MinnesotaBrown’s Top Posts of 2018

The Hawkins Mine Overlook in Nashwauk, Minnesota (Aaron J. Brown)

As I point out in my column this week, it’s rather arbitrary that we celebrate the new year in the dark, cold heart of January. That happens to be when the Roman Republic would install its new consuls. So Julius Caesar marked it down as day one on the new state calendar.

Here at MinnesotaBrown.com World Headquarters in Balsam Township, Minnesota the season is quiet and reflective. I’m in a lull between semesters, between shows, and just past another post-Christmas birthday, the last of my 30s.

Today I’ll share the top posts of 2018, both in terms of readership and in terms of news value. I’ll also pass along a few of my favorites and tell a few stories about what happens behind the scenes here at Northern Minnesota’s fastest growing news and politics blog.*

First, the tale of the tape. The blog received 284,502 page views in 2018, an increase of almost seven percent. This is still well below the heyday of page views for the blog, however, for reasons I explained last year. Short version: most internet users park on social media now, sharing, liking and arguing about stories they haven’t read.

Speaking of social media, my Twitter followers check in at 3,957 and my Facebook followers at 4,064. Both are up, but nothing exponential. I continue to find social media to be frustratingly toxic and yet necessary for me to reach readers. I wonder sometimes how I could do this without it, but I don’t know how. What do you do when the thing that is killing decency, democracy and privacy is also the basis of many of your meaningful relationships? Put a pin in that thread.

The bounce rate is still way too high, meaning that people often come here for one story and then leave. But the time spent per visit is a very healthy 2:33, which means people who click do read the articles. Thanks!

All of these numbers are chump change for a major site, but not bad for a sole proprietor blog with an audaciously regional focus. And I actually wrote only 257 posts this year, another decline for me, so the page view increase was some feat. Nevertheless, I’m aware that my work influences the influencers more than it does the masses. I’m a footman not a kingpin. The only real reason to do this is that I’m nuts. And I’m not getting less nuts, so we carry on.

I’ll share the top posts now. Afterward I’ll have a few more thoughts on next year here at MinnesotaBrown.com.

1 — Iron Range Fourth of July 2018

Why mess with the classics? My top post most years was overwhelmingly so this year. Independence Day is a national holiday, sure, but Minnesota’s Iron Range region adds its own spin on the occasion. People come home to the Range for a particular experience and my stripped-down just-the-facts format seems to resonate with readers.

2 — Showdown 2018 in Minnesota’s Fightin’ Eighth

I tried something new in my political coverage this year. I made a designated landing page for my coverage of the 8th Congressional District. The result was good. It gave some background on the district for new readers and linked out to the most recent stories I was writing. The landing page earns the #2 spot on my list showing the elevated interest in a district that could have (but ultimately didn’t) change the course of our nation. Further, I’m pretty sure the existence of this page got me on National Public Radio and in the pages of major newspapers across America. Go go, Google algorithm!

3 — After 10 ballots, 8th District DFLers opt not to endorse

Strange that a post from April, early in the 8th District race, would prove more popular than any other in my continuing coverage. But this one really did tell a story. I was able to attend part of the DFL endorsing convention in Duluth. I watched a party unable to agree on a cohesive strategy or message smash its collective head against a brick wall for most of a day. A sense of doom pervaded the occasion. There was a line I didn’t get to use due to space constraints and excessive nerdiness. An ice storm raged in Duluth as the convention was taking place. I had written in a draft that the “street signs outside the convention hall looked like “Harry Potter” dementors made of ice.” Given the Republican victory in this district — despite a national Democratic wave — it seems those ice dementors were the true omen.

Phifer scores early wins; DFL convention looms
Phifer, Radinovich hold best cards for DFL endorsement

4 — President Trump to hold Duluth rally on June 20 

The president drew a big crowd and got to tout his pick for Congress while Democrats squabbled through a boring primary. The popularity of this post, the rally itself, and Republican Pete Stauber in November show that Trumpism is still pretty strong in Northern Minnesota. This despite the president’s never-ending scandals and strong evidence of corruption. Our demographics now dictate our politics more than our political history. In fact, our history is being re-written in the minds of many.

5 — LIVE BLOG: Following #MN08 and more on primary night 2018

The high point for Democratic nominee Joe Radinovich, the primary showed that he had a better plan for victory and more critical resources than his opponents. Unfortunately for him it took too long for the party to reunite and for Radinovich to respond to the immediate and ultimately effective attacks from Republicans and their dark money allies.

