The old roads are rapidly agin’

This inscription may be found over one of the entrances of Mesabi East High School in Aurora, Minnesota. It bears consideration as the Iron Range considers its way forward in a new century. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Today you can read my latest column for the Minnesota Reformer.

Don’t tell anyone, but there’s a Bible verse etched above one of the entry doors to the Mesabi East High School in Aurora, Minnesota. It reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18). Though the biblical meaning is distinctly conformist and very Old Testament, the reason it was carved there was to encourage the children of miners to hold a vision for their future as they entered those doors.

In scripture, this stunning line hides within a long list of Old Testament instructions and admonishments. I was fascinated to read that it comes just one chapter after Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.” That’s a great verse that opens the Coen Brothers version of the movie, “True Grit.” There’s another good example of Proverbs set to a story.

You don’t have to be a believer of any given religion to see how the story of the Iron Range wavers between Old and New testaments. Some grudges outlast the bloodline of entire families, and yet stunning redemption can be found in the community spirit that has arisen in times of need.

The Iron Range starts a new year on edge. This is not terribly unusual or even remarkable these days. Worries over the potential closure of Hibbing Taconite linger. So does anxiety over the continued idling of Northshore Mining at Babbitt and Silver Bay. Some mines run hot while others become redundant in an increasingly complex iron and steel market.

What’s new?

Longtime readers know I’ve been writing about the Iron Range economy for the past 20 years. First, I wrote as a rank-and-file journalist. Then I wrote as a blogger. More recently I’ve explored deeper concepts in the broader context of history. Writing about the Iron Range often follows narrow themes. You may find them in the comments of the Mesabi Tribune‘s Facebook page. Today, I present a different take — one rooted in the region’s 130-year history of iron mining, but also its uncharted future.

My latest for the Minnesota Reformer and first column of the new year is “Hope for the Iron Range economy, but we must put the past behind us.”

Here’s a taste:

Change happens slowly, except when it happens all at once. An economic transition that began 40 years ago is about to break into a sprint. Bad news and fresh opportunities alike spew out of an industrial-grade bilge pump.

Just like the tumultuous transition from natural iron ore to taconite 70 years ago, the Iron Range today morphs from taconite to direct-reduced iron production. With this, companies like U.S. Steel and Cleveland Cliffs promise another century of ore production, much to the relief to the region’s 4,000-plus miners and local politicians buttered on both sides by the industry.

This people of this place have ached for better times my whole life. And yet, longing for the past threatens to choke out a viable vision for the future. Northern Minnesota could be part of a climate change solution, a driver of clean energy and carbon-neutral transportation, and a hub for new technology.

Or it could speed like a souped-up Chevy down a road that runs out.

The piece is memoir, history and science with only a few pyrite streaks of politics. Read the whole thing at the Minnesota Reformer.


  1. Fred Schumacher says

    Seventy years ago people on the Range were much younger. Today, the median age of Babbitt residents is 53. What happened to the young people? They left. Who stayed behind? Those who live in the past. That’s why Babbitt voted 2 to 1 Republican in the last election, supporting politicians who said they would protect their “traditional way of life,” one that ended three generations ago and is not coming back. In Babbitt, they’re not following the Proverbs quote you started with. The Babbitt mine will not reopen permanently because Cleveland Cliffs doesn’t need an old, expensive operation. That’s been clear since the February, 2022 interview of Lourenco Goncalves on a national investment advice radio program.

    In 1980 economist Lester Thurow wrote The Zero Sum Society and discussed who would be the winners and who the inevitable losers in an economy where a rising tide lifting all boats no longer operates. Thurow noted that while WW II destroyed most of the manufacturing capacity of the world, America’s was not damaged. So the U.S. made steel with ancient open hearth furnaces, while the rest of the world built modern. Thus, America became non-competitive in the world market and is now only the 5th largest producer of steel in the world. Finally, with electric furnaces, U.S. steel making has entered the modern world.

    Mining is a one-time harvest. Any mine’s end is baked in before the first shovel full is dug. Iron ore mining will end in northern Minnesota. It’s only a question of when not if. If the Range wants to survive it needs to look at the renewable assets it has surrounding it. Ligning, a biproduct of paper manufacture, has been burned and land filled, but now research is developing new, valuable products from it, like recycleable foam to replace petrochemicals and electrodes for lithium-ion car batteries. The open secret is that it’s value-added that creates wealth, not raw commodities.

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    ooops. typo. It’s lignin, the resin which binds cellulose fibers to each other. It is an extremely complex carbohydrate polymer. Neighboring North Dakota State University has been doing research on lignin derived industrial foams.

  3. Joe musich says

    Well now ! Hydrogen batteries certainly would be helpful across a number circles in a Venn diagram. Here an additional report….

    Thanks for the Reformer piece. Time has come today. I remember the excitement for taconite as a kid up there in Hibbing. This interweaving could be an entire ne interplay. I fear the largest hurdle to overcome will self righteous conservative know nothingism which you more generously refer to in the full Reformer article.

  4. I would like to note that for people like me, and the Coen brothers, there is no “Old Testament.” Proverbs is from the Hebrew Bible, and our ancestors wrote it.

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