A new age on the Iron Range

PHOTO: Ken Ratcliff, Flick CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

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

There’s really not much to Iron Range history, at least in terms of quantity. Each of our small towns tolls not more than 120 years. The Ojibwe reservations are only a little older than that. And before that a complex array of Native American communities and dense forests that few today know anything about.

Our recent ancestors packed a lot of glory, suffering and mystery into those years, though. The body’s been wrapped tight and buried in a shallow grave. We walk around on top, nervous for reasons we can’t explain. Whether we’re from old money or none most of us carry something secret in our hearts, sometimes in a language no longer spoken.

How could we not? We’ve got red mountains where there ought to be fields and deep pit lakes where there ought to be forests. They plugged the old underground mines to keep the kids out and it is known fact that there are bones down there.

Every town on the Range boasts irreplaceable downtown brick facades that most of us ignore. Instead, our governments work tirelessly to place strip malls and Morton buildings further and further in the wilderness. Our leaders install most new infrastructure where great-grandpa would shoot birds and neck with his mistress.

And yet you’d be hard pressed to get people to talk about something other than the good old days. We spend our Iron Ranger bravado on slow walks through L&M Supply. It’s a soft and delicate fear of change that keeps us stuck in this rut.

But change keeps coming. Case in point, today. Look at this new paper, this Mesabi Tribune. Product of a merger between two old papers. Lament! More traditions lost.

That’s not all. Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert schools are merging. Across the Range police and fire departments combine to maintain services. We should not be surprised if nearby cities one day reorganize into larger municipal districts. Truth be told they probably should.

Hear me now! All the institutions of our past will die, as will we. Nothing lasts forever. But you hold in your hands the last daily newspaper in northern Minnesota. It comes from an organization that, for any of its flaws, still employs actual reporters.

While the masses muck around on Facebook, trafficking in rumors and innuendo, you hold in your hands information that’s been vetted. Someone picked up the phone and confirmed the story. Opinions — such as mine — come from a name and a stated point of view. Agree or not, I stake my five generation Iron Range family name on this craft. (Though I may or may not be related to the Browns you know).

What matters in a newspaper is not a name, but a news operation. And so it goes for schools and learning, towns and civil services. No, weep not for loss. Instead, let us look at what we can do.

See the young family riding bikes on the trails. Observe the volunteer pouring hear heart into a community event. Listen to the music filling our streets and parks. Sense the eternal power that steadily heals the scars of industry. The air. The water. The people. We live here for a reason.

We aren’t waiting to enter a new age on the Iron Range. We’re already in it. In fact, this is like one of those game shows where you get two minutes to grab as many groceries as your cart can hold. Only the clock has been running for a minute already while we’ve been holding rallies for the mining companies. At any moment now we could fill our cart with good things to eat.

We can build communities for the 21st Century, where information technology brings us closer to a diversified economy.

We can welcome new residents whose children will fill our schools, start new businesses, and buy our parents’ houses when they move into assisted living.

And we can let go of the past. No, not to forget. That would be impossible. But the past holds no real meaning if we do not live in the present.

Wake! This new world overflows with possibility.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 12, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. David Gray says

    Actually before the Ojibwe were the Dakota, before they were forced south.

    • Gerald S says


      When Columbus landed, there were as many people living in the Americas as living in Europe, and they had a history just as complex.

      Wars were fought, whole groups of people moved across the map, and complex civilizations rose and fell.

      As far as the Ojibwe: the Algonquin pushed the Iroquois west, the Iroquois pushed the Ojibwe west and north, and the Ojibwe pushed the Dakota west and south.

      This, of course, does not compromise the Ojibwe claim to their land, any more than the fact that many of my “Irish” ancestors were Norse and some Spanish makes them less native to Ireland or entitled the British to take their land.

      • Yes, the Dakota were here before the Ojibwe and the Hopewells before them, along with a lot more we probably don’t know about. I chose brevity in describing this truth.

        In my research of Victor Power, who very much identified with his full-blooded Irish heritage, I learned that the Waterford name of “Power” was in fact French in origin. The name “Poer” came with the Normans who invaded Ireland 700 years ago. There is actually a castle in the County Waterford that was built by a noble Power (though not Vic’s people).

        Everybody’s from everywhere.

    • Joe musich says

      Nostalgia Is a concept worthy of study as to how it applies to all of this and particular to being stuck in place and/or a way out of being captured by time. Here is a link to someone as done some studying….http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/n/nostalgia/nostalgia-svetlana-boym.html
      It is interesting that the name came to me in a book written by an Associate Professor of English at Harpers College Brian Cremins. I have since communicated with him a few times. The title of the book is Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia. I have been a fan of the Fawcett comic book character since I learned to decode symbols and read at roughly 3.5 years old laying in my bed in Kitzville MN. as the cows were marched to the creek.
      Nostalgia is important to grasp in creating anew.
      Right up your

  2. Joe musich says

    alley Aaron. Thanks and sorry for the hanging sentence.

  3. Aaron, I’m grateful for your column as an outsider living on the Range. You help me to understand this place and this people better. I think that you’re also helping Rangers to know themselves, where they’ve been and where they’re going. So many things are left unspoken on the Range. Keep saying ’em!

  4. Gerald S says

    It is the inevitable nature of all extraction industries to eventually finish extracting their products. We actually saw this once before up here when the red ore era ended, but were saved by University of Minnesota research and the creation of the taconite industry. Now we can see the end of taconite ahead, and we know that the non-ferrous mines planned for the region, by their own public estimates, are going to be finished in a foreseeable and fairly short amount of time. There are no ore resources in Northeaster Minnesota currently worth mining that will last over about 30 years — of course not counting the inevitable periods of shutdown.

    So we face a future with some choices. Do we want to be West Virginia with severe wind chill? Or do we want to be ghost towns like are now seen in the Mountain West, the empty shells of towns once made prosperous by mining? Or do we want to find alternatives.

    In this environment, as Aaron points out, the main available choices are information technology and biologic technology. As the COVID-19 disaster has shown, in many fields it is possible for employees to work from a distance, rarely if ever coming in to the central offices. Small research labs working on specific problems, “back room” operations in the finance industry, manufacturing plants producing IT, medical tech and biotech products for industries located in the Metro Area, in St. Louis, and even in the Bay Area and the Puget Sound area, are all potentially possible.

    To get that we need to leverage what we already have: our beautiful natural environment and all the recreational possibilities that go with it, the low costs of land and housing, a huge surplus of electric generating capacity created to deal with the extraction and paper industries, and a workforce that is willing to work.

    But to get that, we are going to have to make some cultural changes. Large numbers of the employees who fill key high tech jobs may be from East and Southwest Asia. Many or the people who come will place the priority of preservation of the quality of the environment above new mining. Some of the more low-skilled people coming may be from Latin America, some even from Africa.

    As Aaron points out, we have already spent the first, second, and third waves of the development of new industries and technologies sitting on our hands or demanding that we be returned to 1948 without delay. The choice of what the Range is like for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren is in our hands now.

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