RELATED TOP POST: Post-primary analysis shows how Radinovich won MN-8 (complete with color-coded map that looks like cat barf)

6 — U.S. Steel balancing act offers economic warning

My highest ranking newspaper column and among my better economic pieces of the year. Written in September before the stock market started sputtering, I highlighted the “can’t win” attitude that analysts have toward companies like U.S. Steel. On one hand this company needs to invest in itself when times are good. On the other, investors won’t reward it for doing so. This is why we should be very concerned about the technological leap that needs to be made in Minnesota’s iron mining industry.

7 — LIVE BLOG: Election 2018 in Northern Minnesota

What gives? My general election live blog underperforms the primary? Well, that’s how it goes. In November the big websites unveil their Sylvester McMonkey McBean vote-tracking widgets, which means people only come look at ol’ MinnesotaBrown when they want perspective on the 8th District. It became evident early that Minnesota’s 8th wasn’t going to be what turned Congress. We saw Republican Pete Stauber held most of the Trump coalition from 2016. The surprise was turnout. Had Republicans been demoralized by the national scene I think Radinovich might have had a chance. But they sure weren’t. Nevertheless, 8th District turnout wasn’t as high as it can go. A lot of voters still remained home.

8 — A northern Minnesota movie comes home

Another newspaper column makes the list, this one featuring “Cold November,” an independent film by my friend and colleague Karl Jacob. The movie is a coming-of-age story about deer hunting, flipped to follow the perspective of a young woman in a matriarchal family. It was a beautiful picture, which you should catch if you can. Meantime, Karl and I have gotten to know each other quite well working on an Iron Range research project together. Hope to have news of that in the coming year.

9 — Essar rejoins Nashwauk project; ArcelorMittal looms large

One of several posts about the ebb and flow of a long-suffering proposed iron ore mining project near Nashwauk, Minnesota. As I’ve posited recently, the world’s largest steelmaker just might have a role behind the scenes of the project’s corporate machinations.

10 — Authorities recover Dorothy’s ruby slippers

This caused a big stir in Judy Garland’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where a pair of ruby slippers used in the “Wizard of Oz” were stolen in 2005. The FBI found the slippers this year but have yet to make an arrest, continuing speculation over one of Northern Minnesota’s weirdest capers.

11 — Hate and power on the Iron Range

The KKK distributed flyers in Virginia, Minnesota, last January. I responded with this column detailing the Klan’s long and willfully ignored history on the Iron Range. I commended city officials for handling the matter with a united voice against intolerance. Indeed, we must not forgot how hate eventually hurts everyone in a democracy, not just the targets of hateful words and deeds.

12 — Stewart Mills offers surprising analysis on mining

Republicans twice nominated Stewart Mills for Congress in Minnesota’s 8th District. Both times he fell short against Rep. Rick Nolan. This year Mills didn’t run, but instead started a political blog. One of his posts about mining genuinely surprised me. Essentially, he argues that even Republicans who oppose regulation generally don’t necessarily get excited about mining if it affects wildlife habitat. I see now that Mills stopped updating his blog last June, but he sure came in guns a’ blazing.

13 — Phifer drops out of 8th District race

After upending the 8th District DFL and scaring incumbent Rick Nolan on precinct caucus night, upstart challenger Leah Phifer dropped out of the race when she failed to win party endorsement. Somewhere in the 8th people are still arguing about this, whether the process was fair or not, whether Phifer should have run or not, and whether or not she would have beat Pete Stauber. I believe she came in prepared for a particular situation that did not materialize and wasn’t ready to roll with the changes. She also found herself stuck in a tough spot with her past experience and comments as an ICE support specialist in a party that strongly opposes the president’s immigration policy. Some say Phifer’s done and others believe she’ll reappear for 2020. She’s mythical now. Like Che. But also not like Che.

14 — Stauber opens up lead in Minnesota’s 8th District

This was a controversial story about a poll that literally changed the campaign in Minnesota’s 8th. After seeing this NY Times/Siena poll, national Democrats significantly reduced their investment in Joe Radinovich’s candidacy. But was Stauber really this far up? He ended up winning three weeks later, but not nearly by this huge margin. It’s a good example of why poll-based political coverage is “the tail wagging the dog” quite often. National news ended up helping Radinovich close the gap, uniting more of the left and helping him on the Iron Range in the campaign’s last days. But you could argue that this poll made it impossible for him to win, if it was possible in the first place.

