live blog was an exercise in shock and sadness. I try to call a fair game, but the election of Donald Trump and the loss by my close friend Tom Anzelc in House 5B turned the Nov. 8 live blog into a mushy lump of poo.

See also:
LIVE BLOG: Election Night 2016
Nolan survives Trump wave in MN-8

14. Chisholm has a clown problem

Believe it or not, this is entirely unrelated to my earlier post about Chisholm.

Remember “clowining?”

There was this period after we all realized that Trump *could* win the election but before he actually did where people dressed like clowns to shoot creepy videos of themselves scaring people late at night. It started as a promo for the “It” remake, and then the national media ran with it. Copycats behaved accordingly.

They did one in Chisholm. And the local police took the bait.

Clowning isn’t funny anymore. Nothing is funny anymore.

15. The Iron Range and Trump

So, listen, you guys. Donald Trump is going to be the president. I’m not happy about that (neither is a majority of the country, according to election results and favorability polls) but some of you are thrilled. I wrote a few things about why it would be a bad idea and a few things after about how it all shook out. Looking back, I can see how it happened. This post shows why I wasn’t too surprised that Trump swamped Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District.

See Also:
How to Unite a Divided Iron Range (written after Trump won election and carried several Iron Range towns)
Clinton vs. Trump: A War Within Ourselves
Every man a king, one man an emperor

16. What makes Minnesota alligators different?

They found some gators out Brainerd way. That ain’t right. So I made a top ten list.

17. The future of the Range is Mucho Si

The small Range town of Nashwauk got a new Mexcian restaurant in 2016. I use the story to explore ideas for diversifying the Iron Range economy. It was well-received. And if you haven’t tried Mucho Si yet, you should!

18. Competitive races set in Northern MN

A preview of the key legislative races ahead of the 2016 election. Like many, my analysis predicted a Clinton win and undervalued the Trump surge in rural Minnesota.

The “World’s Largest Rubber Duck,” a six-story quacker parked in Bayfront Park, was a popular attraction at Tall Ships 2016 in Duluth. (Aaron J. Brown)

19. New Quack City: giant rubber duck headed for Duluth

Did the giant rubber duck improve or cheapen the Tall Ships Festival in Duluth? Opinions vary, but folks sure were excited about this gargantuan duck.

See also: Teeming masses for Duluth tall ships

20. In union jacket, Bernie Sanders speaks in Hibbing

The only presidential candidate to visit the Iron Range in 2016 was Bernie Sanders. He spoke at Hibbing High School on the same stage where Bob Dylan once played. My friends Courtney Kerns and Wes Bailey covered it for the blog.

21. The nation’s rural reckoning of 2016

One of my most popular newspaper columns of the year and probably my best post-election analysis.

22. Cold war bombs in the bogs of Northern MN

An odd bit of history about how bombs were tested in the bogs of Northwestern Minnesota after WWII.

23. Chisholm ‘movie studio’ boss arrested for fraud

This is the post that Brandan Fiedler cited on social media that so angered the Chisholm City Council. Their reaction literally put more than twice as many eyes on this story, and drew additional negative attention to the whole issue. In fact, the City of Chisholm *actually* did a decent job of protecting itself (even though they probably should not have worked with a developer who raised so many red flags). Nevertheless, they ended up spurring several more negative news cycles through sheer pridefulness. I’m starting to think this year’s Top 25 is actually a public relations training tutorial.

24. Sandstede wins House 6A DFL primary

Detailing Rep.-elect Julie Sandstede’s upset win the day after the primary.

25. Iron Range economic imbalance in one graphic

In a report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor about the IRRRB, which is probably already forgotten by the people who need to remember it, I found one graphic that perfectly illustrated the problem in how people perceive the Iron Range economy. Most people on the Iron Range don’t work in mines. There is an entire economy already here that leaders don’t seem to understand. But working people do.

Favorite Newspaper Columns

Grandpa has something to tell Grandma (My personal favorite for the year)
Attracting hope 15 years after 9/11
On Swedish (American) Egg Coffee
On ‘Clarence’ and wallets filled with gravity
Dig a mile in another man’s skid steer
Talkin’ Middle School Parking Lot Blues
Hell on Earth

Only time knows truth of Great River

Automation on the Industrial Frontier
 (See also: Mark Cuban on American automation)
Ode to deviled eggs
On letters of hope

Rethinking strength of Iron Range towns

The night Ali lit the torch in Gilbert

T-bone Fever: Tales from a Meat Raffle

Sunny outlook for Northern Minnesota … too sunny
In America today, who speaks for the many?
Flawed Obamacare Bridge to Better System
Trusting the Wolves, Hastening Our Fate
Oracle breaks winds of change in 2016 (I may not have predicted the events of 2016, but I correctly guessed the themes).

