What you are getting wrong about the Iron Range

Aaron J. Brown

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

Comparing the Mesabi Iron Range to Appalachia is always tricky.

On one hand, there are apt likenesses. Both feature small towns and an economy built around mining. Both showcase the razor’s edge between capitalism, the environment, and the rights of workers.

On the other, historical differences are strong. Appalachia is much bigger than the Iron Range, covers several states that were colonized earlier (chiefly West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia). Appalachia was influenced by the early American struggle between slavery and free labor.

The Iron Range never faced those pressures. Instead, we experienced 100 years worth of history in one mind-blowing pair of decades, followed by the normal effects of capitalism and automation.

Nevertheless, I’ve now thought of the comparison twice in two recent books — one a bestseller, the other a recent response to the first.

Many of you may have heard of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” a sweeping personal story that lays blame for the Appalachian woes on misguided governmental interference and the personal failings of the people who live there. Vance describes a world of welfare, opioid addiction, and violence that condemns its children to repeat the same mistakes forever. The book was an absolute commercial smash and might propel Vance into a GOP run for the U.S. Senate in Ohio.

Well, if you read that book, you might also want to consider “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” by Elizabeth Catte.

Catte really, really dislikes the characterization that Vance made of Appalachia. She argues Vance uses his compelling personal story as a means of generalizing everyone else in the region. She knows that Appalachia is mostly white, voted for Trump, and remains entangled with a single industry. But she explains that only tells part of the story.

That’s the connection that got me thinking about the Iron Range, too.

Consider this section from early in Catte’s book:

“Many Appalachians are working-class but their realities complicate definitions of the white working class that are incredibly popular at the moment. Coal miners, centered in political rhetoric as the face of the forgotten white working class, earn an average salary of $60,000 to $90,000 a year. It is more accurate to describe coal mining as a blue-collar profession that commands a middle-class salary, a rarity in our present moment and certainly an employment sector that is shrinking beyond hope. There are currently around 36,000 miners in the entire region. The *real* forgotten working-class citizens of Appalachia, much like the rest of the nation, are home health workers and Dollar General employees. They’re more likely to be women, and their exemption from the stability offered by middle-class employment is not a recent phenomenon.”

The Mesabi Range is about 1/10th the size of Appalachia, but otherwise this statement holds up as well for us as it does for the region Catte describes.

Catte writes about the role of women, the role of Native Americans, and the role of labor agitators in the history of Appalachia. Compliance with company doctrine was not as strong before as it is now. More people don’t vote than vote one way or the other in any given election. Appalachia boasts a proud history and contemporary culture that, in the past century, has been treated as static and unchanging. Unfixable. Unredeemable. Most of this is based on a story, not reality.

I feel the same is true for us on the Iron Range. Working at a community college I see more of a cross-section of the town than most. While it is certainly true that we are mostly white, mostly outdoorsy, and mostly festooned in camouflage, there are many examples of diversity of thought, culture and experience.

The fact is that we are the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves we’re dependent on outside intervention — from private companies or the federal government — well, we are therefore dependent. Unfixable. Unredeemable. However, if we talk to each other and work together on solutions we map a new future, one closer to our true nature.

So, as Catte suggests, let’s start telling true stories. Let’s own that the changing economy, mining automation, and retail decline are nothing new. They can’t be wished away. Let’s own the notion that we can’t recreate the culture and economy of the 1970s, and there’s plenty of evidence why we shouldn’t try.

Catte and Vance agree that this won’t be easy for Appalachia. But I rather agree with Catte that we need to stop believing a false story of *value-based* decline. The new generations are not bad. In fact, the kids are alright, if you get to know them.

What’s caused both regions’ declines may be explained in economic terms. Believing myths will not fix it. The ancestors of the Iron Range didn’t get anywhere waiting around. They took action, and specific action regarding public education and focus on community aesthetic. The only reason the Iron Range is still called that is because of the technological innovation of taconite. This, too, can be replicated with value added iron products today.

One thing that seems true in comparing the Range to Appalachia is this: our fates seem entwined. We may stand up for ourselves in unity. Or massive corporate and political powers may crush us, with plenty of blame to go around.

