Up North on Minnesota’s Iron Range there’s a clan of hearty folks, intensely proud and loyal to their own. They share a history of adversity and survival in a remote area beset by harsh winters, a vexing boom-bust economy — and growing unease over an uncertain future.
Fighting for their way of life is the Rangers’ way of life — and never more so than today.
Lacking the kind of ethnic glue that binds other Minnesota clans such as New Ulm’s Germans, Lindstrom’s Swedes and St. Paul’s Irish, the Range community is a conglomerate of third- and fourth-generation immigrants from more than 40 countries.
They’re Rangers (capital “R”). They’re not just from the Iron Range — they are of and by the place whose famous mines yielded millions of tons of top-grade ore that became steel to build the war machines that took down Hitler. The megaboom of the war and postwar years yanked the Range out of deep depression and completed America’s rise as a world superpower.
The Range clan includes loggers who felled timbers to shore up underground mines and later to supply the postwar urban building boom. And it includes those who turned to marginal farms after being blacklisted by mining companies for agitating to improve abjectly difficult work conditions.
Rangers work hard when they’re working, party harder whenever they can, and take full advantage of a splendid outdoors bejeweled with some of North America’s finest forested lakes.
At lively Ranger gatherings in the Twin Cities, revelers know who belongs by surname, hometown and brogue. Rangers who go to school or to work in the metro area tend to live in northern suburbs to shorten travel time to where they’d really rather be.
In the capital city of St. Paul, Range legislators huddle over a brew most evenings to review tactics. Anyone who hangs around the State Capitol knows that challenging the tight-knit Rangers on most anything means “you’re up against some pretty tall timber,” as DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook once put it.
Rangers have reliably voted DFL for decades, providing political heft for statewide office-seekers. An exception came long ago in 1978, when then-U.S. Rep. Don Fraser was denied nomination for the U.S. Senate in a DFL primary and then-Sen. Wendell Anderson’s political career was derailed — all in part because of Rangers incensed over Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness designation.
The 1978 debacle may have been an anomaly, but a persistent slow leak from the reservoir of Ranger “blue” has become a gusher of late.
Rangers say the DFL Party has been co-opted by “extreme greens” at the expense of Iron Range livelihoods. This longtime complaint rose to siren pitch last year when Rangers cast plentiful protest votes for the DFL’s anathema Donald Trump, with spillover losses of two “sure-bet” DFL legislators: Rep. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township and Sen. Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids.
Rangers responded to Trump’s outspoken opposition to free trade, his promises to restrict steel imports to protect domestic producers — and even to his calls for rolling back environmental regulations that burden heavy industry.
While the Trump vote seemed surprising (he carried northeastern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District by 15 percentage points), the long view of Range history offers some context:
Rangers understand the hardship and ill treatment of their early-20th-century immigrant ancestors — and their long struggle for worker rights. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, immigrants worked the dirty and dangerous underground mines of the Vermilion Range between Tower and Ely. High-grade rock was lifted from as many as 17 shafts until 1967, when mining had turned to more economical open pits.
The steady stream of immigrants to work the Vermilion swelled to a flood when the great Mesabi Range was opened, stretching from Babbitt to Grand Rapids.
At one point, 90 percent of people living north of Duluth were foreign-born, all seeking desperately needed work in far-off America. Mostly hailing from Balkan and Eastern European countries, as well as Italy and Finland, they brought with them rich ethnic cultures, evident to this day in community celebrations, churches, cafe menus (Italian porketta, Slovak potica, Cornish pasties) and the ubiquitous Finnish saunas (it’s pronounced “SOW-nah”).
As immigrants do, the new arrivals sought security by clustering with their own, maintaining cultural traditions and native languages. The ensuing interclan discord was exploited in the mines: to keep workers from agitating for improved conditions, crews were deliberately assembled of ethnic mixtures to thwart communication. While stifling solidarity, this also led to misunderstandings that made dimly-lit mines even more dangerous.
