The death of stories, and their resurrection

A group of Ojibwe dancers from Nett Lake at the St. Louis County Fair in the old Pool Location near Hibbing. (PHOTO: Aubin Collection, Hibbing Historical Society)

I recently finished reading every single edition of the erstwhile Hibbing Daily Tribune and Mesaba Ore / Hibbing Daily News from the years 1913 to 1926. I’d guess that’s about 3,000 individual newspapers, eight to 24 pages apiece.

Is that a humblebrag? Honestly, it seems really hard to tell. It might just be a call for help.

For the past four years I’ve been scanning these old papers on a microfilm reader in my basement. This hulking, groaning, clunking machine absorbs a vast amount of space, both on my wife’s former puzzle table and in my head.

Apologies to present-day newspapers, but there is no comparison in terms of the amount of detail shared in these century-old publications. Workers didn’t just “die tragically” in “workplace accidents.” No, they were “blown to atoms” or “crushed by a slab of frozen ore.”

In fact, death was both omnipresent and gruesomely detailed, a refreshing departure from the stilted, obscure way we address the topic nowadays. It’s one thing to know you might die today. It’s another to know that, while chatting with a mother and young child on a sidewalk, you might be hit by a runaway cabbage truck piloted by a man whose head is stuck in a cabbage basket that falls on him before his speeding vehicle drags your lifeless body 50 feet. (True story, 1920).

Back then, the last thing you wanted to read in the paper was that you were “recovering.” President Warren G. Harding was recovering for three days before he died in 1923. His wife fared no better the following year, despite her apparent recovery.

Death was hardly the only beneficiary of detail, however. Accounts of weddings, school assemblies, and even mundane activities like tea parties overflowed with luscious detail about the food, clothing, and music that surrounded the names of our mostly dead ancestors.

Here I find a truth that most disturbs me, much more than death, which is a fact of life. It is that we do so poorly in remembering our stories.

Today, this daily newspaper covers more than two dozen cities, each of which once had their own daily or weekly newspaper. And yet, most days, the paper is no larger and actually considerably less detailed than a single edition of any of those old papers. They even shrunk the physical size of the paper years ago, coming down from those big, beautiful broadsheets so they could mail something much smaller to the people wintering in Arizona or Florida.

Online? Only the lead stories are featured on the website. Ten years later, the entire archive might be reorganized in a way that makes it impossible to read papers in chronological order the way I just reviewed papers from a century ago. An electromagnetic pulse would wipe it all clean.

All of that might be tolerable if we were doing a good job of documenting our lives to one another. But we live on our phones. Our photos, passwords, and most recollection of what we did or might do on any given day could be lost at moment’s notice. Not because we died, thought that would suffice, but because our phone fell in a portable toilet.

The historian Heather Cox Richardson writes eloquently about the ways that history intersect with the present. Her newsletter, “Letters From An American,” is widely read. Late last year she wrote about the Battle of Wounded Knee, the tragic slaughter of unarmed Dakota people being transported to a reservation. The event occurred on Dec. 29, 1890, but she wrote about the events of Dec. 28 being just as tragic. For that is the day that the dying chief encouraged his people to follow the soldiers, thinking everything would be OK.

“One of the curses of history is that we cannot go back and change the course leading to disasters, no matter how much we might wish to,” writes Richardson in her Dec. 28, 2021 note. “The past has its own terrible inevitability. But it is never too late to change the future.”

This comment resonated with me as I finished the final research for my book on late Hibbing mayor Victor L. Power.

I knew from the beginning of the project that Vic Power died on April 6, 1926. It was one of the first facts I understood. And yet, the passing of time hypnotized me. Reading papers from 1913 into the 1920s, Power came back to life.

But the reels kept spinning, much faster than time itself. I read the bulk of his adult life in just a couple years. As 1925 spun into 1926 I suddenly realized that the fateful day was coming soon.

I had thought, as many do, that death would come softly, almost as a relief. This was a mistake. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that old Vic didn’t know he was going to die. In fact, he acted like he was going to live. He was involved in several important legal cases and seemed to have designs on a second act in life after a series of setbacks.

And then Power died alone, in bed, so far as anyone knows.

When you rewind a microfilm reel, you are greeted rather abruptly by the sound of the film slapping against the machine coupled with a high-pitched shriek as the RPMs accelerate. This sound means the end. No more. All that is known is gone.

There are many such sounds in life. I imagine that the piano that fell out the back of a truck on Howard Street in June 1925 produced such a sound. The driver didn’t hear it. He just kept going. But everyone downtown heard the cacophonous crash and came out to investigate.

What happened? Something, but no one could say for sure. And so another story was lost.

I’ll be speaking the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 22, at Valentini’s Supper Club in Chisholm for the annual meeting of the Minnesota Museum of Mining. Tickets cost $30 and include dinner. Reserve a spot if you’d like to come hear some stories by e-mailing or calling 218-254-2179. Check in starts at 5 p.m., with dinner at 5:30.

Even if you don’t come, one of the best uses of your time today is gathering the stories of your life. Some may come from elders still with us, others from the archives of our own minds. Write, compile, and remember beyond just the hazy outlines. For in the fog of the past we can find signals to guide us through the future. These beacons will light the way for those who come after us.

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, Feb. 20, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. So poetic

  2. Very well written piece, and a clear call to record more details of our lives! Thank you.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.