Richard Cavalier has never set foot on his tiny plot of land in northeast Minnesota. It’s smaller than a basketball court, can’t be reached by any public road and has not done anything for him in the 50 years he’s had it.

Yet for Cavalier, the 0.09-acre rectangle of land is a tangible connection to his Italian immigrant grandparents, who bought that property as part of a larger tract as an investment a century ago. Though he left his hometown of Hibbing in the 1950s and never looked back, Cavalier had been reminded of his little piece of family history every time the property tax bill, for a few bucks and change, arrived from St. Louis County.

Then the tax bills stopped coming. And that’s when Cavalier began to wonder whether his distant property had slipped away from him.

“The point for me is, this belonged to my grandparents,” said Cavalier, 82, of Inglewood, Calif. “The other part is, I am entitled to information that no one will give me.”

Once I started looking into the situation, I began to understand why. Nothing is simple when it comes to land ownership, especially when there’s iron ore underneath it.

How Cavalier came to own such a small piece of Minnesota has some added complexity. His grandparents originally purchased a larger plot in Lavinia Township, between Chisholm and Hibbing, as an investment property in the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range. That land passed to Cavalier’s mother, and upon her death in the early ’60s, was divided into 15 pieces, he said.

Fourteen of the 15 owners sold to a mining company. Cavalier was the one holdout, and he promptly took on the property tax burden for the sliver of land. By then Cavalier had built a life far away from his hometown, as a convention and meeting consultant in New York and Chicago. He thinks he last visited northern Minnesota in the 1980s.

His most recent tax bill valued his property at $100, and his tax was $4.12. It was a 48-cent bump from the year before. He paid it by check.

When the bills didn’t come in 2014 and 2015, he called the county, and was told that a mining company was now footing the bill. That alarmed Cavalier. If the company kept paying the bill, would it eventually take it away from him?

What actually happened was this: The tax assessor in St. Louis County was looking at aerial photos of the county and noticed that Cavalier’s little tract was smack in the middle of a mine. Since mining companies pay a production tax when it digs into the land, the county does not collect conventional property taxes for any tracts within that footprint, said Dana Kazel, a spokeswoman for St. Louis County.

A search on the St. Louis County GIS website depicts his property as a puny red rectangle in a vast area of brown, the pit of the Hibbing Taconite Mine, managed by Cliffs Natural Resources. No one told Cavalier when mining had started on his land, though the county’s recent decision to zero out his tax bill implied it didn’t happen very long ago.

So I took the question to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which oversees mining in the state. What they found raised an even more startling possibility: that Cavalier doesn’t own the land after all.

First, the mining in that area dates began in the late 1980s or early 1990s, said Kathy Lewis, the assistant director of the DNR’s Division of Lands and Minerals. And the DNR’s research shows that the company acquired all the surface rights to the properties they needed through a court action, she said.

“Does he actually have ownership, or was it extinguished?” Lewis said. “Something happened there.”

Indeed, something did happen. Whatever trees or soil existed were scraped and blasted away to get at the valuable taconite below. By most definitions, the Cavalier land no longer exists.

So was Cavalier’s ownership of the property an illusion, sustained by an annual bill from St. Louis County?

To answer that question, Cavalier would probably have to spend thousands on a lawyer to excavate the musty paper trail in the St. Louis County Recorder. It’s just not worth it, in his view, despite the property’s importance to his Iron Range clan.

“The last piece of anything of value to all of us is that piece of land, and now it’s gone,” he said. “I’m irritated.”

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.