CHISHOLM – While guiding tourists through the Soudan Underground Mine, Pete Pellinen taps into his Iron Range upbringing, along with his musical and theatrical talents, and mining experience.
Generally, from the beginning of June to the end of September, Pellinen leads three or four tours per day through the former underground mine site in Soudan, Minn.
“We celebrate the fact that the people who lived here came from over 20 countries and languages,” said Pellinen.
Pellinen said he’s always amazed at the many tourists from various parts of the world visit the Iron Range each year. Even more amazing, he said are the local people who have no idea that there were once underground mines operating in cities across the region.
Some of the foreign tourists, Pellinen has learned are traveling to the Iron Range to study an earlier version of their own language.
One example he gave was when speaking the German he learned in college to a couple of tourists from Germany, they found a word he used to mean “move” as amusing.
“They laughed as if I was Johnny Carson,” said Pellinen.
Concerned that he maybe misspoke, Pellinen questioned the tourists. The tourists confirmed he did use the word correctly, but that it had been years since they’d heard it.
When he was growing up in Virginia, Pellinen said he enjoyed hearing the various ethnic groups gathered at Olcott Park conversing in their native languages. In his younger years particularly, he found they were eager to share samples of food from their homeland.
Pellinen said he often sings, “a bit of Slovenian, Italian and Finn,” while sharing the history of underground mining at the Soudan Underground Mine site.
“The New Colossus,” a sonnet that is mounted on a plaque that is mounted on the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty is something Pellinen is known to recite on the tours.
Shortly after graduating from Virginia High School in 1973, Pellinen was hired as a laborer at a local mine, where he first worked in the agglomerator, and later out in the pit as part of a track gang.
He recalled he had difficulty adjusting to the swing shift schedule at the mines. At that time, he was on a schedule of six days with an optional seventh.
About a year into his mining job, Pellinen decided working in the mines just wasn’t for him. He then enrolled at Bemidji State University. While there, he said, his studies were primarily in education, choral music and industrial arts.
For about three years, he continued to work at the mine during the summer months. At one point in time, he recalled working in the tire shop, where tires of all sizes, from small carts to the large production trucks were repaired.
Pellinen continued his studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., while focusing on vocal music performance and singing opera.
“I focused on the things I needed to work on, the performance aspects,” he said.
Pellinen’s sang with a host of theater companies, performing in cities around the country. The former Iron World in Chisholm was among the venues he performed at.
When he came to the conclusion that he earned more money fixing other singers’ cars, Pellinen moved on to other career opportunities.
It was the safety of the small Iron Range towns that motivated Pellinen and his wife to move from St. Paul to his hometown of Virginia about 25 years ago. At that time, a paper company he was working for experienced downsizing.
Prior to starting at the Soudan in 2000, Pellinen held various positions, and even owned and operated his own bus company for a period of about 18 months.