The giant Mesabi places a bet

Aaron J. Brown
Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, radio commentator and college instructor.
Submitted photo

Somewhere north of where you'd start calling a place pretty cold you'll find a scrub brush swamp surrounding a deep green wilderness surrounding a formation of natural iron ore in northern Minnesota. It's called the Iron Range, where I grew up and still live, though I don't mine iron ore like my forefathers or harvest pine forests, entertain the tourists or medicate the elderly residents who now dominate the region's politics and culture. I don't do any of this and yet these things run through my mind like game day box scores through a gambler's mind.

When I was growing up on my family's salvage yard, wandering among wrecks of engines I could not fix or explain, I felt different, like that first human who decided not to defecate in the water source. I became a writer, got a master's degree and began thinking of myself as a brand, like Skittles but more dignified, just like all the latter-day blue collar kids on the Range who left after partaking in this area's robust investment in public education. But I didn't leave, and that was the bet. I didn't stay out of fear or obligation. I stayed on purpose.

My bet was that if I did this, worked hard and convinced others to join me, we'd be laying cable on a high-speed, world-class Internet network up here now, and that the schools would be teaching students how to operate in a 21st century world in which the National Hockey League is irrelevant, meaningless even to ESPN.

My results have been mixed.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

The Range economy still splutters whenever the mines aren't running. Society remains dominated by baby boomers who sided with The Man during the 1960s. Minnesota's hockey franchise wears jerseys of Iron Range red, and is named the Wild, a singular noun.

My Iron Range high school didn't have hockey. It was one of the rural Range schools, an enclave for outcasts. A century ago, when labor strife blanketed the mines of the Iron Range, the bosses blacklisted the Finnish immigrants who organized the first major strikes. The Finns, recently driven out of their homelands for their socialist politics by Czarist Russia, didn't leave. They just went out to the woods outside town, almost identical to the woods in Finland, and built log cabins with saunas. They farmed anything that would grow. Most things didn't grow but the Finns stayed anyway, to prove a point.

The Mesabi Iron Range was named for a mythical giant common to several Native American legends. The Lakota Sioux called the region the Big Man Hills. They were displaced by the Anishinabe, who called it Missabe, the giant. This giant is visible still, a dull, dark mark on northern horizon. This land has been owned by many people, but is only defined by those who actually lived here.

The future of a place like this is dictated by geography, culture and politics. Our place is north, where an increasingly temperate land provides bounty and fresh water. Our culture is stoic, but nevertheless open to change, for lack of a better option. Our politics are storied, stunted and, as the 2010 election showed, poised for constant surprise.

I write a blog, of course. And blogging is as foreign to the Iron Range as any of the European languages that were heard during the early 20th century. Many changes are coming to this place, this country, this world. Of course that has already been true on the Iron Range, where life is always a gamble.


Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, radio commentator and college instructor. He is the author of the blog and the book, "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range."