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Iron Range view: Next generation ponders new hope on the Range

At any of the historical sites or mine views on northern Minnesota's Iron Range, an elderly but enthusiastic volunteer will gladly tell you about the past. They will tell you how, in their youth, they crawled over the red, gritty dirt of a mine d...

At any of the historical sites or mine views on northern Minnesota's Iron Range, an elderly but enthusiastic volunteer will gladly tell you about the past. They will tell you how, in their youth, they crawled over the red, gritty dirt of a mine dump to see pillars of sparks rising off a steam drill into the evening twilight of the 1930s, '40s or '50s.

The past is not past on the Iron Range. It is everywhere.

And that's one reason why so many of my generation, the crazy kids who wore Zubaz pants and listened to Vanilla Ice on purpose, found it hard to grow up on the Iron Range. It's hard for kids to care about the history of where they've already been.

This effect was doubled because the Iron Range children of my generation also saw their homeland as an iceberg melting away under their feet. Starting in the early 1980s with the closure and scuttling of the Butler Taconite mine near Nashwauk, the Iron Range has seen the contraction of jobs, population and prospects. My wife attended elementary school in Nashwauk-Keewatin in 1983 and remembers classmates simply disappearing from one day to the next as families moved quickly to find work elsewhere. Layoffs and downturns persisted through the '80s, '90s and the turn of the century. As long as I can remember, people older than me have been telling me that the old days were better.

An entire generation of Iron Rangers was taught that any person of worth must leave to find fortune, fame and home. I shared that belief during my senior year of high school, eyeing the bright lights of Chicago. The problem with this exodus is the same problem we Iron Range kids found with the red iron-tinted dirt clinging to the undersides of our parents' cars after parties held near secluded mining locations. You can't shake that dirt. You can't shake your home. You can't shake the Iron Range.

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The Iron Range grew as an anomaly, a string of quirky mining locations along a jagged, ridiculously abundant iron formation in the thick north woods of Minnesota. More than any other part of the state, it was built by immigrants eager to prove their loyalty to a great country. These people fought each other at first, but learned to fight together against the powerful companies that held them in poverty. Considered radical to many, these early political pioneers sacrificed comfort so that my generation could go to a good school and do whatever we wanted. And though many of my generation wanted to leave to avoid the general malaise of the sinking Range economy, my talks with high school friends always brings up one truth: We are Iron Rangers. That will not change.

On Sept. 19, officials broke ground on the new Essar Steel plant near Nashwauk, not far from where I grew up and now live, and on the same site as the former Butler Taconite plant. The media blitz, talk of hundreds or thousands of jobs, probably gave many the sense that times were changing on the Iron Range.

They are, but as a lifelong Iron Ranger under the age of 30 I have to ask: "Are we, the Butler Taconite generation, ready for the change?"

Suddenly this generation of Iron Rangers raised on Nintendo and pessimism, awash in mass media from all over the world but rooted in a gritty Iron Range sensibility, now must navigate a ship no longer sinking. Handling these new struggles won't be possible until the attitudes we modern Rangers grew up with change to include the genuine possibility of a real and compelling future here on the Range. Like, totally. For real. OMG!

One thing is abundantly clear. We Iron Range children of the 1980s have weathered the storm. The chances of economic prosperity and collapse run about even nowadays. We stand now with our last best hope of diversifying, modernizing and strengthening our row of little towns nestled along a red-stained ridge in the north woods of Minnesota. This opportunity will not come again. What we do with it will determine whether our great-grandchildren will speak of this time with the same reverence now reserved for our past.

Aaron J. Brown was born in Hibbing, is the author of "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range," and is a community college instructor, newspaper columnist and political organizer. He lives in Itasca County.

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