Mine owners who lived in far-off places saw workers as nameless digits on balance sheets. It wasn’t supposed to be that way: Duluth’s legendary Merritt brothers had discovered and opened the great Mesabi, but a desperate need for capital eventually drove them to New York and the Rockefellers, whose cunning deft (Rangers say “fraud”) gained control of the Mesabi and all that went with it.
A group of Finns (who challenged tsarist Russia in their homeland), along with Slovenes and Croats (who defied Austria-Hungary), applied their insurgency skills to build bonds among ethnic clans on the Range. Among other things, miners were divided into groups of language similarity and encouraged — to better understand one another — to learn English. Improved communication and shared resentment of mining conditions led to combative strikes in 1907 and 1916.
Through years of struggle, unions eventually formed and became strong enough to win wage and other improvements that made mining jobs very well-paying.
After high-grade “red ore” was nearly exhausted in the 1950s, the region’s economy got a timely reprieve when the University of Minnesota’s E.W. Davis perfected a method of processing low-grade taconite ore into higher-grade pellets. Taconite mining became robust, with pelletizing plants dotting the Range. But foreign competition and a finicky steel market left the region hostage to uncertain up-down cycles.
For decades, the Range has sought to diversify its economy and support its communities with funding from the state’s taconite production tax. While the efforts have helped smooth the downturns, Range employment isn’t nearly what it once was, and the population has dwindled. Most high school graduates leave for opportunity elsewhere, returning to visit when they can or when they retire.
The region’s remarkable lakes and forests, and especially the Boundary Waters, draw hordes of visitors. That helps, of course, but recreation and tourism jobs with low seasonal pay are not seen as a substitute for mining. There is growth in retiree settlement, and expanding regional health care provides well-paying, steady employment.
But Rangers see their culture and economy welded to mining and forestry. “We dig holes to extract minerals and we cut wood for toilet paper and two-by-fours,” says Anzelc, the former state representative.
There’s been a recent upsurge in the ore market. Bankrupt Essar Steel near Nashwauk shows signs of fresh life with new owners. For now at least, the mines and processing plants are humming, and employment is up. That’s all good, of course, but for longer-term stability, Rangers see the region’s salvation in nonferrous mining for copper, nickel and precious metals in massive subsurface formations on the Range’s eastern edge.
The first of several proposed large-scale operations would be near Hoyt Lakes, and another near Babbitt is in advanced planning stages. “We Support Mining” signs pepper the area.
But green opponents of this new kind of mining say that metals attach to sulfides which, when brought to the surface with copper-nickel ore, become highly toxic sulfuric acid through exposure to air and water. Experience with copper mining elsewhere supports a concern that acid runoff could lead to environmental disasters with taxpayers getting stuck with cleanup costs.
Rangers have always resented outsiders telling them how to manage “their” resources. They argue that in this case, the region’s quality lakes can be protected by advanced technology and effective environmental regulation. The ecos and Rangers are squaring off, and as with other issues over the years, the debate is reaching an elevated pitch.
Rangers are rebelling against a DFL Party they feel has abandoned them on mining. That estrangement, plus a dwindling population and loss of power positions in the Legislature, could weaken the political leverage that has served the Range well as long as anyone can remember.
Prominent DFLers such as Bill Erzar of Ely understand why Rangers responded to Trump’s message about mining and jobs. A muted question is whether a lasting rift with their patron party could leave Rangers politically isolated — and the DFL further distanced from rural voters.
The copper-nickel mining controversy is a stiff test of the Rangers’ resolve to prevail in a standoff whose outcome they see as existential.
“We’ve fought mining companies for 50 years, and won against all odds,” says Tom Rukavina, a popular DFL activist and ultra-Ranger. “We will fight for [copper-nickel] mining, and we’ll win that one as well.”
Because Rangers dig holes for minerals … it’s what they do.
Ron Way lives in Edina.