15 — The Day After Duluth, comments about “trade policy”

This is a winding post that summarizes how I felt about President Trump this year. Written after he appeared in Duluth, but spanning the entire chaotic culture battle he fuels, I still don’t feel I have much more to add that wasn’t said here. Some new things have happened, will happen. But it’s all part of the same grift, which won’t end so long as we tolerate it.

16 — Bovey seeks ‘Grace,’ wherever it may be found

The city of Bovey continues to honor Eric Enstrom’s picture “Grace,” an iconic image of gratitude and humility that endures through the generations. This year, organizers at Farmer’s Day sought personal reflections on the Picture Grace for a special exhibit.

17 — Candidates mull suddenly wide-open MN-8 race

More of this. Rick Nolan’s sudden retirement really threw the DFL for a loop Looking back you can see the primary and general election that could have been. Fact is, some of the big name Democrats just weren’t interested in running without more preparation.

Michelle Lee seeks DFL nomination in MN-8

18 — A billion reasons why the PolyMet debate misses the point

My frustration with the zero-sum arguments over nonferrous mining in Northern Minnesota boil over here. Though the story is developing (PolyMet has permits now), the frustrations remain. Mining supporters and opponents alike believe “the facts” are on their side. But what if the general *attitude* surrounding this debate is all wrong, and that approaching the issue this way will lead to the worst economic *and* environmental outcome possible? Ah, there’s a fun argument that some people clicked on.

19 — The sound of footsteps in an empty mall

I get into some of the trends surrounding retail and private capital in small towns using my local failing mall as a backdrop. This one reads pretty smooth. Glad it did well.

20 — Cliffs wins Nashwauk land case, deals blow to Mesabi Metallics

Cleveland Cliffs is a big player in what’s going to happen at the former Butler/Essar site near Nashwauk. Their big coup was buying up critical mine land, and then successfully defending that purchase in court.


Yup, Rick Nolan retired. I interviewed himWrote a column, too. Then he ran for Lt. Governor, but that didn’t go well.

In “Calculating Minnesota’s 8th District Primary” last July I endeavored to figure out which DFL candidate had enough money and enough ability to patch party rifts. I interviewed all five DFL candidates before the primary as well. Before the general election I wrote “Will Minnesota’s 8th District swing or rust shut?” But my best political analysis probably came after the election with “Northern Minnesota’s new political ethos.”

Of course, we had plenty of mining news. Cleveland-Cliffs announced it would resign as manager of Hibbing Taconite in August. Just last week majority owner ArcelorMittal said it would run the mine itself. Meanwhile, the Mesabi Metallics/Cleveland-Cliffs Nashwauk scuffle rolls on. Posts like this from just last July seem like a million years ago. The story even managed to invoke Chewbacca’s name this year.

I tried to cover the burgeoning trade war with “The steel war is nigh,” “So we started a trade war: now what?,” and “The story behind tariffs, steel and the Iron Range.”

A proposal to split St. Louis County resurfaced (“North and South: St. Louis County debates split, again“). I uncovered the first attempt to split the county 103 years ago. The arguments were the same and so was the result. 

Back in April I pitched the idea of an Iron Range flag. The Mesabi Daily News (yes, them!) even called me for a story about it. Nobody did anything, though. Seems flags are out of vogue. But the social media buzz lasted a good six hours. 

The U.S. Curling Team, which had deep ties to Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, won the gold medal. We got excited about the miracle run.

Of course, we couldn’t resist talking about Duluth-born and Hibbing-raised Bob Dylan’s foray into whiskey distilling.

A Hibbing woman gained national attention for her efforts to prevent suicide.

A Twin Ports refinery fire could have killed thousands, but didn’t. I wrote “Up in Smoke: Superior Disaster Reminds Why We Watch Industry.”

What next for Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation?” No really, what’s next?

We closed the year with a big post, “We can save rural, but we can’t stop change.” I told my wife I was excited about all the retweets on this one until I realized the futility of that comment and, thus, my life’s work.


Minnesota to World: “Ope, sneak right by ‘ya”

Ely maple sap spat may stop street taps

Just nine miles remain on ‘Cross-Range Expressway’

Rise of the rural recreation economy

Finland’s whitetail deer have Iron Range roots

Drunk birds maintain Gilbert’s wet reputation

Why livability is key to Northern Minnesota strategy 


After reading Elizabeth Catte’s “What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” I compare the Iron Range to coal country in “What You’re Getting Wrong About the Iron Range.”

