Lives Transformed: Education and the Iron Range – by Pamela A. Brunfelt (Home Town Focus – February 20, 2015)

Dear Readers,

Earlier this year Pam Brunfelt, distinguished historian, Vermilion Community College instructor and HTF contributor made available, through the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, four history articles that she researched and wrote.

One of those pieces, “The Arsenal of Democracy: Minnesota’s Iron Ranges in WWII,” was published in the January 2, 2015, edition of Hometown Focus. This week we’re sharing “Lives Transformed: Education and the Iron Range.”

These, and the remaining two pieces to be shared at a later date (“At the Center of Life: Women on the Iron Range” and “Industrialization and the Iron Range”), collectively comprise the IRRRB project, “Mining Our History.”

All four of Brunfelt’s history pieces can be accessed online at: – Cindy Kujala – HTF Staff Writer

Mining changed the landscape of the Iron Ranges, and mining taxes created one of the finest education systems in the United States. Education served three purposes. First, to provide alternatives to employment in the mines; second, to transform a polyglot immigrant culture into a new Iron Range identity based on American values; and third, to provide a path to citizenship for thousands of immigrants in the first decades of the twentieth century.

For many Iron Range children, an education became a ticket out of the mines. Mary and Anton Perpich, told their sons: “Get a good education. Get out of the mines.”1 Education was vital because working in an iron mine was backbreaking and dangerous. Frequent layoffs added to the uncertainty of life: children knew if “father’s lunch box was home on the shelf” that he was out of work.

When miners were working, they spent up to twelve hours a day in the mine for monthly wages that fluctuated wildly. Danger from falling rocks, cave-ins, collapsed timbers, premature explosions, and electrocutions awaited miners, especially underground. At least 213 men died in the mines in Ely, and between 1906 and 1916, ninety percent of the 700 men who died in Mesabi Iron Range mines were immigrants.

The worst year was 1910 when 78 miners died.2 Because the struggle to survive was never-ending, mothers feared for their sons and dreaded the whistle’s shriek during a shift. The sound meant that there had been an accident; someone was hurt or dead. No mother wanted her sons to work in the mines, but sometimes there was no alternative.

When a flood of water filled the Milford Mine on February 5, 1924, Frank Hrvatin, Sr. was one of the victims. His fifteen-year old son, Frank Jr., the first to see the water rising from below, yelled out a warning and ran for his life. He and six others reached the ladder in the shaft and frantically climbed to the surface. The boy knew his father was dead; he was too far back in the mine to get out. In those terror-filled moments, Frank, Jr. became the head of his family. As the only boy, he had to support his mother and seven sisters.3 Frank Hrvatin, Jr.’s story is not unique. Because of a tragedy many boys and girls ended up working too young instead of going to school.

It is not surprising then that mothers especially wanted their sons to avoid the dirty and dangerous work in the mines. According to Lynn Marie Laitela, “mothers recognized the schools as the best hope for their children, even though they knew that, in many cases, it meant the end of old values … The schools offered what parents from many national backgrounds could not: a common language and specific, well-defined common values.”4 The transformation of children into Americans began as soon as they walked through the doors of their neighborhood school.

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