Everyone has a particular picture in mind when “the good ole days” are mentioned. There may be some things a person wishes had never changed, but other things…well, would any of us really want to go back to scrubbing clothes on rocks or eating the same food for months on end?
When reading memoirs written by the first white settlers to the Mesabi Iron Range, I marvel at their tenacity and strength! Men’s stories of prospecting and early mining and starting businesses are fascinating. But I am so especially glad that women, too, recorded their stories. These first-person accounts tell us, in often heartbreaking detail, what life was like in those years.
Every era has its challenges, of course. Every era has its accomplishments. But, let’s never forget the challenges and accomplishments of those who came before us, those who went ahead and forged the way.
The following memoir was written by one of Hibbing’s pioneers, Ruby Louise Kernan Kleffman. Born in Two Harbors, her family came to Hibbing in its early years. She married Edgar Kleffman and, in the 1940s, she wrote down many stories. These included stories as her mother told them to her and as she herself remembered of growing up in a growing and changing Hibbing. Ruby would live to be 103!
My thanks to Roberta Schloesser and Erica Larson Zubich at the Hibbing Historical Society for helping me find information about Ruby.
This memoir was printed in the Hibbing Daily Tribune on June 29, 1946, as part of Hibbing’s 50th Anniversary Celebration.
~ Mary Palcich Keyes
Hectic housekeeping was the rule in 1893 when homes were tents, one water well served all families, and menus consisted of dried foods and salt pork.
Very early in that first year of Hibbing’s life, housekeeping was done in tents set up among stumps and pines. The whir and scream of saws in the sawmill west of Center and Cedar Streets were heard as lumber was turned out of logs with which to build one-story shacks- homes for the tent settlers.
One thickness of lumber, covered on the outside and roof with tarpaper, made a chilly home, and when the lumber dried cracks large enough to put a hand through were left in the walls.
Newspapers served double duty in those years- after being read and reread they were placed over the rough lumber walls as wallpaper, making black and white the popular decorative color combination of the season!
Sub-zero temperatures and an exceptionally heavy snow in the winter of 1893-94 taxed the stick-to-it-iveness of young pioneers who kept warm by huddling close to wood stoves. The only fuel available, wood, was cheap. Each family cut its own and the sweat of chopping was the only price.
All residents went to the one well to fetch water for cooking, drinking, and washing. One enterprising pioneer, Brownlee, hitched his team of horses to a water tank and delivered water to the door at 25 cents per barrel. The size of the barrel did not affect the price. Two families lived upstairs of one of the larger buildings. One family had a beer-keg size water barrel, the other family collected an outsize barrel in which to keep water. Brownlee collected 25 cents from each.
Today’s postwar food shortages seem mild to women who recall the menus of dried beans, dried peas, cornmeal, oatmeal, rice and salt pork during the winter of 1893. During the cold months there were no potatoes or fresh vegetables since trains were not equipped to ship perishables into the frigid temperature zone of Hibbing. Food would be frozen before it reached here.
Harvey Van Horn furnished milk to Hibbingites from his herd of six cows. Several families owned one cow which provided for their own use.
The occasional barrel of cabbage, carrots or onions received in the spring by the two grocery stores created a run on these shops. In one day each housekeeper would have received her share of cabbage and from every little frame house that night the odor of boiling greens would waft to the street.
Cobb and Birdie owned one store, James Gandsey the other. Gandsey was the distributor of the “best meal of ‘93” when he portioned out a barrel of sauerkraut received from the wholesaler. When housewives discovered that sauerkraut was at the store, each woman rushed home, snatched a container and hustled back to receive her share. Pioneers smacked their lips over the first table delicacy tasted in months. John McHale says he can still taste that meal of kraut!
With all the difficulties in home-making, there was still a pleasant side of life. Everyone was young. Everyone was very friendly and sociable. After a hard week people generally relaxed on Saturday night by meeting at the homes of various friends, playing cards and ending up the evening with a luncheon.
The winter was hard and cold, but people here were determined to stick it out. As we look back now, we First Settlers all feel that if we had to do it all again, we would want it to happen just the same way. All of the First Settlers appreciated the toast that Gladys Gandsey, daughter of grocer James Gandsey, gave at the First Settlers’ banquet in 1940:
Here is to our Pine Street in ’93
Where our Pa’s and Ma’s did love to be,
With its new town hall so up to date,
Where all sorts of parties kept them out late.
But shortly we babies made our debut,
From all reports, we were wonders, too!
You have brought us with you again tonight
Just to make sure you’d get home all right!
May fondest recollections of days gone by
Help to keep you young and ever spry.
May happiness be true to you,
May life be long and good to you,
Is the toast of all your kids to you!
More Pioneer Days…
The following is taken from the Hibbing Daily Tribune of August 15, 1953. Executive Editor of the newspaper in those years was George M. Fisher who, along with his other responsibilities, wrote a regular column entitled “Along the Iron Range.” He included all sort of stories, news items, even jokes. In 1953, Hibbing celebrated its 60th Anniversary and Mr. Fischer shared stories of many visitors and citizens who were enjoying the festivities. Here’s one of those stories:
The story of the pioneers who came to Hibbing in the days of its infancy will always hold a thrill for the people of Hibbing. Let’s look at the saga of Mrs. James (Christina) Dillon, now 82 years of age, who came to Hibbing on November 1, 1893. She was the fourth passenger on the first regular passenger train that came into Hibbing from Duluth and was the 11th woman to come to Hibbing.
Mrs. Dillon and her husband opened the first restaurant and the first rooming house. Mr. Dillon started the first dray line and retained it until disposed of to the Hayworth family.
Many are the unusual incidents that Mrs. Dillon recalls. She tells of the time in 1893 when Dr. Rood rented rooms in her rooming house to provide for the typhoid patients during the epidemic of that year.
Six children blessed the Dillon home. Five of them are still living. George and Gerald are with the Oliver Mining Company. Francis and Roland are on the west coast. Mrs. Lucille Masson lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
According to Mrs. Dillon, entertainment provided the early settlers with both summer and winter enjoyment. In the summer, the ringing of a bell on the streets announced the arrival of a fiddler, who normally worked in a logging camp, but who would come into town and play for square dances and waltzes at the Dillon place. The neighbors gathered to enjoy the light fantastic.
In the winter there were sleigh rides, church socials, dances, and skating.
Mrs. Dillon is back in Hibbing for the town’s 60th anniversary and her many friends were glad to meet the pioneer of 1893 and discuss old times.
The following items are taken from the Hibbing Daily Tribune or the Mesabi Ore, which are on microfilm at the Hibbing Public Library and/or Iron Range Resource Center at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.
Dec. 7, 1918
Two additional deaths from influenza is reported this morning, making the total number 69 in all since the epidemic began. Penna Boneff, age 35, died at the Webb Location late last night. William Anderson of Roosevelt Avenue, Alice, age 30 and employeed by the village, passed away this morning from influenza-pneumonia.
June 1, 1953
St. James Church will observe the British coronation Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. in the Guild Hall with the showing of pictures which served as guides to the Westminister Abbey officials. Other highlights will be recordings of royal fanfares, the Queen’s voice, and the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking on the significance of the coronation. A Hibbing resident, newly arrived from England, will speak. This will be followed by community singing of English songs and sampling of some typical English dishes. All members of St. James and others who are interested in the coronation are invited.
July 2, 1963
Hershel Feldman, president of the Hibbing Merchants Association, today set a special meeting of retail merchants to be held at the Androy Hotel at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday. Sidewalk Days and Aviation Days will be discussed.