Elegy for the pack-sacker

Frank Hibbing, just another pack-sacker (PHOTO: Barr Engineering)

In 1922, Claude Atkinson, editor of the erstwhile Hibbing Daily News and Mesaba Ore opined about a local pageant celebrating the mining history of the Mesabi Iron Range.

Iron Range towns at that time seemed curiously young for such nostalgia. It would be the modern equivalent of a pageant celebrating a 30 year high school reunion. Most of the principles were still alive, just fatter and less agile.

Nevertheless, this 1922 pageant was apparently quite a show, even though Atkinson thought it was missing something important.

Atkinson was glad to see local kids paying tribute to the early surveyors who explored and measured the land. They were called pack-sackers, he said, but the play forgot to show their pack-sacks. Those pack-sacks were the whole deal. From these heavy bags, strong men could subsist on bacon grease and flour alone. They could weather any storm and map the earth, sometimes for the first time.

“We of the old-fashioned clan regret the passing of a class that seldom got into the public print—unless during a visit to town after a successful trappin’ season, or after ‘he’d sold his pine,’” wrote Atkinson. “Yet he is entitled to a high place in the history records of the northland, and to whom we owe much for what we see about us today.”

This century-old editorial reminded me of the term “pack-sacker,” a light pejorative that Iron Rangers today cast against people who did not grow up here. It’s funny how time so deftly twists the meaning of words. 

It’s plain to see how it happened. The early Iron Rangers knew the pack-sackers as transients, not the type to settle in the new towns so eagerly constructed along the iron formation. And each generation of local residents grew to distrust the changes that came with each wave of new people. 

In 1907, a miners’ strike led by Finnish and Italian immigrants was busted by the arrival of more than 1,000 slavic immigrants from the Austrian Empire.

In 1916, a strike that included those same new immigrants was ended by the market pressures of World War I, a war about changing power structures and human migration.

By the downturn of the early 1920s, immigrants themselves were seen as an economic threat, feared and hated even by other immigrants not ten years separated from the same boats and trains. 

And yet, who would be here without enduring the pain and struggle of arriving? No one. Even indigenous people arrived under the duress of change.

Prosperity finally came in the 20th Century; mostly because of the rise of industrial unions and the electrifying mix of the New Deal and World War II spending. From then on it’s been the old story of trying and slowly failing to keep what we’ve got. 

Along the way, we started calling new people “pack-sackers.” The same phenomenon allowed Bugs Bunny to turn the word “Nimrod” into an insult, when it began as a term of praise for a skillful hunter.

One of the dangers of sarcasm is that it depletes our reverence for the words we use. After all, pack-sacker is no slur. Rather, the word simply describes a person who carries what they need with them. 

Perhaps in that we find the reality of life in these challenging times. We each walk this earth, surviving off what we find. We can share knowledge, and maybe even sometimes what Atkinson described as a grease-laden “jowler” with our fellow people. When we work together and share, we prosper. That’s society. Hardly a new invention.

We must not fear new people, for we are all new people with no time or ability to stop change. The sooner we learn that, the sooner we see how to create useful change. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. A very deserved tribute to Claude. He was the voice of Hibbing back in the early 1900’s — courageous and edgy in some of his commentaries. Well done, Aaron.

  2. joe musich says

    I am in the middle of reading the Killers of the Flower Moon. Your goal of “..when we work together and share we prosper..” seems a little difficult in the moment. But nevertheless is what we should be seeking.

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