That seems the wrong path. Let’s get it right.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 8, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Good article Aaron. You might be correct saying there is currently a “razor’s edge (whatever that is) between capitalism, the environment, and the rights of workers”. Yet moving forward you suggest “we may stand up for ourselves in unity”…”or massive corporate and political powers may crush us. That seems the wrong path. Let’s get it right”.

    Adding some color & depth to what you’re proposing in “getting it right” would be helpful. i.e. Unity with the mining companies? Unity with the environmental groups? Unity around “workers rights”? Community unity?

    I don’t think corporate or political powers are fundamentally out to “crush” anybody. “Corporate powers” interests are nothing more than setting up/running a sustainable profitable business…and “political powers” are simply interested in getting elected/re-elected.

    Working with, in unity, vs. viewing these two powers as the enemy is in our best interest. As you say, they’re both powerful…and have resources and influence we need.

  2. David Gray says

    I’d like to see more diversity of thought.

  3. Aaron you have heard it and turned it down many times but….You need to put yourself out there and run. You may have to run several or many times to be elected, but I believe that you might be the guy the agent of change. Yes Yes you are an agent of change now but you can be much more. I read Hillbilly elegy during the election and have listened to Vance a few times. Personally I find his personal story much more interesting than his insights. Thanks for the book recommendation will check it out.

    From the cheap seats, Appalachia is in a struggle to live down the “dueling banjos” and the Iron range is forever pretending “the times they are a changing” is not about them. Given a choice I would choose the later. Appalachia is in a far worse place than the range both economically and socially.

  4. comment

  5. The parallels are definitely there. Serious drug problems. Youth leaving to find success. A declining basic industry. Two tiers of income, those who are miners vs. everyone else. Massive politically driven government programs putting in huge amounts of money, largely unsuccessfully, to rehabilitate the local economy. The parallels go on. Appalachia is ten times bigger in all dimensions, we are colder, and Appalachia is about 10 years further into the process.

    If we keep doing what we’re doing, that is where we are going. Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

    Quite frankly, other than the mines, Hibbing has no reason to exist.

    Grand Rapids is a little better placed with a river and lake, Ely has its tourism draw. Hibbing doesn’t have a river or lake to become a tourism draw. Hibbing doesn’t have any reason to become a wood products center. That’s a declining industry too.

    The jury’s still out on Virginia, they have a lot larger concentration of mines and a much larger retail draw area than Hibbing. They have their own problems.

    I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s time to let some of the Range towns die. Maybe use some of that IRRRB money to buy them out. It’s one option. What needs do Calumet, Bovey, Taconite, Marble, Keewatin, and Buhl serve? To name a few. You have to admit, it’s out of the box. Maybe then we can concentrate on the more viable towns.

    Let’s pick something specific and try it. Doing nothing is not an option.

  6. Oh good lord B…most of america has no river or lake…no tourism draw. You say ” if we keep doing what we are doing thats where we are going” Bingo. Tell your story, Keep the faith, trust your instincts and do what you can to change the direction of your world. your post here is a good start.

    • Typically a city starts by being a focus for a natural resource. Most lasting ones started on a river or as a division point for a railroad.

      There is a decided lack of farm fields and grain elevators here so agriculture isn’t an option as a foundation. We aren’t Fargo.

      We aren’t on a major transportation route.

      We have trees, but not very spectacular ones. Not enough to support a wood products industry. The wood products plants around us are declining.?

      We don’t have a water resource, like a river or large lake, usually required for rural tourism destinations.

      We don’t have a large government sponsored enterprise like Bemidji’s or Houghton Michigan’s universities. No prison or state offices to speak of.

      Our foundation resource is iron ore. A declining industry. The remains of that industry are some excellent off road terrain. We should be making more and better use of that.

      There’s an idea. Better than trying to bribe an off the wall scheme (scam?) to locate here.

      • independant says

        “We have trees, but not very spectacular ones. Not enough to support a wood products industry.” -Huh?

