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The Iron Range, a Love Story

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

This blog is lovingly dedicated to each of you, my fellow Iron Rangers, and to the place I call home.

*Transformation of a home at bottom of this read

The Great Iron Range

It’s taken years to get here, but here I am. Going “home” to me, means going to Britt, located on the Iron Range of Minnesota. Here's what as to the official definition of the Iron Range:

“WHAT IS THE IRON RANGE IN MINNESOTA? Minnesota’s Iron Range, in northern Minnesota, stretches about 175 miles southwest to northeast from Crosby to Ely and is comprised of three individual “ranges,” or ore-rich areas: the Cuyuna in the south, the Mesabi in the middle and the Vermilion in the north. There are currently six active mines, all of them are located on the Mesabi. The Mesabi Iron Range includes the communities of Hibbing, Chisholm, Mountain Iron, Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert, Biwabik, Aurora and Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota.”

Coming home means entering the great Iron Range, traveling due north. Britt is about 15-20 minutes past Virginia. See what I did there? Minnesotans tend to measure distance in time. It’s just what we do.

I currently live in the metro area of Minnesota. For about 8 years I lived in Plymouth, and now I live in St. Louis Park. So, about 10 minutes from Minneapolis proper. Growing up, I always wanted to move to a larger city, because I loved the hustle and bustle and the noise. As a little girl, I dreamed of fast city life and lights that never went dark and the city skyline at night, twinkling with promises of anonymity and acceptance. After visiting New York, Minneapolis seemed so small and now I smile at my childhood ideas and assumptions. Together with St. Paul, we Iron Rangers refer to the two as “the cities”, although the people native to these cities will feel it’s an insult to be lumped in together. In any case, the metro is my home for now, and I’ve fallen in love with it, in spite of the grooming one experiences as an “Iron Ranger” to automatically loathe the cities and everything and everyone there.

Our house in Aurora, Minnesota

Growing up, I first lived in Aurora, which is 18 miles east of Virginia, and about 28 miles south east of Britt. Since about the age of 3, I lived in a little clean and tidy rambler on Erie Street, in a nice neighborhood. Our home was lovely. It had three bedrooms, two on the main floor and one downstairs. There was the dining room and kitchen, living room and eventually a large back sunroom my dad added on. The basement was “finished”, meaning we had a family room down there, my mom’s sewing room, a laundry room, and my playroom. My brother’s room was also located downstairs, as was the glorious sauna my dad built.

Sauna. (SOW-nah)

As many of you know, saunas are a staple in many houses and cabins up north. That is because the amount of Finnish people on the Iron Range is astounding. As Iron Rangers, we love our saunas! I grew up taking saunas from about the age of 3 when my parents moved from Texas (my dad was stationed with the Air Force in Texas and was literally “Captain Morgan”) to Minnesota. Minnesota was my dad’s home state, and my mom was from La Puente, California. My mom seemed to adapt nicely to Minnesota, as she relished in the sauna taking and even had a guest book for people to sign when they came over to visit and took saunas at our home. I remember as a little girl, my dad building the downstairs sauna, and while most saunas are made from pine, my dad used cedar, as it was a bit better quality and would last longer. Saunas are magical. I loved the crash of the water on the hot rocks, and the sharp assault of heat that would travel quickly around the little room, lingering in the corners. As a child, I would sit in a bucket on the floor of the sauna, naked as a baby bird, my cheeks red from the warmth, and also from my happiness. We had an electric sauna, as we were in town and it was just a bit easier than a real wood fire sauna. To me, it still counted, and I loved it.

Side note: when I moved to the metro, I quickly realized that I was constantly correcting the pronunciation of the word “sauna”. People there pronounce it “SAH-nah” and I would go out of my mind. I would explain to them, sauna is a Finnish word!!! You pronounce it the way it IS- “SOW-NAH”! Would you say “tor-TILL-AH?” NO. You pronounce it “Tor-tee-ya” because it’s a Spanish word! Gahhhh!!!!

For those of you who grew up on the Iron Range, what did it mean to you? For me, growing up in Aurora, living on the Iron Range meant community. It meant strength, it had a general feeling of "we love and protect our own." Even as a child I felt this. Sometimes the men were old and grumpy seeming, sipping their coffee at the bakery or the gas station, gossiping about this or that, or discussing the impending weather. The Iron Range meant seeing kids riding their bikes unsupervised all over town, with faces stained blue or red from the freezy popsicle they had just eaten. Everyone knows you when you're from the Iron Range. Sometimes this is good, sometimes this is not so good. Many people's last names ended with "son" or "sen" or "i". Growing up on the Iron Range meant that you knew about Mott Pit in Mt. Iron, Silver Lake in Virginia, and the "cliffs" in Gilbert that are no longer accessible for high diving. Old timers on the Iron Range remember when Chestnut Street was booming with business and activity, and which establishments allowed a bit of gambling in their basements. There was a "league" for this and that, and you could not have a 4th of July parade without the Eveleth Clown Band.

