Warner Bros. is making a movie on the Iron Range, and I figure somebody needs to get these people to do it right. I guess I’m not the only Ranger who figured that. The parking lot here at the Thunderbird Mall is packed. The clerks who’ve gathered near the entrance to Herberger’s have never seen the likes of this in Virginia, Minnesota.
As I join the line of people who hope to be extras, I’m thinking it’s noteworthy that director Niki Caro, a woman, has come to the Range at all. The movie she is casting today is based on Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s book Class Action, published in 2002. It tells the stories of how the first female workers at the Eveleth Taconite Company were treated by their male bosses and coworkers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how they initiated the nation’s first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit. The movie, titled North Country, is scheduled for release on October 14.
Virginia is my hometown. I worked in the mines for a summer during those tumultuous times. I left for a future unknown 25 years ago, living outside Minnesota for 10 of those years, in an America far removed from the Iron Range. I now live only 60 miles away, but every time I come here I have the sense that here is a place removed, and I wallow in the comfort of it. But I wonder if this quality can ever be conveyed on a movie screen.
Most of those in line are locals. There are letter jackets, sweatshirts touting fishing in Lake Vermilion, and the record cold of Embarrass. Caro is smart or beneficent, or both, because she sees that there is a uniqueness here and wants to be sure it comes across in her film. She has hired speech coaches to make sure the actors get the voices right. Everyone knows about the Ranger accent, but maybe that’s not the most important aspect of portraying Rangers.
I meet some theater guys from UMD and we talk about the drive up from Duluth. It snowed last night, so the going was slow—a couple cars in the ditch. I start to think how easy it is, though, as I sip some chai tea, to drop in here and sign up for work. The chance to work was what drew people to the Iron Range more than 100 years ago, but the jobs were certainly not so glamorous. I would bet the last of my chai that the ancestors of most of the people in line today crossed the Atlantic in steerage. Although Scandinavians and others were here earlier, many of these Rangers descend from the boatloads of immigrants brought in to break the mining strike of 1907. They were Italians, Montenegrins, Croatians, Slovenians, Bulgarians, and Finns. The promises the mining companies made to them were glorious, and they weren’t told they were to be used as scabs.
I look around at the people in the line, and I see it. I see Finns, Swedes, Italians—all have different ethnic characteristics and features, but there is one look. You can see it in the face of every Iron Ranger, as if it were an ethnicity unto itself. It is a determined pride in the eyes one minute, and a kind of acceptance-seeking laugh the next. It is sisu—a Finnish word, but it pretty much applies to the Range as a whole. It is I’m going to do this if it kills me, dammit, and I want to be liked for it…but I won’t admit it.
Connie has it. Connie is a native Iron Ranger who’s here in hopes of picking up some extra cash. She tells me she works two jobs, 8 to 5 weekdays at the clinic in Virginia as a scheduler in the eye department, plus waitressing on weekends. On Fridays at 5 she has to run right over to Goodfellas Bar and Restaurant in Eveleth, where her shift goes until 2 a.m.
Making enough money to stay here has been the goal of many who were raised on the Iron Range. In 1916, those boatloads of workers who’d been scabs nine years earlier instigated a strike of their own. They demanded flat daily pay rates of $2.75 for above-ground work, $3 for dry underground work, and $3.50 for wet underground work. The Oliver Iron Mining Company blacklisted some workers, but still, most stayed out of pure sisu.
In 1916, there were four times as many brothels and saloons in Virginia as all other businesses combined. The town’s main street—Chestnut between First and Sixth avenues—is now listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. There are still 18 bars, 3 liquor stores, and more than 80 other businesses.
At 12:08, when “our” part of the line—the theater guys, Connie, and I—passes through the Kmart door, portal to possible Hollywood glory, we decide to celebrate with a hot dog from the food court. Suddenly I realize the woman in front of me is a former neighbor. She is an Italian lady in her eighties, with a glowing smile, and she still has lots of black hair. She remembers me right away. She tells me how she volunteers with “the old people” at the nursing home.
As jobs have left the Range, taking younger families with them, the population has become increasingly top-heavy with retirees. The 2000 U.S. Census found that a little more than 12 percent of Minnesotans were 65 or older; here in Virginia, more than 23 percent were in that age bracket. In 1979, there were more than 14,000 workers on the seven taconite properties in northeastern Minnesota. In January 2004, only a quarter of that number were still employed at the remaining six facilities.
I see my friend Barb and her daughter across from us in the doubled-back line and we laugh at each other.
“Do you think Ashley can pass for 8?” she asks. Ashley is a gorgeous, smallish 10-year-old dressed for the first-communion scene. Except for her straight blonde hair, she looks like her mother did at that age; I remember Barb as having a head full of brown curls, like Shirley Temple, as a child.
Barb’s family rented the second floor of our Northside house, which my Italian great-grandfather built in 1915. My father was born next door in 1929, in the house of my Finnish great-grandparents. Barb and I and our older sisters used to watch The Little Rascals together and wish the producers would come back to Virginia to look for child stars again, as they’d done when my father was a kid.
I’m thinking Ashley is a shoo-in.
