When your high school is torn down, progress seems like a mixed blessing

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

Old schools are torn down all the time. Most of the time they've already closed. My old elementary school at Forbes was turned into a bar. C'est la vie.

I now find myself in an odd case, however. My old high school was torn down Tuesday, June 14, so that it could be made new. Somehow this does not provide comfort.

I attended Cherry High School, graduating in 1998. Cherry is a township at the edge of Hibbing's rural eastern borders on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota.

Fundamentally, what makes Cherry unique is its origin story. Finnish immigrants were blacklisted from working in the mines after organizing a massive failed labor strike across Minnesota's iron ranges in 1907. Instead of leaving, the Finns moved outside the towns into the tamarack marshes, lowlands and timber stands surrounding the iron formation.

Some of the places settled by Finns were Cherry, Zim and Sax in St. Louis County - areas where I grew up - and Balsam Township in Itasca County, where I live now. Many other townships in the region bear Finnish road names and Finnish farmsteads: Embarrass, Palo, Meadowlands and more. Cherry holds the distinction of having been founded by a particularly vocal group of Finnish socialists, among them the family of longtime U.S. Communist Party boss Gus Hall. Literate and frustrated with the influence of czarist Russia in their homeland, the Red Finns took their passion (and their high literacy rate) to America.

I don't begrudge the St. Louis County Schools their plan to consolidate and modernize their rural schools as part of the reorganization plan approved by voters a couple of years ago. Indeed, the Cherry School will be rebuilt into a newer, slightly larger and certainly more modern facility over the summer. K-12 students from Cherry and surrounding areas will attend classes on Tamminen Road as they have since the old days.

The part of the school torn down was the original building, erected in 1928 at the dawn of the Great Depression - which was as bad on the Range as it was anywhere else in the country. The school persisted, as did its students, whose parents had already been subsistence farming and logging since the blacklists a decade earlier.

The years that followed were marked by the provision of a simple, quality education to the children of working class families. Successive generations of teachers carried the tradition of academic rigor and the identification of both advanced students and those who needed help. We had foreign languages, college placement English, shop, art, band and choir. We even had one of the few Future Farmers of America chapters on the Iron Range, in deference to the remaining dairy and hay farmers in the area. (I was on the farm management team, even though I had never been on a farm.) Some of this continues, but most of it has faded with the new funding formulas and declining enrollment of the early 2000s.

The old building was once a stand-alone school. The classrooms where I attended my English and social studies classes had cloakrooms and back offices which used to serve administrative functions. From one of these rooms I can recall Mr. Hadash fishing out a dog-eared copy of "The Grapes of Wrath," telling me to keep it because I "needed it." I still have that book. I still need it. I also remember Mr. Haapala lending me "The Red Badge of Courage" from his back room, telling me to return it because Stephen Crane wrote it in three weeks and I ought to be able to read it even faster. I think I had it back to him in two days, along with a very nerdy unrequested book report.

It is true that the new heating system will be an improvement. My best friend Joe's family -- his grandfather and aunt -- have maintained that cantankerous boiler since before the Space Age. It is true that the new building will be more modern, with fiber optic wiring and capabilities unavailable in the creaky wood-floored halls and rooms of the old building. The modern version of myself, sucking up bandwidth with every motion, knows how important this is for today's kids. This version of myself was founded, however, in the old building when it still showed some semblance of the old days.

We are in the new. This is as it must be. I just never expected the new to stand on top of the past in such a way that obscures what was once so important to so many people. Did anyone save the names carved into the back walls? How will they know we were there?

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Aaron J. Brown is a writer, radio commentator and college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and the book "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range." He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.

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