Carving a Path at Minntac

Retired MinnTac employee Shirley Peterson poses in her Virginia apartment.

VIRGINIA — Ever since she was a school girl growing up in a North Shore town, Shirley Rintala Peterson — born Shirley Dolin in Two Harbors — has been a hard worker. Now 92, Peterson looks back nostalgically on the jobs she has had over the years.

And one of those jobs especially dear among her memories was being employed as a laborer at U.S. Steel's Minntac in Mountain Iron, at a time when few women worked in the mines.

"I started at Minntac in 1978," she said in a recent interview at the Rouchleau apartments, where she now makes her home. She was 51 when she started at Minntac — a 25-year career at the Cluett-Peabody Arrow Shirt Factory in Eveleth and Gilbert had preceded her working at the mine.

"It seemed like I've always worked," she said, smiling. "I was 19 when I got married and started working at 20." She had met her husband, George Rintala, when as a teenager she left Two Harbors to stay with an ailing aunt on the Range. She and George married and "he got polio the day we got married," she said. "He couldn't get the ring on my finger — his right arm was disabled."

The newlyweds first lived in Biwabik, then a one-room apartment in Eveleth, then a forty of land on the St. Louis River. But her dream was to live in Genoa, a small community between Gilbert and Eveleth where her grandmother had lived. And it would be closer to her work at the shirt factory.

Carving a Path at Minntac

Shirley Peterson poses in her coveralls and hard hat for this picture taken by her late husband George Rintala in their yard in Genoa in the late 1970s. She was on her way to work at Minntac, where she was employed from 1978 to 1981.

"Nobody would hire George with one arm disabled," she said, even though she heard from her uncle Reino Lampinen, a mining boss, that "George could do more with that one arm than a lot of guys could do with two." Lee Lundgren hired George to work at Lundgren Motors reconditioning used cars.

Their daughter Susan was born in 1949, their son Robert in 1950. Robert developed diabetes and died at a young age. Her daughter and son-in-law, Susan and Paul Kangas, live in the area and visit her often.

When in high school she set pins in a bowling alley and she remembers a World War II soldier giving her a 50-cent tip, big money in those days. In her 25-year career at the shirt factory — it was a major unionized employer for women, with plants in Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert and Chisholm — she sewed the elastic on men's shorts. She became so proficient, three pairs of shorts every minute, company officials sent her to Minneapolis to demonstrate on her sewing machine in the Dayton's storefront window. The shirt factory paid employees on a piece rate — the more products they turned out, the more money they made.

Then came the job at Minntac. She had also applied at Inland Steel.

"I was treated very well," she recalled. "You started off as a laborer. I worked in the agglomerator (the section of the mining process that produces taconite into round pellets), hosing down big piles of pellets. It was a lot better pay than the shirt factory and you didn't have to work as hard either. I was treated very well."

And she said she had "no trouble with the men. If so, I would have smacked them." Unfortunately the job at Minntac was short-lived. She put in three years at Minntac before being laid off in 1981 — the start of the mining decline of the 1980s. She then took a job with the Forest Service, coloring maps. Peterson also worked for a time as a waitress and bartender at Mac's Bar in Mountain Iron.

"Minntac was a good place to work," Peterson said. As for retirement benefits, she receives none as she didn't work long enough at the mine. "It would be nice if I did," she said. Peterson didn't even mind midnight shifts, she said.

Perhaps that's because she had gotten accustomed to working nights as a young woman — setting pins in the bowling alley. "We lived in the Segogg addition to Two Harbors. I'd have to walk past that cemetery and the car lights would flash over the tombstones on my way home from the bowling alley at midnight."

Her father Carl Dolin worked the night shift at the DM&IR Railroad and was unable to give her a ride home, and her mother Ann didn't drive.

Peterson's second husband Arne Peterson died about 10 years ago.

The oldest of five children, she is the last surviving Dolin sibling. She has two granddaughters Tammy and Krissy, two grandsons Bob and Chad and two great-granddaughters and two great-grandsons.

She added with a big smile, "My grandson Bob Rintala works at Minntac."


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