The Hunt for Red October: Cherry Edition

When you’re from Cherry, Minnesota, you get used to certain conversations. 

For instance, “Where is Cherry?” (Just east of Hibbing). “Lotta hayfields out there.” (Ya). And of course, “Isn’t Gus Hall from Cherry?” (Yes, of course).

In fact, I know that fact better than most. I was the last journalist to interview Hall before he died 21 years ago this month. 

Gus Hall, American communist leader, 1910-2000.

Born Arvo Kuusta Halberg in October 1910, Hall was arguably the most prominent American Communist of the 20th Century. He led the Community Party-USA for 43 years. He ran for president four times, becoming something of a 1980s political punchline.

But in the 1930s Hall played a critical role organizing unions in the steel industry. The United Steelworkers of America, still the largest industrial union in Minnesota, can trace its origins to Hall’s early rabble-rousing in Youngstown, Ohio.

But before all that, he was a Finnish-American boy living in a rustic hand-crafted house west of Iron Junction. His father Matt was among the many Finns blacklisted after the 1907 iron miners strike. It was in this home, amid the socialist ideals of a time just before Soviet-style communism, that Gus Hall began his revolutionary journey.

This was all very fascinating to me as an aspiring journalist and historian from Cherry. When I was 19, just a year separated from my high school graduation, I was granted access to the high school principal’s office to make a long distance phone call.

That summer we tried to run a small grant-funded community newspaper in Cherry. My friend Andy Miller and I worked together on the project. We both sat in the office that day, a legal precaution because of this odd situation, while I dialed the phone number for Communist Party Headquarters in New York City. 

“Mr. Hall?” I asked the gruff voice on the other end of the phone. It was him. And so we began.

By that time, in the late 1990s, Communism was no longer the overwhelming threat we had been raised to believe. The Soviet Union was done. We didn’t have any inkling of 9/11 or the ways in which the internet and smart phones would change the world. These times provided the illusion of peace.

Looking back my story would prove to be a little too easy on Hall. After all, he was a lightning rod of controversy even among communists. When the People’s Weekly World newspaper called our story “the best coverage the CPUSA ever received” I knew I had put myself on some kind of watchlist.

Indeed, the Hall interview followed me well into my career. I’m not sure if it ever qualified me for my own FBI file, but it did catch the attention of Finnish-American historians and researchers. I spoke to local groups and even to Finn Fest in Minneapolis four years ago. I wrote a story about my experiences for the Finnish-American Reporter. And just this year I learned that my Cherry article was part of the first comprehensive research project about Hall’s life

Tuomas Savonen is a Finnish journalist and historian. He defended a dissertation about Hall at the University of Helsinki last last year. The Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters just published the work as a book called “Minnesota, Moscow, Manhattan: Gus Hall’s Life and Political Line Until the Late 1960s.” 

Savonen contacted me about his work. He ended up digging even deeper into Hall’s upbringing and career than I could have dreamed in 1999. 

Savonen’s book is worth reading from multiple points of view. Iron Range historians will appreciate the conditions that produced a young Gus Hall in Cherry. Those interested in American industry will see the way that our modern mining, steelmaking, and manufacturing unions came to be. 

But ultimately, Hall’s life is a cautionary tale about political zealotry applied to rapid change. Hall’s stubbornness and opportunism ultimately undermined his political goals. He talked about improving workers’ lives, but he achieved little of this goal as a communist leader. 

Wrote Savonen in his book, “It may not be a gross exaggeration to say that Hall made his biggest positive contribution to the American society as the local level organizer of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee in Ohio in the 1930s.”

The rest was a lot of noise, and a whole lot of secret Soviet money — as much as $40 million by some estimates, all used to maintain a lavish lifestyle for Hall and his closest lieutenants on the island of Manhattan.

In the end, his failures surprised even Hall himself. Many of his closest friends turned out to be FBI informants. The Soviet government never trusted him with secrets because they knew his whole social network was reporting everything he did and said. Hall’s story was no joke. It was a tragedy. 

But you can still drive through Cherry and imagine how world events can intersect with such places. You can even see the field where, for a time, Gus Hall had the Soviet Union send the only purebred Arabian horses in America. 

That would be Cherry. Just east of Hibbing. Look for hay and you’ll know you’re there.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, October 17, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Carol Chubiz says

    So good. So interesting.

  2. David William Kannas says

    It was your story published in the Finnish- American Reporter that made me aware of you and your stories about the area in which I grew up. Gus Hall was, kin many ways, a charlatan, but a charlatan that made a difference in the lives of workers. You have added an important layer of knowledge to my life that I might otherwise have not had if I had not seen that edition of the Finnish-American Reporter. Thanks for that.

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