Monday, April 14, 2008

Aaron B's column: the unique aesthetics of the Iron Range


Blight Me: the unique aesthetics of the Iron Range By Aaron J. Brown
It’s spring on the Iron Range. I know this because last week we had to hire a guy with a loader to remove a million tons of snow from my rural driveway. Not a plow. A loader. Hello, spring!Maybe it’s just a little bump in the road on our way to the real spring. When real spring finally arrives, our thoughts will turn to the stuff that’s been hiding underneath that snow all winter long. The slow recession of winter’s white canvass reveals old cars, rebar, scrap lumber and sometimes even the fate of stray animals we used to see around (but not so much the last few weeks).

Someone I know who moved to the Iron Range from a small farming town once told me about her first impression of the Iron Range. The first thing she noticed was the rather eclectic collection of cars and other metal goods in people’s yards. I suppose as an Iron Range native I could have feigned outrage over this observation, but I know better. We Iron Rangers are a proud, noble people … who leave things in our yards.

One could argue that my perspective is skewed. I grew up on an Iron Range family-owned salvage yard out in Zim. (I have to be careful. My wife thinks I mention this more often than former presidential candidate John Edwards talked about “the mill). As a kid, if I saw an old car up on blocks in someone’s yard my response was, “what,just one?” We lived in a trailer house just a few dozen feet away from another trailer house that was packed to the ceiling with hubcaps. We would walk back to grandpa and dad’s shop along a path that wound through piles of aluminum cans and hulking dead machines of uncertain purpose. And this was all very normal to us, like oak trees and picket fences of Rockwell’s America.

That’s how it is on the Iron Range. I’ve heard theories that the Range’s love affair with junk has to do with our working class demographics or the fact that early miners weren’t able to own their own land, so they didn’t mind leaving junk out. Heck, maybe we just like junk. After all, the junkyard where I grew up was just a dozen miles north of the now defunct Sanitary Harry’s bar in Kelsey. The late Sanitary Harry ran for governor several times under the promise of “a car in every yard.” His drinking establishment gained a reputation for the odd junk that would be piled both inside and outside the building. In its last years, a friend told me the bar’s owners had literally shellacked random junk to the tabletops.

The first controversy I ever encountered in Iron Range journalism had to do with a county blight ordinance. Folks in the countryside wanted the right to keep spare cars on their property so they could harvest parts when needed. But big government was getting in the way. Cabin owners were complaining and deputies were writing blight tickets. Letters were exchanged. Public outcry against the policy ran surprisingly hot. The blight ordinance is still on the books today, but I don’t see any fewer cars on private properties out in the woods. I assume something of a junk car détente took place behind closed doors.

Junk defines the Range and that’s not all bad. Along the Mesabi Trail near Hibbing, tourists from all over get a good look at rusted pieces of mining equipment that were simply abandoned near their final resting places. Some might question why that stuff was left there. The answer is clear to me. All who see these scrap metal specters know that the Iron Range is a place where people shaped the land and their children long outlived their machines. And that’s who we are.

I don’t mean to diminish the work of so many Iron Rangers in sprucing up their yards, property and homes. Many places around here look like the very picture of Americana. But I have to bear the truth that what many folks remember when they visit the Iron Range is the colorful, blue collar cornucopia of metal that adorns so many other yards. This sharp, rusted world is just coming into focus this time of year. Hey, I don’t mind. It gives the place character.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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