Host Aaron Brown looks on as Duluth Mayor Emily Larson tells a story during a live broadcast of the Great Northern Radio Show on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016. (PHOTO: Grant Frashier)

Great Northern Radio Show

My traveling radio variety show broadcast five times in 2016. We did a special Laskiainen Finnish Sliding Festival themed show in Aurora last February. We then broadcast from Pequot Lakes in April. In June we returned to the newly remodeled Reif Center in Grand Rapids. In September we traveled up to the Fortune Bay Resort and Casino in Tower. Then, just a few days after the election, we broadcast for the first time from Duluth.

Politics and News

Junkyard politics in Northern Minnesota
Iron Range Rep. Carly Melin won’t seek re-election
Dancing horses for Nolan-Mills in 2016
Duluth’s Gaelynn Lea wins NPR Tiny Desk contest
State approves PolyMet environmental review
Dayton vows no state leases for Twin Metals

Report details serious problems at IRRRB
 (See also: The chilling effect of the IRRRB board structure)
Itasca county reinstates veterans official

Panama Canal expansion sails both ways

Mt. Iron OKs $29 million school
Duluth to remodel, not replace, library

The hot, wet violence of Minnesota summer

Mesabi Academy to close (See also: “We Are Not Monsters“)
Magnetation to shut down
 (See also: Intriguing buyer seeks to acquire Magentation assets)
Northshore Mining back to work early
Hibtac expansion to displace mine view
Bonding bill spat ends in election year splat
Hibbing elementary school mulls future of gun range

Shock election to produce 5-4 partisan split on IRRRB

In Memoriam

Remembering author and storyteller Jim Northrup
Daniel Berrigan: radical priest and Range native
Remembering Duluth journalist Larry Fortner
The Iron Range soda boss who beat Coke

Rural Broadband Victory in 2016

Though I’m hardly the only player, I will celebrate 2016 as the year of one of my biggest accomplishments on this blog. More than 10 years of advocacy  for rural high speed internet service turned into results.

This year Paul Bunyan Communication’s Central Itasca Fiber project connected thousands to fiber optic cable internet, phone and television service. It began in 2015 with a grant application and local lobbying efforts, followed by legislative process and help from the IRRRB, until finally postcards hit mailboxesshovels turned dirt, and electrons did fly.

One of the things I’ve noticed about this news is how people who don’t yet have high speed rural internet seem to resent the fact that we in Balsam and Lawrence townships got ours.

Well, like a latter-day Tom Joad, wherever there’s a slow upload connection, I’ll be there. Wherever bandwidth caps prevent commerce and communication, I’ll be there. Wherever leaders show deference to sluggish, monopolistic companies unwilling to invest in rural communities, I’ll be there. This issue will remain one of my top priorities, a key component of economic diversification in Northern Minnesota.

Iron Range economic diversification

Meanwhile, here are some featured posts, including some newspaper columns, on the topic of economic diversification.

Let us see what we believe
New vision for Range future
‘If you want to predict the future, listen to the future’

Iron Range lessons from Mars

Range economic talk needs focus on future, not past

The future of the Iron Range is already here

All local Duluth sitcom “Old Lifty” to premiere
Breaking the code
Ely’s State Theater to relight iconic marquee
Lab seeks new science 2,341 feet below surface

Speaking the Hope of Tomorrow’s Iron Range
Louisana Pacific eyes Cook for wood siding plant
New bike trail planned for Itasca County
Shred some trail on Lookout Mountain
Northern Minnesota co-op to further expand network
N. Minnesota, Canada share deep economic ties


Elk don’t play. PHOTO: Carrie Kellenberger, Flickr CC, modified with image from Paramount’s “The Warriors” (1979).

The strange and surprising world of Northern Minnesota

Ruffian elk mobs held at bay, for now
Duluth TV Reporter Lutefisk Hazing Continues
They Say Snow; It Ain’t Gonna Snow Hard
Rawr: ‘Cougar’ catfight stirs controversy
Murder loons show mercy on baby duck
Lost Mittens: A Love Story
‘Rogue’ baby born in family van on Hwy. 38

‘Finding Dory’ gives seagull treatment to Minnesota state bird
70-pound carp lashes back at Dayton over speech
Give a hoot, disguise your toots

Colbert segment features Minnesota accent showdown

Appeals court backs man who cut garage in half

AAA000! New Minnesota park license plates

Hunting for the (literal) Heart of Northern Minnesota

What a year!

Had enough? If not, seek appropriate medication or check out last year’s top posts.

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