Please excuse me. I’m suffering from the adverse effects of time travel. Disoriented and distracted, I wonder what small action 100 years ago might have created our present condition.
For the past couple years, more intensely of late, I’ve researched the Hibbing of a century ago for a book. Methodically reading the newspapers of another time creates a certain psychological effect. You enter a new world, one that resembles reality but feels hundreds of miles away in some direction not found on a compass.
The first, perhaps most jarring part of the process is walking with the dead. All of the people appearing in the newspaper in 1913, for instance, are no more. The more prominent the citizen, the more likely he is dust. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each of them believed strongly that their opinions were correct, that the nation faced dire threats from this or that, that the things their parents told them were true. Their daily actions were very, very important to them and, apparently, the community at large.
Near all of it is noise, though, and I cast it aside. Perhaps another historian will come along and find it to be important, but I doubt that very much. Sometimes the most important things were set in small print deep inside the paper. I read a trifling concern about a woman trying to liberate herself from an abusive husband with no help from anyone, especially the law. She died. Or the advertisement for cheap new mass-produced cars that would one day cause the shiny new trolley lines to be ripped from the streets long before the tracks wore out.
It’s not fair to judge the dead too harshly. The historical shadows flitting through the archives didn’t know then what we know now. But we can’t go too easy on them, either. Mostly what the exercise showed me is how easy it was for a bunch of people to believe the same thing without questioning it all that much. I don’t think that’s changed much.
History doesn’t repeat itself exactly, but you sure see the patterns. Take technology, for instance. Why, you’d be glad to know that local businesses were scolding customers to buy local in 1913, too. Sure, Amazon has great deals, but can you trust them? Can you see the product? Of course, they weren’t talking about Amazon, they were talking about mail-order catalogues.
And can you believe we haven’t figured out how to extend broadband to all rural residents yet? I mean, there’s talk of hooking up a high-speed line to the township halls. That way the hayseeds can use broadband in the parking lot. Here, of course, I’m talking about an idea for rural telephone booths that was floated last century when no one thought phone service could ever be extended to residents of Balkan, Bear River or Side Lake.
You won’t believe it, but Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing apps were in the news back then, too. Regular folks drove passengers all around town, putting miles on their own car and almost but not quite making a living off it. Of course, they were called jitney cars, not Ubers. Half a dozen guys would go in on a new car and take turns collecting fares when they weren’t working other jobs. Nearly all of them failed miserably, but one such arrangement would go on to become the Greyhound Bus Company.
Technological advancement wasn’t so different then. Early adopters enjoyed a certain advantage, quickly engulfed by the masses. Those who could anticipate the next phase of the technology would reap the biggest rewards. It helped a lot if they were already rich. Most people were chumps … are chumps … chewed up by the powerful.
The machinations of mining politics followed a different script back then, but the subtext drove two main questions: “Who’s in charge?” and “How long’s it gonna last?” Some folks thought iron ore would last a long time. And I suppose they were right, but they lived in a town that was bulldozed into a hole. Today’s fearless leaders rush to sign letters condemning all criticism of mines. So we answered at least one of the questions.
The biggest difference I saw between the newspapers from 105 years ago and those from today is the precipitous drop-off in passion for community affairs. The town’s population was half what it is today, packed into a North Hibbing footprint far smaller than present-day Hibbing. President Wilson appeared in the newspaper, but not nearly as often as the village council, business leaders, ministers, theater and sports stars.
The people of Hibbing argued about Hibbing, loved Hibbing, and dreamed of it becoming even greater. And I’d contend if there was anything good about the good old days, it was that.
NOTE: I’m working on a book about Victor Power and Hibbing history (about 1900-1926). Please contact me if you have any primary source material from the time: family histories, remembrances, letters or the like. Even a simple story passed down the generations could be helpful. In addition to Vic Power and prominent Hibbingites of the time, I’m interested in the stories of backwoods types, ministers, immigrants, women, Ojibwa people and others often omitted from the newspaper accounts of the time. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).