The Iron Range also has a reputation of being a difficult place to move to, if you aren't from there, or have family there. People have said that Iron Rangers can be rough, cold and unwelcoming. Some have said that it is nearly impossible to "get in" with any number of groups because everyone has grown up together and aren't looking for new additions to their circle. While I'm sure these scenarios exist, I think that Iron Rangers are just a bit... "misunderstood." Some of the old timers can seem a bit gruff, but if you look closely, there's a twinkle in the eye and many of them are just sizing you up and seeing what you're made of. In a situation like this, be like a duck- a duck duck gray duck. (or is it duck, duck, Goose?) Let it roll off your back, and maybe give it right back with a good-natured smile. You would be surprised how many chuckles you might get in return. As for "getting in" with the groups on the Iron Range, be friendly, but not invasive. Ask people about their families, or their history on the Range. Inquire about a food you should try, and the origin of things. TAKE AN INTEREST in the Iron Range, and sometimes, you do have to be a bit assertive. In time, you'll be saying those Minnesota good-byes like you were born and bred here. Throw in a "You Betcha" for good measure, you'll be fine. Back to my story...

As a child living on the Iron Range, I would bike all over town, looking at all of the stores. There was Potocnik’s Grocery Mart, the Tacora movie theater, A&W, Rodby’s Jewelry Store, the Post Office with its cool little tiles on the floor, the American Legion and many more businesses that are no longer there or I just cannot recall. There was also the park, which to me seemed so big and exciting. There was a community pool, and sometimes in the heat of the summer, my mom would bring me there to cool off. In the early winter, my dad would take me for walks along the dirt road at the edge of our neighborhood. He would look for pheasants to shoot, and I would happily chat his ear off, the sun setting over the tall grass and the 5 o’clock church bells tolling in the distance. I felt safe and happy and secure in my home in Aurora.

That’s why, in 1987, when my parents decided to move from our lovely home in the town of Aurora, to the wilds of Britt, I was crushed. Previously, in the summer, they had rented a cabin for a few weeks on Lake Fourteen, which is in Britt. It was fine enough, the two or three weeks would be over and my aversion to all things creepy crawly didn’t kick in to high gear too much. I didn’t enjoy swimming in the lake as much as I wish I did. It was dark, and not always very sandy, and there were weeds. I grew up going to California in the summers to stay with my grandparents, and I swam in the great big blue Pacific ocean. Now, here in the woods, I didn’t like all the mosquitos. I didn’t like spiders and bugs, and that cabin smell. Every day we had to shake out the rugs and clean, have Bible devotions and whatever else before we could be free. Now, I must say that I did have fun, in spite of what it must sound like. I got to know the kids down the lake, there was a girl my age and a boy my brother’s age. We would play every day, and I learned to water-ski and kneeboard. I only did it because that’s what there was to do. My parents tell me I was a natural at waterskiing, but now, to this day, I can’t bring myself to put even my feet in the water.

Once my parents found a place on the lake to buy, my dreams of city life came crashing down around me. My life now consisted of a run down cabin with a dugout underneath, small holes in the eaves that allowed bats in, and the occasional mouse running through our living space. I didn’t have my own room any longer, and the water from the faucet came right from the lake. I was absolutely gutted. My parents, however, saw the cabin for all its potential, and what it could become. The run down shape it was in was just an opportunity in their eyes, and it didn’t matter that we had to walk across a ladder to get in the door once they started digging out the basement.

We lived there like this for months, years even. Initially, it started as a cabin with a kitchen area, a bathroom, and a living space. After months and months and years and years of labor, it is now a beautiful 2 story home with a finished walk out basement. My mom and dad have managed to decorate with so many different styles throughout, yet they do not clash. Instead, they compliment each other and somehow work. You can't mix Monet with Southwest art! Oh yes you can, my mom managed to do it, and it works. You can't have California ocean collectibles AND rugs from the Orient AND rustic cabin touches. Why not, asks my mother. And so she does, and the home is all things blended into one beautiful idea, just like my mom and dad.

The two room cabin now has 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 2 kitchens, 2 saunas, 3 fireplaces, 3 decks, a bunkhouse, and the best drinking water around! I tell you all of this not to brag, but to acknowledge and appreciate the vision my parents had, and the hard work, sweat, blood and tears that went into our home. It wasn’t all done at once, it’s even now still a work in progress, a labor of love. For many years it was at a standstill, the money for remodeling was just not there. Much of the work was done by my dad, my brother, my son Anthony and my nephew Matt. Numerous other friends of the family pitched in and helped, asking nothing in return. Some years were good, and that’s when things got finished, but with a place that size, there’s always lots of maintenance. I’ll tell you what, if I never haul another board in my life from one pile to another pile, I’ll die a happy woman.