        • Ranger47 says

          The Blandin Foundation alone has a trust worth $400 million and has donated millions over the years to civic and community programs. The Reif Center, a wonderful asset wouldn’t exist without Blandin Paper (UPM). Not to mention the 10’s of thousands of families that have had a lifetime of very good employment because of Blandin. And that’s just Blandin…using those “not so spectacular” trees. Not sure where B is coming from…”We have trees, but not very spectacular ones. Not enough to support a wood products industry”. Hopefully not thinking these are “crumbs”. Blandin in large part is why Rapids looks a bit better than the mid and east end of the Range.

          • Blandin is much smaller than it used to be. Its market is shrinking just like the traditional iron ore market. The OSB plants are gone. The siding plant at Cook never happened, it went to Canada instead. Laurentian Energy is loosing its contracts. The paper mills in Brainerd and Sartell are gone. The paper mill in the Falls is much smaller. I would maintain that wood products around here are not a growth area. None of these were in Hibbing anyway.

            Aspen trees also do not have high toursim potential like stately pines do.

            We’ve squandered most of the legacy of mining, but tens of thousands of families had good lifetime incomes from that too over the years. The mining legacy went to the government where Blandin’s legacy was managed privately.

            Once again, most of what Hibbing has going for it is here because of the mines. They aren’t the largest employer any more, but they are still the economic foundation everything else here is built on. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

            Thief River Falls, in the middle of nowhere, origionally a railroad division point, has Artco and, of all things, a huge electronic parts distributor called Digi Key. Location can be surmounted. It can be done.

            There are glimmers of hope in places like MDI, L&M Radiator, and the Makerspace. Who knows what may come of them 10 or 20 years down the road? This is where Hibbing’s future will come from, in spite of its location.

  7. Dr. Noel Schmidt, superintendent of Virginia Public Schools wrote in Sunday’s Mesabi Daily News, “On Population Changes on the East Range” with interesting populations statistics. Since 1970, Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert alone have 5,000 fewer residents. The population of Grand Rapids is up 42.9% since 2,000. In 1970 Grand Rapids had 7,247 people while Virginia had 12,450. Now Grand Rapids has 11,097 and Virginia has about 8,649. Dr. Schmidt says, “It truly has been a tale of two cities”.
    I remember the large sizes of Virginia graduating classes in late 60’s and early 70’s, ranging from over 250 grads to just over 300.
    Dr. Schmidt goes on to say one of our choices to revitalize the area is that we can continue down the same road as we have for the past 48 years, hope things get better but population data is not working in favor of that choice. Or we can cooperatively choose to work together for a better future here, bickering among ourselves won’t improve the future for our children or improve our current quality of life. He suggests that cities, schools and other institutions drop their partisanship and work together in ways which may seem novel or unique or even radical for the Range

  8. Although I do not live on the Range, my heritage is rooted there. Visiting relatives over 50 years, I’ve heard about the changes. Good times and bad. To let towns die forces many people to abandon their homes. Would the creation of more regional networks of utilities, pubic services, councils be able to allow people who wish to stay have the opportunity to manage, while alternative business ventures get started? It seems goods products requiring transportation would have a tough go due to the distance to the Twin Cities, although Duluth is an option. Seed money, know how, could foster internet businesses. It does take years to get these off the ground, go for it!

  9. Ranger47 says

    B…You piqued my interest on the composition of the Blandin Foundation board of trustees verses the IRRRB board. Shown below is a short bio of the 12 member Blandin board. Look at the bio’s of the IRRRB. Notice any difference?

    Blandin Board
    Dr. Yvonne Cheek
    President of Millennium Consulting Group in Minneapolis, Minn. With her multi-ethnic team of associates, she works with private, public and non-profit organizations to accelerate intentional change.

    Guy Clairmont
    Serves the Grand Rapids area in a variety of capacities, including as an engaged entrepreneur, a nonprofit leader and youth mentor.

    Dr. Falcón
    Engaged and committed community member of Moorhead, Minn. She is assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Minnesota State University Moorhead and works through a range of community initiatives toward purposeful inclusion.

    Kris Ferraro
    1971 Grand Rapids High School graduate, Itasca Community College in 1978, and in 1980 she graduated from Bemidji State University where she earned her accounting degree.Ferraro became sole owner of Broberg & Ferraro, an accounting firm that specializes in income tax services for individuals and businesses, in January 2003 after 14 years as the firm’s co-owner. She has been awarded the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce “Friend of the Chamber” Award (1993) the Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants Public Service Award (1994).

