Most every little hamlet in Minnesota claims some special Fourth of July tradition. After all, Minnesota was born in the patriotic fervor preceding the Civil War, swaddled in the stars and stripes and raised to feed, build and Bob Dylan-ize America. A territory founded on the cornerstone of community (and large, powerful railroads), the Fourth of July is a special time in the North Star State.
But this time of year always reminds me of the special traditions that exist in my homeland: Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. This mining region in northern St. Louis and Itasca counties was sacred Ojibwa land before becoming home to immigrants from 43 nations on Earth. About the only thing everyone shared was the desire to have fun and demonstrate patriotism in the middle of the summer. So, sure, we do up the Independence Day parades and fireworks as well as anyone (though the locals would say that's an understatement). But the entire Iron Range Fourth of July experience? Can't be beat. It is a wholly unique cultural phenomenon.
Every year at my blog I detail the parades, street dances and fireworks that highlight the Iron Range Fourth of July. For many, especially those who only make one trip "home" from someplace else, these events are the apex of summer.
There's a flip side, though. These Iron Range expatriates returning to their roots invariably bring new people with them. City people. Farm people. People from other states or even other countries. These new husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends are told precious little about what they will really see until they get here. As such, today I present the following …
Things You Will See at Your First Iron Range 4th of July
- Everyone Your Loved One Ever Knew You know how your boyfriend/girlfriend told you about their first kiss, that jerk in high school, or that neighbor who carries around a bag of fingernail clippings? You’re going to meet them now. They are, more or less, right where he/she left them. And they have names: Jake, Bobby, Suzie, Mary, Tyler, Madison, Tiffany, Jennifer, Lindsay, Lindsey, Lyndsy, Lindsey P., Other Jake. Don’t forget these names, because one or two of them will be in a sleeping bag in your car tomorrow morning.
- People Drinking More Than They Should In Places They Shouldn’t We have these things called “street dances” on the Iron Range during the Fourth of July and several other festive weekends throughout the summer. You will have to squint pretty hard to find any dancing, though. These are really just elaborate excuses to close the main streets of Iron Range towns and drink in public. Police spend the entire year planning how to hold down the number of fights. A good year is one where people don’t refer to the fights as a “melee” in the newspaper.
- The Old “This” is Now the New “That” That place where your new husband or wife used to eat chicken? It became a liquor store when he/she was a child. Now it’s a clinic.
- People Using Hair, Animals or Clothing to Express Social Disorder Whether it’s the lady with a ferret in her shirt, they guy with a bone through his nose or the lady with the skunk stripe down the middle of her head, you’re going to see people who appear in public just once throughout the year. It’s not clear how they support themselves the rest of the time. One theory is that they derive energy from glow sticks and cigarette smoke.
- Clown Bands But, wait. Clowns aren’t known for playing music (true). Clowns aren’t supposed to be drunk (true). Dressing in drag isn’t the same thing as being a clown (true). These paradoxes are all part of the appeal of the Eveleth Clown Band and others like it. Membership in the band is nebulous. Leadership is unclear. The tradition stretches back past Watergate. The quality of the music is tied to an exponent based on the distance of the clown band from a working bar. The quality of the female impersonation is getting better with new technology. One gets a raw, Mardi Gras feeling from Iron Range clown bands. Something is being let loose here, and it’s OK so long as no one ever, EVER talks about it.
- Cruising As One People People often forget that the Iron Range is one distinct region, much like a mid-sized regional city. The only catch is that “da’ Raynch” is organized as a string of small towns along a 130-mile stretch of iron in the middle of the woods. On the Fourth of July, the parochial borders that keep the towns apart disintegrate and roving groups of people intersperse the towns. It’s not unusual to plan a night around two parades, three street dances (and one, maybe two fights).
- Actual Patriotism Never mind the nationalism of some cable news shows or jingoistic bumper stickers one might see in the parking lot, the patriotism of the Iron Range on Fourth of July is real. This region showed record enlistments in all the major American wars since immigrants started arriving 100 years ago. As a people, these new Americans wanted to show everyone they cared about their new country and would serve it to the highest degree possible. Iron Range steel quite literally built America. Despite the economic roller coaster of recent decades, most Iron Range families will tell you of an immigrant grandparent or great-grandparent who saw an impossible dream come true in the United States of America. That truly is cause for celebration.
What are your Iron Range Fourth of July stories?