For many years, I may have held a grudge against the lake and the woods. I realize how unthankful and bratty I sound. In the interest of context, I will confide in you that at the time, I was going through many other horrible things that I associated with the area, the people, the lake. The lake especially bore the brunt of my hurt and my trauma, even though it did not have anything to do with it. I avoided going home once I had moved out. I avoided lakes in general. I also developed ranidaphobia, which is a phobia of frogs. It’s a full blown phobia, and up until the last year or two, involved a meltdown consisting of hyper-ventilating, crying, inability to speak, and seeing spots while almost passing out. People think I’m kidding when I say I can’t be around a frog, but I'm very serious. In any case, my fear of encountering a frog prohibited many lake visits, and thankfully, my parents would sometimes travel down to me on occasion and I didn’t have to go up there as much.

I’ve also sought therapy in the last year for things, and as a result, this summer I experienced my very first visit up north that brought about true happiness and peace. I saw the Iron Range for the wonderful place it is, and The Lake-house was no longer an enemy, as I realized that all of these years, it had been my friend, sheltering me from the things I was going through as a teenager. For the first time I was able to appreciate everything as a whole, instead of bits and pieces. I even asked my dad for a pontoon ride, (my first) and we piled in and he drove around the lake giving me a tour, while my mom pointed out places I would be familiar with. Everything was beautiful. Everything was reflective of the proud people who took good care of their property and their homes. As we came back around to my home, I took note of how majestic it stood amongst the trees. All these years it was a place that held many good memories and many laughs and so many people who love my parents.

On my drive back home, I stopped to go downtown Virginia, entering from the Northside. I drove past all of the mom and pop shops, and some of the businesses that have made the Iron Range what it is today. There was the old Northside Food Mart, no longer in operation, looking a bit forlorn and definitely abandoned. Northside Laundry, the Coke Plant… I smiled as I looked with nostalgia at the roads I’d traveled so often. There was the Freeze 32°, (best blueberry malts ever!) newly owned and looking so summer proud in its very own royal blue color, a line of people already forming at 11:30 in the morning. There was Irma’s Finland House, where I bought my popover pan and so many other Scandinavian gadgets. Oh and I see the hospital, where each of my children were born. As I turn on Chestnut Street in Virginia, I see the old Sports Palace, where I used to bartend when I was in my 20’s. Many a good time was had there; it used to be full of life and you could always find its owner holding court with his friends at Table 2. Next door to that I see The Supreme Court, a gym my son loves to frequent when he comes up north to visit. The owners are some of the nicest people around.

As I drive slowly down the street, I smile and remember the days when people would “cruise main.” That was simply just us teenagers and young adults (and sometimes old timers with their fancy cars- that’s who started the trend) going up and down the main street, radios blasting and everyone seeing their friends or their crush and waving like maniacs out the window. There were empty buildings that once boasted so much business and activity, now standing alone and a bit defeated. Ah, there was Canelake’s Candies! It smells so good with its chocolates and its treats! I resisted the urge to go in, and it was not easy. I didn’t enter only because I looked a wreck, and my vanity was bigger than my appetite, I must confess. When I reached 2nd Avenue, I took a right and headed out of town. I passed by Dave’s Pizza, which I had just had the evening before. Between Dave’s and Vi’s, (which I had three nights before) you just can’t find pizza like that in the cities. Nothing compares and I’ve hunted for years.

I got to the end of 2nd Avenue, and turned left onto the highway. I didn’t get too far when I saw Midway. Good old Midway, where once upon a time there stood the Dairy Queen, and a motel. I remember Midway being the community my grandparents lived in for some time, right at the top of Vermillion Drive. Once past Midway, I couldn’t help myself; I turned into Eveleth and just drove through, looking at the houses and the stores and the area as a whole. I lived in Eveleth for many years, and it was bittersweet to see the places I had driven by or walked past as a young person in my 20’s. Paul’s Italian Market was always so good, and the IGA had some of the best Porketta around as well.

Karl Sundquist sings a song called "Welcome to My Town" that is all about the Iron Range, and I'm not going to lie, I had that playing on repeat while I drove around. Sometimes I'm just a nerd like that.

I could have gone into Aurora and driven around forever, but I did need to get back to real life. Finally, exiting Eveleth and taking the turn onto 53 South toward home, I felt a smile form on my lips and a soft feeling in my heart. This was the Iron Range. This was my childhood home. The trees and the roads that led so many people home were now in my rearview mirror. I feel something a bit damp sliding down my right eye, and it’s not sweat. It turns out, I love the Iron Range. I always have, it just took me 45 years to notice.

~ The End


* A special “thank you” to the many men and women who came out and helped my family with The Lakehouse project. The house would not be a home without the friendly faces, hard work, and helpful hands of many of our fellow Iron Rangers. Lending a hand- that’s just what Iron Rangers do.

*Please enjoy the transformation of a home below, and please excuse the quality of the first photos

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