How Mesabi Pioneers came to be by Jeff SmithIn 2013 I was living in a small town on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, a year-and-a-half into my new job as full-time stay-at-home father, house-husband and writer. My daughter was a joy, the house was moderately (according to my wife) clean, and for the first time in more than a decade I was writing. Not just as a hobby, but as a job.
I got up every morning at 5am, before the kid woke, and I wrote for two hours. Then I made some breakfast, and went for a run. During my daughter's morning nap I would edit what I had written the day before. Soon enough, the kid woke. We'd play games, or go swimming, or go for a walk, or read together, until it was time to start getting dinner ready.
At night I read--histories, mostly. I had for years been fascinated by the history of American infrastructure: highways, bridges, buildings, cities planned and unplanned. I was not interested in the mechanics of how America was built as much as in understanding the men and women who did the building. The workers who made the things we take for granted every day: tall buildings; automobiles; telephones; electricity; long stretches of concrete cutting swaths across the American landscape.
I wanted to write a story about the people who did the work of building America. I kept reading, and kept writing, and kept submitting. The right story, however, never seemed to come together, either in my head or on paper.
Then, early in the summer, I connected with a woman who told me an idea for a novel she and her father had talked about for years. It seemed a story right up my alley: a novel about the immigrants who came to northern Minnesota in the late 19th and early 20th century to mine iron ore.
I had never heard of the Iron Range, had never heard of Mesabi nor that there was a place in Minnesota north of Walnut Creek. My knowledge of Minnesota came from reading that storied Laura Ingalls Wilder series both when I was a boy and later to my daughter. But the more I learned about the history of the place, and about the man who would be my co-author, the more I wanted to write this story.
Russell Hill was born on the Iron Range, a child of Finnish immigrants who came to America to work the iron mines. Russell first conceived of a story about the Mesabi in 1968 when he was an educator in Minnesota. His idea was to write the story of the Range, how it began, and how it evolved from multiple sprawling towns of disparate ethnic and cultural groups to an almost singular community of Rangers stretching more than a hundred miles. Russell wanted to tell the story of the men who worked long hours in the mines, their wives who worked long hours in the home, and their children who grew up American.
I began to research. I discovered that the Mesabi range was the largest cache of iron ore in America, that it had been mined since 1892 and that it was still being mined today. Estimates are that there is enough iron ore in the ground on the Mesabi Range that it could be mined for another hundred years. Maybe more.
I learned of a great rags to riches to rags story virtually unknown outside of Minnesota: how a timber cruiser from Duluth discovered and developed the largest iron mine in the world. Leonidas Merritt and his six brothers amassed a fortune on paper. They built a mining empire, then they built a railroad, and finally a set of ore docks in Duluth where the iron could be shipped to market.
To pay for it all they formed a partnership with that titan of oil, John D. Rockefeller, who loaned them the money to pay for the railroad and the ore docks and to help equip the mines, taking as collateral the mines themselves.
This was a story with built in historical drama; with a tragedy both personal and professional; with larger than life figures who played chess with America's industrial titans and lost.
More than that it was a story about people. Immigrants from all over Europe and Scandinavia who came to Minnesota looking for the American dream. They believed the streets of America were paved with diamonds. But on the Mesabi they found the streets paved with the red dust of iron ore. They endured harsh conditions: remote locations set in the dense forest, bitterly cold winters, brutally hot summers, biting insects, thick bogs, floods and fires.
They were the foundation of America's 20th century industrial revolution. The iron they brought out of the ground became the steel that helped America win two world wars, created a giant automobile industry that spawned the interstate highway system, formed the backbone for bridges and skyscrapers, was turned into pots and pans and stoves and refrigerators that went into every kitchen in America.
These men, these immigrants who came from farms, who had themselves never heard of Minnesota or of the iron range, were the very men and women I had been seeking. In their lives I found the story I yearned to write. It is a story that continues to this day. They created a legacy of community that is a microcosm of America itself, built by immigrants, by working men and women, for the betterment of themselves and their children and their children's children. They built a place on the Iron Range they are proud to call home.
And a story that Russell would be proud bears his name.
About Mesabi Pioneers: A Novel
Publication Date: October 6, 2014 | Lempi Publishing | Formats: eBook, Hardcover | 238 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
READ AN EXCERPT.