Standing in line is hot and exhausting, and we worry about whether we’ll even get in to fill out applications. “We go as a group or not at all!” we bluster. But we couldn’t begin to match the sisu and loyalty shown by the men of 1916.
That strike was about more than wages; it was also about corruption. The bosses weren’t above demanding sex with your wife or daughter if you couldn’t pay them money or buy them drinks in exchange for favorable places to dig. It was a contract system: the costs for your equipment and dynamite were deducted from your pay, and you were paid by the ton. If the strike did nothing else, it served to meld people of different backgrounds and languages into one new culture, struggling together for a better life.
The struggling continued through the 1920s, as union organization went on in secret, in basements and in clearings in the woods at night. Unions did not take hold on the Iron Range until a few years after the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Once they did, union brotherhood would not easily relinquish its very male grip on Iron Range society. Not to the companies, and not to outsiders.
When, in the 1970s, the companies began to hire women to work in the mines, the women were outsiders. What they endured wasn’t common knowledge on the Range at the time. One of the most extreme and shocking incidents reported in Class Action was when one of the female miners found fresh semen on the clothing she kept in her locker. You just didn’t talk about things like that.
My sister, who started at Minntac in Mountain Iron as an 18-year-old college student in 1976, had men putting their arms around her and snapping her bra strap. Two women she worked with were fondled and reported the incidents. When I worked at Minntac in 1979, at 19, I encountered plenty of rough language and pinups in plain sight, but no physical harassment.
As I leave the line to take a bathroom break, I hear a few young girls say they’ve never done anything that has taken as long as standing in this line. I think about their great-grandfathers swinging picks into hard rock for 10 hours straight; their grandmothers hosing gray tailings down drains under the drone of the mills, in the heat of the pellet kilns, enduring abuse shift after shift. That is sisu. But I say nothing. They will hear the stories at home.
Back in line, I notice the many young faces of the Range. Christine has long, pretty blonde hair and wears a letter jacket that tells me she’s a softball player who’ll graduate in ’07. Bobby has never lived in a town big enough to have a main street. Christine wants to sit down, but she is wearing her mom’s jeans from the 1980s and can’t get them dirty. She sits on her foot.
There are generalizations about Rangers in Class Action with which I beg to differ. One is the statement “The ‘Minnesota Nice’ personality characterized in Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion does not apply here.” I’m thinking that, in all their sweetness, Christine and Bobby are no less Iron Rangers than any bawdy, cussing mine worker, man or woman, parked on a barstool and smoking and drinking away the off-shift hours. My father worked in the mines for 40 years. I never knew him to swear in the presence of a woman.
It is presumptuous for Bingham and Gansler to say, “Few Ranger children leave home for other employment opportunities in bigger cities after high school.” There are no statistics kept for people who grew up on the Range and left for college or better jobs, never to return. Fewer current Rangers have their bachelor’s degrees than Minnesotans overall, but older Minnesotans tend to have lower levels of education, and there simply aren’t many sources of employment on the Range for the college-educated. My friend Barb, my sister, and I all have our master’s degrees. My husband, who’s from Eveleth, has a PhD.
But don’t get me wrong—Bingham and Gansler hit some notes with perfect pitch. Maybe we should play “You Might Be a Ranger If.” You might be a Ranger if, at a wedding, you can eat your fill of rigatoni and potica and polka all night with a beer in your hand, then get up, take a sauna, and go to church the next morning. If you can swear in seven languages. If you work 10 days on, then spend your 4 days off working on your cabin at the lake. If you can be rough and cliquish. If, when your wife falls through the ice of a frozen lake, you fish her out—provided she takes your minnow and she fits through the hole.
You might also be a Ranger if you are intelligent, educated, and “Minnesota Nice.” You are a Ranger if the blood in your veins comes from several countries, and you celebrate with pride and humor the separate origins of every drop.
And Hollywood will capture all this on film. Ya, you betcha.
We finally get to the head of the line at 3:40. A man tells us how to fill out our forms and says to put down mining experience if we have it. I think about that summer when I worked in the concentrator, conjuring up a mental picture of the group I worked with. Hard-hatted, horn-rim-safety-glassed, charcoal-faced from the taconite; we laughed up our sleeves at the company one midnight shift when a sludge line broke and one of the rod mills got shorted out. That’d cost them some big bucks.
The memories keep coming to my tired mind. House-sized Euc trucks rumble over the remnants of hematite ore across the road, throwing red dust back on the white sheets my mother has just hung in the backyard. A fire-and-brimstone sermon is pounded out on the radio in Finnish, followed by a Slovenian polka show, while my grandmother, speaking Italian with Mrs. Olivanti, prunes her rose bushes.
They take my picture and my paperwork, and I am number 2,224.
After six hours, we have made our pitches to work, to be Rangers on film. There was no ocean to traverse, just a snowy highway to negotiate. In the end, I didn’t get a part, but little blonde Ashley will be in the first-communion scene (told ja!). She has the face of a Ranger, and she is the new rank and file.
Sally Mayasich is a mom, ecologist, and freelance writer who lives in Cloquet. She is currently working on a novel that follows her great-aunt’s life—and Minnesota iron ore itself—from the Range to Duluth and down the Great Lakes to Chicago in the first third of the 1900s.