In “Science can solve mining risks, but only if we demand it,” I explore new technology that could address potentially risky material in mine pits, but that only works if we require companies to reduce them.

Did you know the only president to work in a mine was Herbert Hoover? In “America: Self-Made but More” I explore Hoover’s political philosophy in modern context, showing that there was a reason he’s not regarded a great president, even though he was an impressively competent man. 

I read Caro’s “The Power Broker” and give a preview of my very early thoughts about my Victor Power research in “Seizing real power in our times.”

A lot of my favorite columns were inspired by books I read. In “Ulysses S. Grant: the forgotten emancipator” I combine thoughts on Ron Chernow’s “Grant” with some notes from my own family’s civil war history.

In “The dislocated workers we choose to ignore” I ask why we act one way toward workers when mines close, but another way when a store closes.

Another book helped me write “History echoes through Iron Range politics.” This one was written by a descendant of the Merritt Brothers. Related to that was “Farmer-Labor tradition means more than just jobs,” a look at the origins of the DFL and Iron Range labor movement.

I threw a good old fashioned haymaker at the mines and tried to shame them into helping out a local senior center forced to crowdfund for operating funds because of the temporary closure of the Hibbing mine view (“Hibbing Tourist Senior Center deserves a break“). Behind the scenes this drew an angry e-mail from a mining industry flack. A week later someone with the senior center wrote a letter to the editor thanking me but also thanking the mine and letting them off the hook. Sheesh. What’s everyone so scared of? Making old folks crowdfund for ten grand? Come on. But the new mine view will be lovely, it seems.

I couldn’t help but invoke Iron Range immigration history after we learned migrant children were being imprisoned on the border. I wrote “Build Steel Bridges, not Steel Cages.” Since then at least two children have died in American custody and many more are simply missing, probably permanently separated from their families. Nothing has been done. The government has been shut down over an ineffectual border wall that we were never supposed to pay for anyway. Madness.

In “See all the trucks go by” I talked to my grandpa about life on the road and discuss changing trends in transportation.

One of my best memoir columns was “The soft focus of nostalgia.”

I also asked people to take care with their family’s final words in “The enduring importance of obituaries.”

My family went to Winnipeg for our summer vacation, producing two columns about the local culture and economy.

I was fascinated to learn about how American vehicles are seldom all-American in origin. The interconnected trade system that some decry will be difficult to undo in “Trade war rattles even sturdiest of American trucks.”

Folks got a kick out of this look at past and present in “Reading coded language of Iron Range landscapes.”

I buried a lot of ghosts when I wrote “Unloading baggage aboard the Weinermobile.”

My monologue at the Hibbing Great Northern Radio Show, “Architecture that holds up,” made a nice column that doubles as a commemorative speech.

I took a few chances in “The fallacy of sunk costs on the Iron Range,” but no one even wrote an angry letter to the editor. I followed that one up with “Local ownership critical to Range success,” officially burning off my long range column ideas that I had carried around all year.

Other Business

I wrote a major piece about rural gun politics for The Daily Yonder. I was also featured on a German TV show talking about Bob Dylan and Iron Range political history.

My book research continued. At one point I ended up flying to California to talk to an older gentleman about Hibbing. That also produced a column, because you’ve got to wring extra juice out of a trip like that. Let me assure you that I’ve been digging a tunnel with a spoon on this deal. There will be a book, soonish. One more research trip this spring before we enter writing mode.

Our Northern Community Radio podcast “Dig Deep” posted another successful season of political episodes. The show features me as the liberal commentator and Chuck Marohn as the conservative. I’ve heard from people all over the country who have enjoyed our distinctly collaborative form of political conversation. 

My political analysis appeared in a number of national stories about the Congressional elections. I was honored to sit in with Noel King for a live broadcast of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in Duluth.

I also appeared on the Duluth News Tribune Pressroom Podcast for a candid and enjoyable conversation about the very blog you now read and my Iron Range origin story.

And, of course, we did another year of the Great Northern Radio Show, broadcasting from Bemidji, Grand Rapids and our first show at the historic Hibbing High School auditorium.

What’s ahead in 2019

The first half of 2019 will see three Great Northern Radio Show broadcasts and the launch of a Great Northern-branded podcast. The second of half of 2019 I am dedicating to the completion of a book manuscript (and two more radio shows, pending funding). At times the blog will go into low power mode. You can always count on my Sunday column, though. More when I can.

If you like list posts, check out last year’s top posts.

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