The never-been-told story of a Hibbing blacksmith-turned-lawyer-turned mayor is, according to a tagline by Iron Range rooted storytellers, “part history, part mystery, a political thriller” — and a story that connects this area of Northern Minnesota to names like Rockefeller and Carnegie.
And then: “He vanished from history,” Karl Jacob says on the first episode of “Power in the Wilderness.”
Victor Power led Hibbing for 10 pivotal years — at a time when it was described as the “richest village in the world.” Iron Range based journalist Aaron Brown and Jacob, a New York City filmmaker with Hibbing roots, have joined forces to tell the story of this period in the Iron Range city’s history with a serialized podcast.
“Power in the Wilderness” is available at powerinthewilderness.com and on most podcast platforms, in addition to KAXE-FM, a public radio station available in Grand Rapids, Brainerd, Ely and Bemidji and by streaming.
The story of Victor Power, whose only local nod these days is Victor Power Park, dedicated in the 1970s, is one that speaks to modern Minnesota, according to Brown.
“The elements to the story we’re uncovering, political power, corporate power, the environment, immigration, racism — everything in there is still an issue,” he said. “Victor Power kind of becomes this hero who encounters all of these problems that we recognize, and we get to watch how he handled them and what happened to him.
“That might tell us something — give us something to think about today.”
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Jacob graduated from Hibbing High School in 1997, and the opulence of it remains a curiosity to him. It’s this giant, crazy building, he said, and it just seems out of place. A writer from the New York Times reported on it in 1925, describing the $4 million building as a cathedral, a “white elephant in the land of the buffalo.” Classrooms for cooking, woodworking, art making. An auditorium worthy of Broadway stars. A gymnasium fit for Olympians.
Where did the money for the building come from? Jacob wonders. Meanwhile, voices on the podcast assume, vaguely, that the mines built it.
“I have this tendency, and have throughout my whole life, to get really fixated on a topic and really want to know everything about it,” he said. “So I was really bothered by not knowing where the money came from for the high school, and that just opened this whole portal into researching early Hibbing.”
Brown estimates that both he and Jacob were getting a spark of related inspiration around the same time. The longtime collector of Iron Range history had files on Victor Power, a someday project, which he likened to an ignored treadmill in a basement. It’s been almost five years since he went to the Minnesota Discovery Center to see “Enough! The Mesabi Strike of 1916!” exhibit. Part of this included the singing of an old labor song sung by a Finnish couple.
“I got to thinking of where we were today, 2016, at that time and how everything had changed so much — but maybe not,” he recalled. He knew Power was tangentially related to that strike, and so he reconsidered the metaphorical treadmill.
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Eventually, while conducting their individual research — a book for Brown and a film or TV project for Jacob — they heard whispers of the other’s similarly-themed work. Jacob’s mother told him that Brown, a colleague at Hibbing Community College, was working on a Power project; Brown got a head’s up from an employee of the historical society. There was another guy out there digging into the same files.
They knew of each other. Brown had interviewed Jacob when he was working on his Hibbing-based film “Cold November” — and again when the film needed access to a freshly killed deer for a scene.
Jacob broke the ice by sending Brown an email — which Brown responded to within minutes, according to the lore.
“I think we just wanted to check each other out like dogs at the park and came to find out that the end goal of what each of us were trying to do was sufficiently different,” Brown said.
They decided to work together — an idea they sealed with Jacob optioning Brown’s future book, which the writer guesstimates was about 18 words long at the time.
Though now, as the deadline nears, it has grown exponentially.
Every Tuesday morning for the past four years, the two have met up for a virtual meeting to discuss the project — and sometimes that meeting overflows into a second one later in the week.
Along the way, Jacob noticed that the journey was a story in itself. Maybe, he suggested to Brown, a podcast would help them organize their thoughts and the story.
The process has been tricky. The timeframe they are dealing with is just out of the reach of memory, Brown said.
“Every research lead ends up with an obituary of someone who died in 2007 or 2013,” he added.
In some cases, they’ve tracked down relatives of key players only to find that their research has surpassed the family’s own oral history, quaint details like, "Grandma liked a clean kitchen."
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The first two episodes, “The Castle in the Woods” and “El Pulpo,” are available for streaming. Three more are expected to drop in May. The duo has the support of KAXE, whose director of operations is among the first ears to hear drafts of episodes.
"Power in the Wilderness" is a departure for the station that tends to learn toward current events, Sarah Bignall said, and this is a chance to tell a story from history. KAXE had previously produced Brown's "Great Northern Radio Show" and is financially backing the project.
Jacob was shooting for a creative style that mixed popular shows like “Radiolab” and “Hardcore History.” It’s a style that shifts in later episodes, as the creators found a groove.
Subscribers who contribute to the podcast will have early access to episodes and at some levels, other perks like a copy of “Cold November” or a copy of Brown’s book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”
The first episodes include the sounds of old Hibbing and legendary stories of that extraordinary high school, a friendly duel, how Hibbing paved its roads and a car chase that followed Victor Power’s imprisonment in an Arizona jail.
The hosts have an easy conversational way of telling stories. Both on-air and off, Brown likens them to the characters in a buddy cop movie. Brown is the straight arrow who lives in Northern Minnesota, 27 miles from a stoplight; Jacob is the big city filmmaker in a tight T-shirt who has recently taken up foraging for mushrooms.
“It’s a fun dynamic, and we’ve gotten to be good friends, and there’s a good interplay between us,” Brown said.