HIBBING, MINN. – Coffee-scented steam drifted across frozen Carey Lake toward more than 200 ruddy-cheeked men, women and children hunched over holes in the ice, waiting for the Winter Frolic fishing tournament to start.
Inside an icehouse that doubled as a refreshment stand, Rotary Club volunteers fired up the hot dogs and chili. Outside, judges waited by a laketop fire pit to weigh fish.
This Iron Range city has hosted a Frolic — a week of games, pageantry and Finnish-style sledding — since the 1920s. It’s a rite as old as Hibbing’s tradition of voting Democrat in every presidential election.
This year, only one of those things happened.
Republican Donald Trump took office with a promise to “remember the forgotten men and women of America” and to restore the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” He swore he’d rebuild America’s roads and bridges and do it with American steel. He pledged to bring American manufacturing roaring back.
It’s a message that’s resonating in this pro-union, working-class Democratic stronghold just beginning to shake off a global steel slump that shuttered half the region’s mines over the past two years and put thousands of Rangers out of work. And it was a message that tipped the Iron Range — and Hibbing, its largest city — to Trump by the narrowest of margins.
Three weeks into his presidency, Trump is battling in federal court to close the nation’s borders to refugees from some countries. He’s also kick-started two stalled oil pipeline projects, nixed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and made plans to wall off Mexico.
While thousands of Americans storm the streets, airports and courthouse squares in protest, Trump’s supporters here like what they see and hope he’ll honor his promise to make America’s steel industry great again.
“I think it’ll be an adventure,” said Hibbing resident Cathy Baudeck, who, with some help from a roll of duct tape, had just administered first aid to a Frolic fisherman who’d gashed his leg with an ice auger. “We should just hold on and see what he can do.”
The sweatshirt under Debra Mayerich’s down vest pinpoints the Iron Range’s place in the world: “Somewhere north of Cotton and south of Canada.”
Like other Rangers, the Hibbing resident is fiercely proud of her home in the North Woods. Generations of families have gutted it out here through recessions, steel busts, long stretches of bitter cold and the lure of job offers in distant cities.
“We Support Mining,” read signs in the shop windows. “Mining Supports Us.”
That loyalty to the land extends to their neighbors, their unions and the industry that drew their great-grandparents to this region 200 miles north of the Twin Cities.
Until last year, that loyalty usually extended to Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
“We were from a strong Democratic family our whole life,” said Mayerich, who sat in the bleachers in the Hibbing Memorial Arena on a recent Friday, watching a hockey game with her mother and sister, Trump voters all.
“The Iron Range was the DFL and [the DFL] was for family, it was for values, and they strayed away from that,” she said. “So we figured, ‘We’re going to go Trump.’ ”
Her family wasn’t the only one — Trump shredded the DFL’s united front in cities and counties across the Range.
He won Hibbing by seven votes. It wasn’t exactly a landslide, but it was a startling turn for a community of about 16,000 residents that hadn’t sent a Republican to the White House since Herbert Hoover in 1928.
Itasca County flipped to Trump, too, while Hillary Clinton carried neighboring St. Louis County. Clinton held on to mining towns like Virginia, Chisholm, Eveleth and Keewatin. But Trump peeled off Grand Rapids, Hoyt Lakes, Gilbert and Tower.
The same election also propelled Republican Sandy Layman of Cohasset, a former commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, into the Legislature, ousting longtime DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc.
“Sometimes people feel hopeless. They feel as if government actions and policies are out of their control,” Layman said. “This last election was an attempt to take back control.”
It had been a long time since voters here heard a presidential candidate talk about mining jobs with the kind of fervor Trump brought to the stump. Clinton, on the other hand, wobbled on issues such as free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and didn’t mount the sort of grass-roots outreach Iron Rangers expect from their Democrats.
“She kind of took that area for granted, I think,” said Justin Perpich, DFL chairman for the Eighth Congressional District, who grew up in the town of Virginia, worked in the mines through college, and watched many of his childhood friends jump on the Trump train.
“You have to give these Iron Rangers attention if you want their vote,” he said.
Rangers like that Trump is not a traditional politician. They like the idea of a businessman in charge, someone who’s worked with builders and contractors and has gone through bankruptcies and setbacks, like the boom-and-bust Iron Range itself.
“As much as people didn’t like him, I think the American dream is obtainable through him,” Mayerich said. “He’s moving. Look at what he’s done … already.”
Turning it around
The population on the Range is older and whiter than most of the rest of the state. The region attracts fewer new immigrants, and the taconite mines and plants that sustain its communities are vulnerable to the whims of distant global markets. In December, Hibbing’s unemployment rate was double that of Minneapolis.
Almost everyone here has worked in the mines or is related to someone who does — or used to. The jobs pay well, but come with the knowledge that a layoff notice could come any time demand drops or foreign steel saturates the market.
Greg Furin, a single father of two, had been out of work since August 2015 when the election rolled around. At the lowest point in the downturn, half the mines and half the miners were out of work, setting off a cascade of economic misery across the Range, where high-paying mining jobs support not just individual families but shops, restaurants and the regional tax base.
“When people aren’t working, it’s time for a change,” said Furin, who has spent the past two months working toward an associate degree at Hibbing Community College.
One by one, the idled mines — except for Keewatin Taconite, where Furin worked — reopened and rumbled back to life. Then, in late December, Furin’s call came. Keetac will be up and running in March and Furin will resume work as a shovel runner as he finishes up the final months of his coursework.
Trump hadn’t taken office when the callback went out, but to Furin, his election felt like the start of good things.
“It seems like once he got in, things kind of turned around,” he said.
Dale Weinand, 60, pulled shifts for years at the old Eveleth Taconite plant, not counting the five years he was laid off during the global steel crisis in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He worked 15 jobs during that slump, sometimes ranging as far as Texas to find work. When the callback came in 1983, he still hadn’t run through his full unemployment benefits.
Today, he works for the city of Hibbing, plowing streets and sidewalks. He sees a business community that could use some fresh blood and ideas along with new shops and restaurants.
“Hibbing is an old people’s town,” Weinand said. “The people are older, even the stores are older. … We’re losing more and more people all the time.”
Mayerich sees her town’s troubles screaming from the headlines. In one day, she said, the Hibbing Daily Tribune had front-page stories about murder, meth and a shooting. She’d rather see articles about new industry, high-tech start-ups, retail ribbon-cuttings and newcomers moving to town.
“I think [Trump will] be good for the Iron Range,” Mayerich said. “He’s a man who says he’s going to get something done and he usually comes in ahead of time and under budget. … He’s a businessman, and maybe that’s what we need.”
Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.