Friday, February 15, 2019
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Explaining the Iron Range character

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Sally Mayasich visits her hometown of Virginia, Minnesota, as often as she can. Here she's standing above an old mine pit which is now filled with water. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
The new Warner Brothers movie, "North Country," is scheduled for release next month. It's based on a legal battle which took place in a Minnesota iron mine, and established that companies have a legal responsibility to protect employees from sexual harassment.

The movie was partially filmed on the Iron Range, and many residents of the Range will appear as extras. Sally Mayasich tried out for a part, but wasn't chosen. As a native of the Iron Range, Mayasich understands what makes the Range unique.

Virginia, Minn. — Sally Mayasich drives to the Iron Range from her home in Cloquet to visit her mom and dad as often as she can. She stops in front of a tidy three-story house on the north side of Virginia.

"This is my great-grandfather's house. It was built in 1915," says Mayasich.

Guiseppi Magagnini built the house. He was a painter. He made wine in the basement -- there's still a wine press down there -- and during Prohibition, he sold wine to boost the family income.

Mayasich grew up in the house her great-grandfather built. Across the street is a strip of grass, a chain link fence, and a pit that stretches from here to the horizon. Mayasich and her sister used to play in the pit.

"We would sneak under the fence, and find rocks, and look out into the pit and go, 'Wow, that's so cool,' because to us it looked like the Grand Canyon," she says.

The house shook and the windows sometimes cracked when they blasted new rock in the mine. The trucks hauling ore spilled red dust that would drift onto the laundry hanging in the backyard.

Now the digging has stopped here. Developers are building brand new homes on large lots at the edge of the pit.

From the decks and backyards, the ground falls hundreds of feet down, and then climbs up again, more than a half a mile away on the other side. Mayasich says people moving in here enjoy the view.

"It's a beautiful geological cross-cut of the formations there," says Mayasich. "And you can see the orange and the red in the wall of the pit, where they've just literally sliced it down like you'd just stuck your fork into a big layer cake."

No one seems to think it's odd to live on the edge of a mine pit. People are used to them here. And the pits are where most people made their living.

Chestnut St. in downtown Virginia is about six blocks long. At one end is an old railroad station, now turned into a bank. At the other end, there's the pit again.

Behind the fence, the leaves on young aspen trees dance in the wind. This is where Sally Mayasich's family brought visitors, to show off the Range.

"Because, I don't know, look at all that work that went into that, and it really made you proud," she says. "A lot of the Iron Range is that work ethic, and that pride in working hard and sweating."

Mayasich says that worship of work gives a lot of Rangers a bit of an "attitude."

"They're known to be cliquish, maybe a little rough around the edges. There's more swearing that goes on around here than maybe in the other, more genteel parts of the state," says Mayasich.

On the Range, people from many countries -- Finland, Italy, Slovenia, Greece, and others -- learned how to survive northern Minnesota's frozen winters and baking summers. They created a new life with their dangerous, backbreaking work in the mines.

"The languages, the accents, the food -- all that has come together," she says. "Just like sisu, which is a Finnish word, something translating to "determination." But it goes way beyond that. It's just a will do things that are beyond capacity sometimes."

"Sisu" is a Finnish term that applies now to all Iron Rangers. It roughly translates to "determination," but it goes way beyond that. It's just a will do things that are beyond capacity sometimes.
- Sally Mayasich, on the Iron Range culture

Mayasich says "sisu" isn't just a Finnish word anymore. It applies to Iron Range people in general.

"All of those boatloads of immigrants, and all of their determination, and all of them could live with almost nothing. And it is a hard life up here, especially at that time, because it was cold in the winter and you couldn't do as much about it," says Mayasich.

"And they stayed, they weren't going to go. They weren't going to let the weather chase them away, and they weren't going to let the bosses chase them away. That grew into sisu," she says.

A monument to "sisu" stands a block off Chestnut St. in Virginia. It's the Socialist Workers Hall, which was built in 1913. Mayasich says it was used for lectures, dances, and community theater.

"They actually had a stage with a swimming pool underneath it. And they could move the floor away and actually row a boat across the stage if they needed to," says Mayasich. "It was a pretty lavish place when you think of it as a Socialist building. It seems a little odd."

This was the headquarters for a bitter strike in 1916. Striking workers signed up with the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World -- also called the Wobblies. When they picketed the mines, company guards would attack them.

Mayasich says mothers and wives of Finnish miners told their husbands to stay home; they'd do the picketing, and maybe the guards wouldn't beat them up.

"So the women would go out and picket with their children, and they had signs saying, 'We need milk,' things like that."

But 50 years later, the solidarity between men and women must have eroded. In the mid-1970s, Sally Mayasich took a summer job at the Minntac mine, where her dad worked for 40 years.

All day long she stood and washed waste rock down drains with a fire hose. She was one of the first women to work in the mines, and some of the men let her know she wasn't welcome.

"For the most part it was just dirty pictures, and calendar stuff, and bad language," Mayasich recalls. "And they didn't care. In fact, they directed it at you a lot of the time because they wanted to get you out of there."

Mayasich says once the women demonstrated their "sisu," most of the harassment stopped. Her sister worked at the same mine.

"The foreman she had was giving her all the absolute worst jobs to do. And once he realized she was doing them, and she wasn't going to leave, then he let up on her," she says.

Mayasich says she understands why so many men resisted sharing their work with women. Generations of mine workers had fought for good wages and decent working conditions.

"These guys went through a lot to get where they did get, as far as workers are concerned, and they weren't going to give up any of that to anybody. And really, the women were then outsiders, too, when they came in."

And that's what Mayasich hopes to see in the movie "North Country" -- women holding on to good jobs in spite of resentment, harassment, and violence from some of their co-workers.

"The whole movie is about a lot of determination, and going through a lot -- and maybe you should have quit but they didn't," she says. "I think that, really, in itself shows a lot about the Iron Range character."

Mayasich says she plans to see the movie when it comes out. She knows a lot of people who will appear as extras.

Meanwhile, she's working on a novel about her great-aunt, and the strike of 1916.