Women Pioneers on the Iron Range

Sara Gow was one of the first school teachers at the Kelly Lake School. She taught there from 1912-1917. Imagine all of the boys and girls she helped grow up in those years! Here she is sharing a laugh with pupil Clarence Kemp.

Moving to a new place can cause a mix of emotions. There’s excitement and happiness. There might also be worry and trepidation. The white settlers who came to northern Minnesota in the late 1800s and early 1900s probably had many such feelings.

Let’s all raise a cup of coffee, tea, orange juice, or whatever you happen to have in your hand, to the tenacity of the Iron Range pioneers. Some of them cleared land of tree roots and rocks in order to farm. Some built a sauna first and a house second. Some decided that a muddy trail would be a main street. Some went down into the ground with a shovel and pick-axe. Some planted flower seeds so the blooms would bring a little of the “Old Country” to this new one.

How hard they had to work and how amazed they might be to see the changes here today.

The following are excerpts taken from the June 1978 newsletter “Range History” published by the Iron Range Historical Society located in Gilbert and re-printed here with their permission. These excerpts come from an essay entitled “Women on the Iron Range” written by Barbara E. Lampaa.

~ Mary Palcich Keyes

George Stuntz, Albert Chester, the Merritt brothers, Charlemagne Tower, Elisha Morcom, John D. Rockfeller, E.J. Longyear, Frank Hibbing, Erwin Eveleth, John Owens, Vic Power… all prominent figures in Iron Range history, and of course many others could be added to this list. Their courage, foresight, ingenuity turned a wilderness into one of the major lumbering and mining centers in the world.

But have you heard of Hester Crooks Boutwell and Catherine Ely, who accompanied their missionary husbands to the St. Louis River area and the mission school at Fond du Lac in 1834? Mrs. Henry Wheeler whose husband owned half interest in the dredge which dug the Duluth Canal? Her daughter Julia, born September 2, 1856, was probably the first white child born in Duluth. Mrs. Wheeler’s trip from St. Paul to Duluth, with three small children in 1855, took six weeks, as there were no roads and she had to travel most of the way by water, arriving in Duluth in a Mackinaw canoe.

Or Mrs. E.J. Longyear, who spent her honeymoon in a small cabin on the Mesabi Range while her husband diamond drilled the iron formation. Or Polly Bullard, Eveleth teacher in 1908 who said that McKinley, Gilbert, and Sparta made Eveleth look like quite a metropolis, and called her young students “my little onions”, because in the cold winter they had to wear all of their clothing, layer upon layer, to keep warm. Dr. Andrea Hall, immigrant girl from Norway, came to Minnesota at the age of 15, earned a medical degree at the turn of the 20th century when women in medicine were practically unheard of, and served in the Virginia, MN area for over fifty years. Or the Sipola sisters from Soudan, MN, whose mother died of cancer when the eldest girl, Elina, was only 14. They managed the household, finished high school, and alternately supported each other until all four girls had earned teaching degrees.

Iron Range women all shared in developing the richness of our Iron Range heritage.

Boom towns, shack towns, locations that were moved or abandoned as a mine expanded or died, lawlessness, loneliness, isolation… as with any newly developing region… a certain atmosphere of intensity prevails. Men greatly outnumbered women, and the saloon was the center of social life… Not a very enticing setting for wives and sweethearts, or for the young women seeking employment in the many hotels and boarding houses. It has been said that women often refused to stay even if offered wages of up to $5.00 a day because of the crude remarks made to them when they arrived on the train from Duluth.

But those women who did stay brought with them the settling, comforting, steadying hand of permanence, though their lifestyle was as demanding as that which any pioneer woman have ever had to face.

Eva L. Alvey Richards recalled her childhood when her father’s failing business in Milwaukee prompted their move to Minnesota in 1894. A gala farewell party was held for them in their brownstone home. Cut glass and crystal adorned the well-laden dining room table, music played in the living room, and fancy dress wraps and feather boas were laid across the bed in the guest room. Eva’s mother wore her best brown silk dress for the occasion.

