A priceless historical repository

The Iron Range Research Center turns 40


The current state of the Iron Range Research Center’s archives storage room. Moveable shelving has expanded storage capacity. Submitted photos.

The current state of the Iron Range Research Center’s archives storage room. Moveable shelving has expanded storage capacity. Submitted photos.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week’s history section is about the important task of preserving Iron Range history. Our area is lucky to have this huge wealth of information collected and cataloged for public research. The Iron Range Research Center in Chisholm has a professional archives containing government, corporate, and personal records that tell the region’s complex story. The research center, combined with meticulous, engaging museum exhibits, are in my opinion what make the Minnesota Discovery

Center (Ironworld, to plenty of obstinate and nostalgic Iron Rangers) special. I’ve done research there myself, so I’ve seen firsthand the staff’s expertise and care for the collections. Thank you, Christopher Welter, for sharing IRRC’s story! —Tucker Nelson, HTF Editor

CHISHOLM — This is a survival story. It’s about a place, the Iron Range Research Center (IRRC), which is a central cog in the larger operation known as Minnesota Discovery Center. The IRRC reached a remarkable milestone on Thursday, October 8—namely, its 40th anniversary. The center remains a vital piece in connecting Rangers to their own history, but it also has a history of its own.

Governor Rudy Perpich at the IRRC groundbreaking ceremony in 1978.

Governor Rudy Perpich at the IRRC groundbreaking ceremony in 1978.

In a way, that history can be thought of as a series of dominoes: each tile directly leading to or impacting the next. In the research center’s case, I suggest that first domino was the creation of the so-called “Iron Range Trail,” a tourism effort that was codified in Minnesota state statute 93.45. It reads, in part, that the “commissioner [of natural resources]…shall mark and, where necessary, interpret places of cultural, geological, industrial, historical, recreational, and scenic interest.” The Iron Range Trail officially opened in June 1970.

That same year, the Minnesota Department of Economic Development (MDED) expanded the presumptive tourist attraction into what was dubbed the Iron Range Interpretative Program, a tourism and historical-cultural preservation initiative. This program, then, was the second domino. In 1971, the firm Aguar Jyring Whiteman Moser, Inc. prepared a program progress report on MDED’s behalf.

The original interior of the research center’s library.

The original interior of the research center’s library.

The report outlines the interpretative program’s seven basic elements. First among these elements was the establishment of a major interpretative center—a bricks-andmortar building. The Iron Range Interpretative Center (later known as Ironworld and, since 2009, as Minnesota Discovery Center) opened in Chisholm in August 1977. The opening of the museum (for that is a more accurate description) was the third domino.

Even as the museum was opened to the public, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB)—the state agency responsible for operating the museum—commissioned a feasibility study for the creation of a regional research center. The study’s authors (a) determined that the proposed research center should be built adjacent to the museum and (b) circumscribed its purpose in succinct terms: “to collect, catalog, preserve and make available to the public all types of historical research material related to the iron range regions of Minnesota.” For my purposes, the feasibility study serves as the fourth domino.

The original interior of the archives storage room below the library.

The original interior of the archives storage room below the library.

The fifth domino, of course, is the research center itself. The groundbreaking ceremony occurred on September 30, 1978. Presiding over that ceremony, Governor Rudy Perpich stated that the facility and its staff will “help us to safeguard our heritage” and “There is nothing more fundamental in preserving [Iron Range] history than preserving it accurately.” More than two years later, Governor Albert Quie officially dedicated the building.

Much has changed in that four-decade span. Many of the influential persons who willed the research center into existence have either moved away or passed away. The center’s original resources and services were established at a time when the Internet was practically non-existent.

IRRC staff member Sue Godfrey has been helping people with their family history since the early 2000s.

IRRC staff member Sue Godfrey has been helping people with their family history since the early 2000s.

Perhaps the most substantial change, though, was a fundamental change in administration. In 2005, Ironworld Development Corporation—a 501(c)(3) nonprofit—was created, and in 2007, its governing board assumed responsibility for all day-to-day museum complex operations, including the Iron Range Research Center.

A family affair

If you know of the research center, or if you have stepped foot in it, it’s likely because you were exploring your family tree. For decades, numerous Iron Rangers viewed their identity through the lens of an ethnic/immigrant perspective: Where did you come from?

