1920s roar back to life

IMAGE: The Plastic Age (Percy Marks), public domain, 1923

The 1920s earned the nickname, “the Roaring ‘20s,” from economic exuberance and social change. 

Farm kids moved to town. Women started having fun in public. Social experiments like Prohibition became more complicated than originally planned. Despite all that, it was a politically conservative era, electing Harding, Coolidge and Hoover as presidents. The economy boomed for high rollers, but spawned wealth disparity that triggered the Great Depression.

Amazingly, this era — a period described to me years ago by people who lived it — occurred a full century ago. That’s the awful magic of 100 years. It seems close enough to touch, but melts into a mirage of childhood memories and lore.

I’ve been living in the 1920s since the 2020s began. For the past seven years — and counting — I’ve been working on a book about Victor L. Power, the ambitious mayor of Hibbing, Minnesota who oversaw the town’s famous move from north to south. Right now I’m editing the book, which has proven an enormous undertaking.

As part of the process, I read every single edition of Hibbing’s two former newspapers, the Hibbing Daily Tribune and Mesaba Ore and Hibbing News, between 1913 and 1926. I was looking for local history, but absorbed a significant amount of 1920s slang and pop culture. So much so that I’m not only uncool to my kids, but to three previous generations. 

Even as the book takes far too long to finish, the information I’ve gathered gave me valuable perspective on a spate of 100-year anniversaries here on the Mesabi Iron Range. We marked a century since the flu epidemic of 1918, World War I, the move of Hibbing and the construction of a state highway system we’ve long since taken for granted.

Most of the classic-style high schools were built during this period, including educational cathedrals in Hibbing, Chisholm, Virginia and Eveleth. We’ve watched two of those buildings close and one be torn down just this year.

The Hibbing High School still stands, and this year marks the 100th anniversary since the construction of its famous auditorium. The sprawling theater inspired by Broadway was dedicated Jan. 28, 1924. 

What was it like when the auditorium opened? What did it feel like to be in that room? Well, you’ll get to see my best guess soon enough.

The Hibbing Foundation “Roaring ‘20s Revue” will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14 at the Hibbing High School auditorium. Admission is free. The event will help mark the 30th anniversary of the Hibbing Foundation and the 100th anniversary of the construction of the auditorium.

I’ll be co-hosting the show with my friend Karl Jacob (Wiiliainen), a New York filmmaker and actor who’s originally from Hibbing. Together we produced the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” about our shared search for the true story behind Victor Power and the rise of Hibbing. We’ll be doing fun new versions of some of our favorite stories on stage. Mainly, you’ll get to experience the kind of entertainment that the auditorium was built to provide.

You can find out more about our podcast at PowerInTheWilderness.com. The University of Minnesota Press will publish my book of the same name in about a year.

Other talent for the show includes Sam Miltich and the Clearwater Hot Club, Sugar on the Roof, a vaudevillian duo of Rosy (Frost) Kirk and Suzanne (Dustrude) Starr, the Hibbing High School jazz band and actors Jason and Louisa Scorich. 

I don’t know if our ‘20s are “roaring” quite like the 1920s, but that might be a good thing. Every era deserves its own description. Fortunately, those who came before made a place we can still light up with good times. See you at the show.

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 Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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