MinnesotaBrown’s Top Posts of 2020

Farewell, 2020. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

It’s time once again to share my most read posts from MinnesotaBrown for the previous year. 2020 may not have been a great year for many, but it was a memorable year, one that will become part the stories we tell for a long time.

This year I’ve been working on my book “Power in the Wilderness,” which I sold to the University of Minnesota Press earlier in 2020. I’ve also been working with the filmmaker Karl Jacob on a podcast version of the same story. We could use your support (and your ears!) at Power in the Wilderness.

This enterprise, in addition to my career and family, consumed nearly all the time I would have spent writing blog posts. So I’ll dispense with the usual sharing of blog statistics. Sufficed to say they reflect the fact that I posted a lot less and generally avoided the time intensive projects that sometimes attract more readers.

For instance, my election coverage was minimal. Just didn’t have it in me. Wouldn’t have mattered. Local politics has become consumed by national politics. Engaging in local political discourse means arguing with people about Trump, AOC, and Q-Anon, which grows tiresome. So I just didn’t do it. No time anyway.

I kept up my weekly column in the Mesabi Tribune, and added a monthly column for the Minnesota Reformer. A lot of my best work for year ended up there instead of here. But they pay me money, so that’s how it goes. (The nonprofit Reformer is free to read and you should, while becoming a member if at all possible).

And while overall readership was down, I got some nice traffic for the following posts. You can always review the archives for lost favorites if you have the time.

Top Posts of 2020

1 – Et tu? Caucus revolt renders Shakespearian outcome for Bakk, Range DFL

The successful Senate DFL leadership challenge by Woodbury Sen. Susan Kent against Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook may prove significant in the history of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Here, definitively, the party’s success in urban and suburban districts met with its struggles in rural Minnesota. Tom Bakk became a Shakespearean character, now entering his final dramatic final act.

2 – Iron Range Fourth of July 2020

It was a historically subdued Fourth of July on the Iron Range because of COVID-19. But there were still fireworks and a few rogue gatherings. I hope the 2021 listing is more robust and closer to normal.

3 – Story of Minnesota Ojibwe chief Hole in the Day headed to Hollywood

One of the undertold stories from Minnesota history is the life and times of the Ojibwe leader Hole-in-the-Day the Younger. Now a major Hollywood screenwriter is adapting Dr. Anton Treuer’s book about the complicated man and his efforts to unite Minnesota’s Chippewa bands. I imagine COVID-19 will slow down any production schedule, but this was still an exciting development.

4 – Refugee debate strays from reality

A cynical action by the Trump Administration demanding that every county in the country vote to accept or reject refugees churned up racial resentment and xenophobia across the land, including here in northern Minnesota. That was the point of it. And it worked. We distrust our neighbors, fear demographic change, and misunderstand our history more than ever.

5 – IRRR must adapt or be smashed to pieces

Last summer the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board got caught up in an unnecessary political conflict with the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, while members of the board sparred with the Bois Forte Band as well. The attempt to block funding for a water project on the reservation, and within the Taconite Tax Relief Area, ended up appearing petty and perhaps even racist. I argued that the agency must reform itself and its strategy or find itself irrelevant or even counterproductive in the shaping of a more prosperous Iron Range future.

6 – Duluth attorney McEwen thumps Simonson for DFL State Senate endorsement

Another sign of change within the DFL ranks as Duluth party activists turned against a moderate pro-copper mining incumbent for a more environmentally minded challenger. Jen McEwen would go on to win the primary and general elections with relative ease.

7 – Even northern towns under curfew tonight after chaotic week in Minnesota

Last May, the civil unrest in Minneapolis after police killed George Floyd spilled across the country. Though there was no rioting or property damage here on the Iron Range, false internet rumors and white nationalists propagated the idea that van loads of looters were coming to the Range, a notion that even some local city governments took seriously. I know people who sat up on their front porch all night with guns. 

8 – A new age on the Iron Range

This was the first column of mine that ran in the Mesabi Tribune, a result of the July merger between the Mesabi Daily News and the newspaper that has run my column for 19 years, the Hibbing Daily Tribune. I lay out my central message about the Iron Range’s past, present, and future.

9 – We all fall down

In the aftermath of the riots in Minneapolis I looked back at Iron Range history to find an event that paralleled the uncertainty and potential destruction. The IWW Strike of 1916 included fires, police violence, roaming gangs of uncertain loyalties. Only time allows today’s Iron Rangers to forget what it’s like to be under the boot of a ruling class. 

10 – Iron Range epidemics and the greater good

You might have noticed me writing a lot more about history in my columns and blog posts this year. Obviously my book research consumed most of my thinking. But the timing was good. My research provided context for pandemics, too. In this case, the story of pandemics and race relations converged. One of the most important figures in helping Hibbing through the Flu Epidemic of 1918 was a Black woman who gave her life to a town that seemed to love her, but not her people. 

11 – Wanna hear the most annoying sound in Duluth?

Sometimes a boat scrapes against the Duluth canal wall and it reminds of us what normal problems look (and sound) like. 

12 – New CEO, pilot plant highlight Prairie River Minerals activity

Prairie River Minerals is the latest small mining company that seeks to turn old iron ore stockpiles on the western Mesabi Iron Range into salable materials. This year it started a pilot plant north of Coleraine and hired a CEO who once led Minntac for U.S. Steel. Next year? We’ll see. The iron business is in flux, though domestic demand remains high.

