The North Country has interesting stories. These begin with tales of the various inhabitants of the upper Great Lakes before the arrival of Europeans. It continues in the histories of waves of peoples moving into the New World making lasting changes here and to themselves. In instances a single family might stand out, such as the Sibley name prominent in Minnesota as an early Governor and a Sibley brother playing the other side of the fence as Superintendent of the rich Silver Isle location not far across the border into Canada.
Other names that can be attached to the area are those of Rockefeller and Carnegie, not that either of those beings had any personal attachment to our region or would have paid it any heed were it not for others like the Merritt Brothers who did. Like much of the past the information contained weaves among strands of greed, chance, opportunity, opportunism, dumb luck, and competition to name some threads involved. A person has to give the Merritts’ credit for following up both extensively and accurately on the trail of natural iron ore, which at first was seen as of little value. When an era and imagination is inspired by gold fever it’s understandable that red soil deposits traveled over to reach the hard-rock gold country around Ely and vicinity were barely acknowledged. Who cares about lowly Iron when the glow of heavier golden numbers calls from further on the Periodic Table? Many talented geologists and prospectors passed by the red gold looking for the yellow. Longyear and the Merritt Brothers were the wiser exceptions.
They were mostly ignored or laughed at because the accepted wisdom of the day was rock solid on the unsuitability of Mesabi ore as friable, meaning easily reduced to dust that didn’t do well in the furnaces All that was cast iron true, and who would know better than Carnegie who took the Bessemer system and went large scale with it to put the young US nation onto towering stilts of steel that far outmatched anything wood or stone or brick could accomplish in building skyward to the future. Instead of the huge masses of quarried and dressed stone needed to build a major structure a light frame of steel could go up and be in-filled with speed and efficiency. Just about everything that might be considered “modern” had a steel base from “tinned” steel cans to preserve and ship foods to rail lines stretching across the nation to form connections speedier than any imagined before. Almost overnight the limits of water shipping were surpassed by steel hulls replacing wooden ones along with new generations of skills with combustion technology ending the reign of sail and the men who understood it. A glorious tall ship with a fine tuned crew was nothing to a steel vessel with boilers churning out a steady beat of power.
Having done about all he could accomplish (and it was a lot) with Standard Oil lighting the dark in American homes as never before, J. D. Rockefeller turned to iron ore and steel as new places to invest some of the more-money-then-he-knew-what-to-do-with. J. D. found non-Carnegie mills with ways to use his dirt cheap ore. This put a spear in the side of Andrew Carnegie, the king of steel. In the struggle between the two giants the stakes and fortunes of people like the Merritts’ were trampled while the future of immigrants flocking to work the new mines was made. Overall the country and workers did well, but not without at times paying some prices we’d think impossibly steep today. Carnegie did quit the field. J. P. Morgan engineered that to create US Steel, immediately the biggest, richest corporation on the globe.
Big major stories are less common than tales of the ordinary, but they get more attention because we are attracted by scale. Ask makers of autos and bras about that. However, there can be as much or more meat in an ordinary account than in another recitation of titans in conflict. I have collected numbers of these having purely local interest but with touches of universal appeal. An early owner of a cabin nearby me built a modest place close to his for an artistic and impractical niece who repeatedly chided him for not having planted shorter grass that didn’t need mowing. She also resented walking 100 feet to her cabin and regularly got her car stuck between trees. A neighbor would come with his horse and get her loose. This was so common an occurrence kitchen clocks were re-wound by it. In one story she asks her uncle about an atractive woman on his arm in quite a number of photos on extended fishing trips. The niece, being related and all, had a pretty good idea what her uncle’s wife looked like, and it wasn’t the image of the woman in the photos. The uncle responded flat out he’d never seen that woman before in his life. Did I mention the uncle was a judge? That clears a lot up so it makes sense now, doesn’t it? In a percentage of those old photos were pictures of what a neighbor woman referred to as “a naked Hoffman,” youthful brothers of muscular construction. They were not naked of course, but compared to a judge and other well-dressed campers they were distinctly fleshy and had a way of inserting a muscular chest into the background. I asked a woman (elderly at the time but in her early teens when the Hoffman boys were around) if she recalled them. It was with perfect ease and glowing tones she rattled off their names mentioning each with warm kindness oozing fresh as if her face was girlish instead of 100. Seems a naked Hoffman knew what he was doing when it came to sparking fond recollection.
I don’t know which or if any of these stories will hit a spot with you, but I’ll bet you learned something of interest in at least one of them.