Things old, not so, and forever.

Harry Drabik

Must have been in 59 I was pouring over a map when a rush of Boy Scout adventure hit on discovery of Mesaba (another map called it Old Mesaba) in bicycle striking range of Hoyt Lakes. The quest was on. That the location lay inside the forbidden boundaries of Erie Mining made the game all the more desirable to a teen like me living in the enticing air of mysteries of the unknown, which meant most everything on the planet. Soon as could be arranged intrepid Harry was leading a couple of other Schwinn mounted explorers on a mission that had to be kept most secret unless we wanted the warmest of trouble at home from parents needlessly worrying about us getting blown to dust if Erie shot a million tons of rock while we were poking around the verges.  

Up a road toward “the hill” then along a railroad track (bad biking) we eventually found (a smile of fortune) what had once been a road. Overgrown but clear, we followed it to Old Mesaba. If you were a teen in that era and stumbled onto a remarkably intact abandoned town you’d rightly expect a bolt of lightning to drop you in your tracks same as was feared for any of the other dozens of things we did on the sly. But neither Zeus nor Jehovah (at the time we didn’t reckon with far worse gods) sent down flame to chastise bad boys with immolation. It seemed the opposite as the pearly gates of paradisiacal opportunity stood open. All we had to do was keep an eye open for a company truck (but once in all the times I violated private property) on patrol and duck out of sight.  

I know some kids would have jumped into fits of destruction breaking windows and having fun undoing what was well beyond them to ever have done. I feel sorry for them and am glad me and my group saw mystery and exploration rather than a chance to vandalize. Maybe it was simply that Old Mesaba was too impressive even in our adolescent minds to bring on an urge to violate it. We poked around unlocked buildings in a stupefied state of amazement satiation. There was a small Bank with vault open (no money, darn) adjacent a slim building holding a Fire Department with an old pumper with rotted rubber hoses. What had been the town hall seemed to at one time (going by the papers we found) to have been used by J and L who left behind piles of keys with labels indicating what locks they fit. The major buildings must have been cared for by J and L and then by Erie because they were sound inside due to intact roofing.  

The lesser large buildings weren’t so lucky. A largish structure that had likely been a general or dry goods store was mostly fallen in. If we’d wanted a moldy shoe or rusted tin ware that was the place. We passed those opportunities for the riper promise of the good size saloon. The outline of a bar on the floor, basement full of bottles, and a front that kept those outside from seeing who was inside clinched our gleeful surmise that workers got royally drunk there. But there was more to this saloon than tipsiness. A steep stair at the back led up to a hallway lined both sides by small rooms. At fifteen this was overwhelming proof of the sinful opportunities our parents and churches not only wanted to prevent us from doing but from even knowing about. Such good intentions as those stood no chance against the forces of puberty and adolescence. We knew and we desired. We desired much, but frankly standing there in a hallway with those many rooms we felt out of place and in sudden need of fresh clean outdoor air and sun. The saloon was one place we left alone. We were ready for adventure, but not that type.  

Along what had been streets we saw foundation stones and steps going up to buildings no longer there. Further along were small houses, some intact with lacey curtains in slow disintegration and clothes in cupboards then occupied by mice thankful for such prime multi-story housing. Teens we lusted to find gold, whiskey, and guns. The next house would reveal a Sharps, bottle of rot gut, or a lost $20 eagle. Like most my lusts then and later these were all in vain; a waste of time and energy no matter how otherwise essential to the bumpy progress of growing up.  

Old Mesaba was eventually torn down and dozed to rubble so I was lucky to have seen it at all. It is worth reflection, I think, to remember the place was more than old stuff that you’d find in any number of so-so little museums. I term them so-so not out of disrespect for the efforts made to protect and preserve but for the sad disconnect I feel from an object out of its time and place. A good example for me is Dorothy Molter’s cabin now outside Ely. Out of its natural place and minus the life that gave it purpose and meaning it’s a shell containing sadness and emptiness. Does that seem harsh to you; well too bad? Putting flowers on a grave is a fine act, but it is not one that adds much or provides purpose.

Our history in order to be useful has to do more than be an accumulation of stuff.   There are things I can’t well put into words, but like you I know when a thing if alive and when it speaks in dead. I recently saw an official launch into rant over something essentially quite minor except for their misunderstanding of it. A thing like that looks lively but lacks purposeful life. The thin skinned from my experience get that way from overconsumption, including of pride. If you’re an overripe tomato that’ll burst from a poke it’s time to recognize your future is sauce.