The next morning a doubtful, apprehensive woman placed her small children on the train bound for Burnett, Minnesota. The plush red upholstery on the train seat brought tears to the mother’s eyes as it reminded her of the settee she had to leave behind.

On arriving at the Burnett station, they were greeted by a driver and wagon that took them to grandpa and grandma’s homestead. The only indication of civilization at the station was a sign which stated: “Duluth 26 miles south - Mt. Iron 43 miles north.” The drive through the darkness along the muddy trail to the one-room homestead cabin must surely have prompted memories of the happy brownstone and friends “back home”.

To Eva and the other children all this was quite an adventure, and they were filled with excitement to learn that they were to sleep in the loft on mattresses filled with hay. From the rafters hung sausages and strings of onions, and sacks of dried peas and beans stood about - the molasses was kept by the chimney. Between the floorboards, Eva could see the baby by the light of the fire, sleeping in its makeshift cradle made by turning the rocking chair back on its heels.

Mother’s next trial came when she learned that Eva must attend classes at the “Indian School” three miles from home. Her only option was to send Eva back to a convent school in Milwaukee. A visit from the teacher at the local school helped her to decide. “Mother loved charm, gentleness, culture and grace.” This teacher possessed everything Eva’s mother looked for. So Eva left every day with two Indian children, on foot across swamps and by canoe, then walking along the railroad grade, to the one-room schoolhouse.

Eva recalled an incident not long after the family was settled. Her mother was “folding away the lovely brown dress she wore for the good-bye party. As she knelt on the floor beside her open trunk, arranging its silken folds and laces, her head suddenly went down on her arm, her whole body shaken with grief, crying and sobbing as if her heart were breaking. I tried to comfort her, tried to disengage her fingers from the beautiful lace to which she clung, crumpled and pressed so close to her cheek and wet now with her tears. Kissing her fervently, I coaxed, ‘Don’t cry Mamma, don’t cry! I’ll ask Papa to take you back to Milwaukee!’ With a wild, ‘No! No!’ she flung her arms around me. ‘No! No! You must never tell Papa! Never!’ “

Remember that first settlers (even those from families with very little money) came from well-established communities, both in this country and abroad. They were accustomed to permanent homes, friends and family, the community church where for generations their loved ones had been baptized, married and buried, with, in many cases, paved streets and markets and shops to supply their needs.

Mary Hill recalls how she felt when she arrived in Ely on the train. She had heard tales of wealth and plenty in America, and streets lined with gold. Instead the streets were a mass of mud and stumps, and an army of men whose reddish-brown “disguises” covering faces, hands and clothes, made them barely distinguishable from one another as they marched to the boarding house after a 12-hour shift in the mines. “Oh, Mother,” she said. “Have we passed America in the night?”

To be continued next Sunday…


Looking back

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.


June 5, 1918

Owners of automobiles in Hibbing are asked to donate their use for this coming Sunday to the Hibbing Home Guards so as to bring the company to Virginia for the battalion review. Governor Burnquist will review the Range troops from a reviewing stand on one of the principal streets.


June 24, 1919

It has been announced that an eight-hour aerial mail service has been installed between New York and Chicago. At the present rate of development, pretty soon the public won’t have to use the slow telegraph wires.


August 9, 1939

Ending tonight at the State Movie Theater is the film “Naughty But Nice” starring Ann Sheridan. Beginning tomorrow is the film “They Made Her a Spy”.


December 7, 1957

Lee Stark, advisor to the French Club at Hibbing High School, has announced the club’s officers for 1958. Donna Urbia, as president, will be assisted by Helen Taylor, vice president; Bunny Gilbertson, secretary; Sophie Arbanos; treasurer; Karen Wiehe, Red Cross representative, and Sally Clark, student council representative.


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