In the early 1890s, a group of brothers discovered iron ore in the dense pine woods of northern Minnesota. Mesabi Pioneers tells the story of the immigrants who dug that ore out of the ground, who carved towns from trees, and who built new lives for themselves and their families.
Arthur Maki, a Finnish immigrant known for his carpentry skills, has been hired by the persuasive and poetic Leonidas “Lon” Merritt to join a crew of explorers in the forest. From this remote and formidable locale, Arthur must construct a camp and foster a community into which he can bring his wife and son.
The camp, which the Merritts call Mountain Iron, sits on what Lon believes to be a huge lode of iron ore. However, the rest of the world thinks the Merritts are crazy. While Arthur builds a camp with a Chippewa Indian everyone calls Charlie and a French-Chippewa fur trader named Richardson, the other members of the team explore the surrounding woods for more caches of iron. When a second lode is discovered at Biwabik, Arthur and the rest of the crew know the finding is real. And the iron mining world knows it, too.
As the mine gets deeper and mining operations expand, the camp crowds with a diversity of ethnic and cultural groups. Tragedy strikes in ways large and small. And it is from the ashes of destruction that Arthur finds the community he has been seeking.
Praise for Mesabi Pioneers“…a refreshingly enjoyable read… Hill and Smith kindle complicated emotions, important questions and a driving curiosity about Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range…The novel give(s) us a remarkable point of view, a vision of the Iron Range before it was anything like our modern understanding of the place. The size of the forest, the difficulty of travel, the majesty of the Missabe hills before they were opened up and moved like chess pieces: we see all of this in fresh prose." -Aaron Brown, Hibbing Daily Tribune and minnesotabrown.com
“Hill and Smith pepper their story with some very good character development, plenty of sarcastic humor, and a good deal of research into a period never before explored in historical fiction. In their handling, the enterprising and occasionally cutthroat, bygone world of iron mining comes vividly alive. A strong debut installment.” -Charlotte Kirsch, Historical Novel Society
“A wonderful book. I’d recommend it to anyone.” -Scott Hall, KAXE, Northern Community Radio
“In Mesabi Pioneers, Jeffrey Smith has skillfully crafted a wonderful story that respects the historical facts while bringing the experience of these pioneers to life. This book is a steeped in the social history and physical geography of this region in Minnesota that played such a significant role in the economic rise of the United States. In a few words, this is good creative writing with an enjoyable style.” -James Dilisio, author Maryland Geography
“What a fascinating story, with finely drawn characters and compelling subject matter. The authors take us inside the hearts and souls of newly arrived immigrant pioneers, full of hope and promise, who accomplished extraordinary feats under dire circumstances; and the Native Americans who watched their homeland undergo such dramatic and irrevocable change. I highly recommend it.” -Kathryn Leigh Scott, actress and author, Down and Out in Beverly Heels
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Mesabi Pioneers Available AtAmazon
Barnes & Noble
Mesabi Project Website
Jeffrey Smith began his love of letters at fourteen on a Smith-Corona electric typewriter borrowed from his father. He is a full-time writer, homemaker and stay-at-home parent in Berlin, Maryland. Also an accomplished distance runner, Jeffrey has completed 16 marathons, seven 24-hour relay races, and multiple ultra-runs, including several 100-mile races. He blogs about writing, running, and parenting at rustlingreed.com/blog.
For more information visit mesabiproject.com. You can also follow Mesabi Pioneers on Facebook and Twitter.
Mesabi Pioneers Blog Tour ScheduleMonday, May 4
Blog Tour Kick Off at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, May 5
Guest Post at The Maiden's Court
Monday, May 11
Review at Unshelfish
Thursday, May 14
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Monday, May 18
Review at Svetlana's Reads and Views
Tuesday, May 19
Guest Post at Passages to the Past
Wednesday, May 20
Review at Beth's Book Nook Blog
Thursday, May 21
Review at Broken Teepee
Monday, May 25
Review at Griperang's Bookmarks
Tuesday, May 26
Review at Book Nerd
Guest Post at A Literary Vacation
Thursday, May 28
Review at Just One More Chapter
Review at Teddy Rose Book Reviews Plus More
Friday, May 29
Review at A Novel Kind of Bliss