13 – Cleveland-Cliffs resets the Mesabi Iron Range

Arguably the biggest mining story of the year — and the most important economic story on the Iron Range — was Cleveland-Cliffs buying ArcelorMittal USA. The move made Cliffs the largest integrated steelmaker in North America, and the biggest mining company on the Mesabi Range. How the dominoes fall remains to be seen, though we can certainly expect more change in the long run.

14 – Five Northeastern Minnesota colleges move toward merger

You may know that this blog doesn’t pay my bills. Rather, I’m a full time instructor at Hibbing Community College. (This blog is not affiliated with my employer). The college is one of five Northeastern Minnesota community and technical colleges that will merge in 2022. This is another project that has consumed some of the time I might have given to blogging this year. I’m chair of my college’s academic affairs committee and part of the group merging the curriculum of the five colleges into one. It’s every bit as complex as you might imagine. (Coupled with staring at a microfilm machine all the time and you might see why I’m ruined for normal social interaction).

Like high school mergers, these sorts of things come with both positives and negatives. In our case we’ll preserve six campuses in six communities, and that wouldn’t otherwise be possible given funding and enrollment trends in our region.

15 – There was a peaceful school called Rock Ridge

Speaking of mergers, the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts will merge in 2022. They named the new high school and school district “Rock Ridge,” because of the rocky terrain on the site where the three communities chose to build the school. Of course, Rock Ridge is also the name of the town in “Blazing Saddles” but we’re all just collectively ignoring that fact, it would seem. 

16 – CD8 race to test GOP trend in Northern Minnesota

I did manage a few election analysis pieces this year. This was one. I’d say the GOP trend held up just fine. Like most rural places, new voters came out to support Trump. And they mostly voted straight-ticket GOP. The beneficiary here was incumbent Republican Rep. Pete Stauber.

17 – Amy Klobuchar: The Senator from Minnesota

Do you remember in the before-times when some people thought Amy Klobuchar might be president? Early in the primary season I wrote this piece about our popular senior senator based on my experiences in politics. At the time I believed it more likely that Klobuchar would emerge the VP candidate or a high-level cabinet post. But now even that seems a long shot. 

18 – Now less than ever

I attempt wry humor surrounding the phrase “Now more than ever” that seems so ubiquitous during COVID times.

19 – Competitive legislative races slated across the Northland

This preview of competitive legislative races in Northeastern Minnesota proved to be a take-out menu for the GOP. They ate well. 

20 – Don’t call it a mall

Echoing some of my past writing about retail trends, this column explored the new names of Iron Range malls, each of which politely requests we stop calling them malls.

Other Favorites

Too Many Sticks: Losing the fight against fifth grade fascism

This is probably my favorite piece of 2020. It tells about a real elementary school playground memory in the context of my contemporary feelings about the world we live in. I mimicked the writing style of a Cold War Yugoslavian dissident. A lot of people told me this was really funny. I cried writing it.

Water, Land, Climate

What’s lost in our constant debates over mining and natural resources in Northeastern Minnesota is the fact that we fail to recognize the value of what we have, and thus barter it away like it was worthless. As an uncertain future comes, we risk everything by following these predictable ruts.

Vote for local leadership, not furniture

Comparing local Iron Range officials to furniture is always fun and often correct.

In chaos, only gratitude will do

Stop complaining! Can the resentment! Teach our kids that it’s going to be OK. Even it if its not, that’s how we get through. 

Driving it home

I’ve got a kid driving now. (Insert appropriate emoji)

Another giant awakens

I was just floored learning about how much iron ore exists in previously inaccessible parts of east Africa. More than was on the Mesabi in its prime. This is the tenuous nature of depending wholly on a natural resources economy.

2020 Hindsight

I wrote a three-part series about a 1998 special section of the Hibbing Daily Tribune that attempted to predict the year 2020. Some hits and misses, but generally I learned that predicting the future only tells you about the present.

2020 Hindsight: Revisiting the future of our past

And 2020 Hindsight: Revisiting the future of our past, Part 2

And 2020 Hindsight: Revisiting the future of our past, Part 3

Oh, yeah

Chuck, Heidi and I continued the Dig Deep podcast at Northern Community Radio.

I also reviewed the entire fourth season of “Fargo” on FX in my unique, Minnesota-centric style. This season didn’t take place in Minnesota, but the story engaged themes very appropriate to our lives here on the Iron Range. I wrote a column explaining why.

In conclusion

Media teems with the sentiment that we should hail the end of 2020 and the start of 2021 with some sort of relief. This notion rests on the premise that our collective problems — the COVID-19 pandemic, willful attacks on American democracy, economic uncertainty, and even murder hornets — can be pinned on something as abstract as a calendar year.

Children, all these problems remain. The only variable we control is ourselves and to a lesser degree the shared vision we may enact as a society.

Good luck to you. Good luck to me. Let’s get to work.



  1. Well, Aaron:
    To my way of seeing things, your writing has, over the last couple of years or so, gotten increasingly nuanced and perceptive. Keep up the good work.

  2. Mike Worcester says

    I try to steer politically like-minded folks in my sphere of associates who ask me about Northern Minnesota issues towards you. Hope it’s helping your clicks. 🙂

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