People And Their Work

By the late nineteenth century, Minnesota’s three great industries were taking shape: Farming, logging, and mining. The Iron Range gains its name from one of the state’s great exports. The Mesabi Range is named for an indigenous giant who is said to have pulled rocks from the ground with his bare hands and now lies under those hills. The first serious attempts to survey the mineral wealth of the northeast were made around 1850 (Blegen, p. 360), and a treaty with the Ojibwe in 1854 was very specific about mining. All sorts of metals were sought in the area — there was even a sort of a gold rush by Lake Vermilion in 1865-1866 (Blegen, p. 361), but it wasn’t until 1882 that the Minnesota Iron Company was incorporated (Blegen, p. 363). But so much iron was available that, by 1884, there was a railroad line to Two Harbors and the ore boats were coming to take Minnesota iron to the steel plants of the east.

Song Link

Red Iron Ore: Songbook, p. 53

In the years since, the iron industry has had its ups and downs, not least when the easy ore started to peter out, but there was always taconite. The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Earth Science defines taconite in part as consisting “chiefly of fine-grained silica mixed with magnetite and hematite” — which basically means the useful iron ores magnetite (Fe3O4) and hematite (Fe2O3) mixed with useless rock. But one of Minnesota’s (literally) unsung heroes, Edward W. Davis, in the years leading up to World War II found techniques to make it commercially feasible to mine taconite.

At least mining was a steady job. Miners risked their lives every day, but could go home to their families at night. The other major industry of the northeast, logging, was much more seasonal. Cutting trees in the summer was difficult — the sap made them much harder to bring down. So logging went on in winter. Young men often worked a farm in the summer, then signed up to go to the lumber camps in the fall. (If you’ve read any Paul Bunyan stories, you’ll know that the men were often away from women. The Paul Bunyan stories are controversial among folklorists —they’ve been called “fakelore” — and there are no true Paul Bunyan songs, but the stories do get that part right.) A boss would pick a spot and set up a camp, the men would cut down the trees, then in the spring they would take the logs down to a stream, tie them up into a raft, and float them down to the market. In the days before trucks, this was by far the most dangerous part of the operation — a rapids could cause the rafts to come apart, drowning or crushing the loggers. An amazing number of logging ballads involve young men drowning.

Song Link

The Bigler’s Crew: Songbook, p. 58

Sailing the Great Lakes wasn’t much safer than rafting the rivers. Lakes ships differ somewhat from ocean vessels (the Lakes are fresh water, less dense than salt, meaning that a ship will float lower in the water). As early as 1851, Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick that the Lakes “have drowned many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.” It is said that Henry Quiner, the maternal grandfather of Laura Ingalls Wilder, died in a storm on Lake Michigan in 1844 (Anderson, p. 21). Today, most people remember the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in November 1975, but this is in fact one of the last of the Great Lakes wrecks. Bruce D. Berman’s Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks lists no fewer than 1661 Great Lakes wrecks through 1971, and it is far from complete. Storms on all the Lakes came swift and sudden. Stan Rogers would write, the weather there could “go from calm to a hundred knots so fast they seem enchanted” — a danger particularly in the days of sail, when sailors needed to take in the sail in the event of a storm.

And Lake Superior was the worst — the largest lake, and the farthest north. The Edmund Fitzgerald was not the only ship lost to the “gales of November.” The great Lake Superior storm of 1905 is said to have wrecked thirty vessels (Ratigan, p. 273). In Duluth harbor alone, the Ellwood was slammed into her berth, and the Mataafa was wrecked as she struggled to return to the harbor, with nine men freezing to death though surrounded by land on all sides. Fortunately, most ships survived, even if they didn’t always inspire happiness in their crews.

Farmers, although necessary, were not held in very high renown in the nineteenth century. The family of Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t the only one that sang “I Wouldn’t Marry a Farmer” (“I wouldn’t marry a farmer, he’s always in the dirt, I’d rather marry a railroad man Who wears a striped shirt”; see By the Shores of Silver Lake, chapter 6). Oliver H. Kelley, who according to the Dictionary of American Biography moved to Minnesota in 1849, set out to change that, founding the Grange to teach “scientific’” farming (Gilman, p. 132). But the Grange would go on to become a more political organization devoted to farmers’ needs.

Political unrest wasn’t confined to farmers. This was the era of the Knights of Labor, and the American Federation of Labor, and other groups which fought for an eight hour day. The most famous of these strikes was probably that of the American Railway Union (A.R.U.) in 1894. This does not seem to be commemorated in Minnesota song, but the 1875 strike of (mostly Irish) longshoremen would be remembered. In time, the laborer’s troubles would lead to the formation of the Farmer-Labor Party, which eventually became part of the DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor) party.

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