Cherry Township, Minn. – Up in iron ore country, 7 miles east of Hibbing and down a dirt road, a “welcome” sign strung across the trees greeted visitors in Finnish: “Tervetuloa!”
Children played where, in a few hours, a maypole would rise. Dozens of people shuffled into the pavilion built decades ago by Finnish immigrants. Nearby, a man sawed wood for the night’s traditional bonfire, which would be sent, blazing, into the lake.
They had gathered for the 90th anniversary of an unlikely park.
Around these parts, the Mesaba Cooperative Park is known, if it’s known at all, as “the Iron Range’s best kept secret.” But thousands of people used to flood the wooded park for festivals and political rallies. Founded as a cooperative in 1929, the park acted as a Finnish community center, a popular concert hall and, according to the FBI, a hotbed of Communist activity. Recently unearthed FBI files prove what long-timers have been saying for years: The FBI spied on Mesaba Co-op Park and its members.
The park survived that surveillance — and other tough eras — thanks to its volunteers, who have tended to its modest finances and patched its floors.
“It shouldn’t even exist,” said Rolf Anderson, a historic preservation specialist and consultant. “It’s this very fragile collection of buildings — seasonal buildings that have never been winterized. It’s remarkable it survived to the present day.”
In May, Mesaba Co-op Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Anderson, hired to prepare the park’s application, unearthed a trove of FBI files along the way. At the co-op’s annual midsummer festival in June, he told the crowd that he was amazed by the park’s longevity: “It would have been completely unsurprising if the buildings had come down, if this entire parcel had been subdivided into lake homes.”
Anderson has researched many buildings through the years, he noted, and it’s rare to find one property that tells so many complex stories.
The story of Finnish immigrants, intent on improving working conditions in the iron mines. The story of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, which has roots in the park. The story of a dark chapter for the FBI, as federal agents kept a close eye on the park and its leaders.
‘It’s my family’s history’
“Look around you,” historian Pam Brunfelt instructed the hundred people inside the pavilion.
They looked up and around, at the exposed timber beams, the worn wood floors, the windows to the lake. This building is not architecturally beautiful, she argued. “But it is a symbol of a struggle for economic justice.”
Finnish immigrants bought the 160 acres of boreal forest for $2,000 in 1929 and then erected the pavilion, creating a safe place where they were free to gather. Public authorities were wary of the Finns after they played leadership roles in major strikes on the Iron Range in 1907 and 1916.
The Finns fought hard for justice in the mines, said Brunfelt, who recently retired from Vermilion Community College in Ely. Miners worked many unpaid hours and were charged for the tools they needed, she said. “It was a sweatshop.”
The park was just one of many co-ops the Finns founded across Minnesota, Brunfelt said. Grocery stores, credit unions, funeral homes. “Cooperatives were springing up like mushrooms in the rain.”
Brunfelt’s grandfather was a park member. “It’s my family’s history as well as the park’s history,” she said. Many attendees in the audience, too, claimed that history. A grandmother on the park’s board. An aunt who came to see famed accordionist Viola Turpeinen.
But for years, the FBI’s surveillance discouraged membership.
Anderson had heard talk about the FBI keeping an eye on the park and its members. So last year he contacted the National Archives.
“Lo and behold, they found these files,” he said.
The 170 pages in Case File 100-HQ-3827 show that from 1940 into the 1970s, the FBI investigated Mesaba Co-op Park’s activities, bank records and board members. The park is “a Communist organization which openly preach[es] Communism,” said the first of the reports, which reveal how the FBI operated under J. Edgar Hoover. Agents interviewed informants, checked in with the sheriff, collected photographs.
“Since there aren’t a great many historic photos,” Anderson told the group, “we can thank the FBI for providing more documentation about the camp.”
The crowd laughed.
No motorboats allowed
Siyanda Elizabeth considers herself “a newcomer to the park.”
About 26 years ago, Elizabeth had been working in the Twin Cities but was looking for a new setting, a new job. She knew little about the park or even the area.
“I said, ‘Let me get this straight. It’s mowing lawns, cleaning cabins, maintaining a presence 24/7. And you’re paying $250 a month?’ They said, ‘That’s right.’
“ ‘I’ll take it.’ ”
Elizabeth, 73, now lives 3 miles from the park with her husband, David Bednarczuk, whom she met via the park. He got involved in the 1970s, when the board was still conducting its meetings in Finnish. “That’s how Finnish the place was when I got there,” he said.
Twenty-five years back, the pair revived the park’s tradition of hosting children’s camps. This year’s arts camp, a day camp that costs $90 for the week, sold out its 30-some spots.
Elizabeth’s voice catches as she talks about the park’s allure. Its 42-acre spring-fed lake, on which no motors are allowed. Its woods of pine and maple. The four cabins are rustic, minimal. Wi-Fi? Ha. “The park is long on natural beauty and short on amenities,” she said. “Visitors arrive and ask: ‘This is the cabins? This is the restroom? This is it?’
“And the next day, they’re walking around the park starry-eyed, wanting to be a member.”
Those members have kept the park going during low moments and tough financial times. During the 1970s, back-to-the-land environmentalists became interested in the park, boosting membership. Each month, volunteers work on projects at the park, during “workbees.”
Mikhail Gose-Simrak’s father was a caretaker and board member, so the park was his childhood playground.
When he was 22, not long after his father, Richard Gose, died, Gose-Simrak became the park’s caretaker, tending to the place for four seasons. Now 33, he’s remained involved in the park, serving on its board and trekking here regularly from Duluth.
“There are marks of everybody throughout the park,” he said. Walking around, he notes projects he spearheaded, projects his father guided. The apple trees his father watered, the sauna he helped build. The teeter-totter Gose-Simrak put together, the yurt he helped build.
“The best part of a co-op,” he said, “is people from all walks of life — carpenters, electricians, teachers, musicians — contributing their distinct skills.
“It’s amazing the collective mind that this co-op has. It’s an incredible collective mind. And collective spirit, too!”