    Mark Hawkinson
    An economy builder and life-long resident of Itasca County. He is president, CEO and treasurer of Hawkinson Construction Co, Inc., a role he has held since 1986, and is president and treasurer of Summit Materials since acquiring the assets of Brink Sand, Gravel and Ready-Mix in 2004. The family asphalt paving business employs 70 people. Hawkinson has held a wide range of community leadership roles with Itasca County Family YMCA, MacRostie Arts Center, Reif Center, Northland Counseling Center, city and county comprehensive planning committees and others.

    Jim Hoolihan
    President of Industrial Lubricant and Can-Jer, Grand Rapids, Minn-based companies providing industrial supplies and services to the logging, railroad, taconite and coal-mining industries. The Hoolihan family has owned the businesses for more than 65 years. A native of Grand Rapids, businessman and civic leader, Jim was Grand Rapids’ three-term mayor from 1990 through 1995. He served as the Foundation’s president and CEO from 2004 through 2011 and had served a previous term (from 1992 to 2003) as a Foundation trustee. Jim holds a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law, masters of business degree from the University of Minnesota and his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Notre Dame.

    Martin Jennings
    Has held a wide variety of leadership positions in business and economic development, housing development and natural resources management in rural Minnesota for 28 years, impacting both Native American communities and surrounding communities. He is currently employed with the Northwest Area Foundation as a Program Officer with various responsibilities related to poverty reduction and prosperity-building work across the Foundation’s eight-state region. Prior to this, Jennings provided organization and fundraising services to Tribal organizations. He has also worked extensively with the Mille Lacs and Leech Lake Tribal governments in a variety of executive positions ranging from community/ business development and planning, small business management and technical assistance, government planning and fundraising, gaming management, and housing development administration.

    Dr. Heidi Korstad
    A resident of Bigfork, Mn serves the Itasca County area as a member of the medical staff of Bigfork Valley Hospital, medical director of the Bigfork Ambulance Association and as a physician in the Scenic Rivers Clinic.

    Brian McInnes
    From Duluth, Minn., is an engaged community member, dedicated to diversity education, environmental awareness, youth engagement, Indigenous language and American Indian traditions and leadership. He is an enrolled member of the Wasauksing First Nation. Among many projects, Brian leads the Minnesota Indigenous Youth Freedom Project, an initiative spurred by participants in the Blandin Foundation-convened American Indian Youth Summit in 2006. He is assistant professor in University of Minnesota Duluth’s Department of Education, where he teaches in doctoral, secondary, early childhood, special education and master’s programs.

    Alice Moren
    Works in Itasca County area communities to bringing people to the table whose voices, presence and community value may be overlooked. A licensed social worker, Moren holds the master’s degree in counseling and psychotherapy from Adler Graduate School, bachelor’s degree in social work from Bemidji State University and associate of arts degree from Itasca Community College and attended Grand Rapids High School. She currently manages Circles of Support and PCs for People and is a trainer for communities across the country interested in implementing the Circles of Support philosophy. She is a commissioner with the Human Rights Commission for the City of Grand Rapids.

    Brian Nicklason
    CEO and president of Woodland Bank, with offices serving the northern Minnesota communities of Deer River, Cohasset, Hill City, and Grand Rapids. He is the third-generation owner of the bank, which has grown from $14 million to more than $100 million in assets. Nicklason began his banking career as a consumer loan officer in 1983 and in 1985 joined the U.S. Treasury Department as a national bank examiner in the Office of the Comptroller until 1991 when he joined Woodland Bank. In 2000, he was named “the rising star in banking” by Northwestern Financial Review.

    Bonnie Besse Rietz
    Served as Mayor of Austin, Minnesota for 10 years (1997 – 2007), city council member for the eight years preceding and president of three statewide organizations: League of Minnesota Cities, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and Minnesota Mayors Association. In these roles, she testified at the State Legislature, traveled the state and worked with city officials throughout greater Minnesota. She also was among the local leaders who stepped up to tackle bitter labor strife in Austin and has experienced first-hand the challenges and opportunities of diversity in rural communities.

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