The last days of the Republic

People use the word “nostalgia” to describe fond remembrances of the past. But that’s not the real meaning. 

Nostalgia comes from the Greek words nóstos álgos, or “pain of homecoming,” or perhaps “pain from an old wound.” It referred to the specific psychological aching that comes from remembering something that is gone.

We feel nostalgia for our youth because we will never again be young.

We feel nostalgia for lost loved ones because we may no longer speak to them.

On the Iron Range, we feel nostalgia for towns that no longer exist. North Hibbing and its many locations. Bennett. Lucknow. Fraser. Merritt. Sparta is barely holding on and McKinley is on the ropes. In each case, the expansion of mining not only removed a town, but often the very land on which it stood. This is true nostalgia.

And so it is that we now feel the early stages of nostalgia for the town of Kinney.

On June 5, Jimmy Lovrien of the Duluth News Tribune reported that U.S. Steel has been slowly buying out properties in Kinney. This includes the iconic tavern Liquid Larry’s, previously called Mary’s Bar. The mining company demolished the bar last April. It’s a bittersweet loss. After all, that place was once a den of revolutionaries.

In 1977, Kinney needed a new water system. Its first female mayor, Mary Anderson of the aforementioned Mary’s Bar, grew frustrated with efforts to seek federal funding to help pay for the expensive system. On the tongue-in-cheek notion that the town might have better luck seeking foreign aid, the city council voted to secede from the United States. They sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that went unanswered. 

The matter might have been dropped were it not for the attention of Ginny Wennen, a new reporter for the erstwhile Mesabi Daily News. She started covering Kinney in 1978, learning from Anderson that the town seceded from the union a few months earlier. Her coverage, beginning with the iconic headline “Move Over Monaco; Here Comes Kinney,” spurred wire reports that swept the nation. Before long, the story was on national television.

The town sold passports to raise funds. Iron Range native and famed frozen pizza magnate Geno Paulucci donated a new police car (and 10 boxes of pizza) to the fledgling Republic. The town parlayed the publicity into enough grant money from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to cover the cost of their new water plant. Though it started as a joke, secession proved a resounding success.

Historian Scott Kuzma is an old friend of mine who worked as an archivist at the Iron Range Research Center in the 2000s. In 2007, he wrote “Republic of Kinney,” a book about town’s historic secession. He spoke to me by phone from Detroit, where he lives now.

“I just feel a great sense of loss in my stomach,” said Kuzma. “I feel sad for the town and the people, and all the people who were associated with the Republic. It doesn’t seem there’s much that can be done. This is what mining is. This is what Kinney was built for.”

Kuzma said times like this are when historical organizations are most important. The Iron Range Research Library at the Minnesota Discovery Center has an oral history interview of Anderson, along with several new interviews that Kuzma did writing the book. Papers, memorabilia, even unique items like the famous Republic of Kinney passports — these all help tell the story.

Also important, the lesson that people like Anderson and the original Kinney rebels taught the Iron Range.

“If you think about Kinney, think about them being resourceful people, how they used creative problem solving,” said Kuzma. “Don’t give up. Look for alternative solutions. Be brave. Be bold.” 

Of course, Kinney is still here. The end won’t come all at once. The move of Hibbing started in 1918 but continued into the 1960s. Just like before, the process will be slow and methodical, dictated by the will of U.S. Steel, Cleveland Cliffs and whatever comes next. We only know that the Kinney of lore, and even the one most folks know today, now fades into that old Greek nostalgia.

As Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”

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 Saturday, June 29, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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