Even before the center opened, it was meant to assist people with their family lineage. A draft administrative plan from February 1980 states among its goals: “To be a major genealogy center for Midwest [sic] America.”

In time, the center’s reach extended well beyond Middle America. Through September of this year, the center’s staff has fulfilled family records requests from nearly the entire Union—Mississippi and West Virginia being the lone holdouts.

When the museum first opened back in 1977, its exhibits told the story of 43 ethnicities commingling to create the Iron Range. Now, the research center delivers the Iron Range story to a truly international audience— one family member at a time.

In 2020, the staff has completed more than 100 requests from more than a dozen countries—from neighboring Canada to faraway New Zealand! Each of these requests is completed for a flat fee of $10, which generates annual revenue between $25,000 and $35,000.

How did the Iron Range Research Center— currently staffed by one specialist and aided by three library assistants—become such a big player in the family history game? Well, that is another series of dominoes.

Beginning in 1982, volunteer Conrad Peterzen began compiling an alphabetical index of every Minnesotan listed on microfilm copies of federal naturalization records—resulting in more than 864,000 entries across 87 counties. He completed that laborious task in 2001, around the same time the center’s staff launched an online genealogy database. Eventually, the staff brokered a deal with Ancestry®, the self-proclaimed “global leader in family history and consumer genomics.”

The Minnesota naturalization records that Peterzen indexed account for 60 percent of all the entries in the research center’s homegrown genealogy database. These same entries can also be found in Ancestry’s own genealogy database, which has decidedly expanded the reach of the IRRC’s genealogy services.

It would be difficult to overstate just how important and popular a tool that the research center’s genealogy database has become. For example, Family Tree Magazine publishes an annual list called the “75 Best U.S. Genealogy Websites,” which includes the top sites for every state.

Between 2010 and 2016, the IRRC’s genealogy database made the cut, usually along with two other Minnesota websites. As family history/genealogy has grown in popularity, so too has the number of online resources… and, thus, the competitive aspect of Family Tree’s annual list. After being left off the list a couple years, the IRRC was again singled out (over the Minnesota Historical Society itself!) in December 2019.

The terrible teens

In 1993, the research center entered its teens—a profound transitional stage for many of us. Coincidence or not, the IRRRB commissioner established a task force to review and revisit the center’s purpose and role moving forward. That September, the Duluth News-Tribune reported that the task force publicly addressed two specific issues: (1) how to market the IRRC more broadly, and (2) how to reduce its $520,000 annual subsidy. The task force’s efforts resulted in a long-range plan, “Preserving History for Future Generations,” spanning the years 1994-1999.

Given the benefit of hindsight, this plan (to me) reads as quite ambitious. It delineates goals, objectives, and strategies across 11 specific areas: historical materials collection, government documents repository, on-site public services, preservation, education, promotion and tourism, outreach, cooperation, marketing, facilities, and funding. To be fair, the research center’s staffing was more robust then—including a director, assistant director, archivist, photography archivist, librarian, library technician, and two reference clerks— along with administrative support from the IRRRB.

Again, it is not unusual to accept (however reluctantly) that it can be much more difficult to do in yours 40s what you did so easily and readily as a teenager. The aforementioned long-range plan would be a non-starter for the IRRC’s current staffing levels. For example, that plan assigns 92 separate tasks (in whole or in part) to the librarian. Well, the IRRC has not had a librarian on staff since 2009.

This is not to say that there isn’t merit in— or accomplishment from—that plan. For example, that plan called for “a security system for protecting archival materials.” Within the past couple years, the security system into the archives storage room was upgraded from a traditional lock-and-key to an electronic fob. This means, in effect, that the room is under 24/7 lockdown, but with designated staff having immediate, short-term access to the research center’s crown jewels.

Crown jewels: the archives program

I have been the archivist (the person responsible for managing the research center’s unique historical collections) since 2012. These collections are quite varied—including personal and family papers, business records, social and fraternal organization records, church records, and local government records—and exist in several different formats, including maps, oral history interviews, and photographs. The archives program, which was initially established under the guidance of the Minnesota Historical Society, owes a considerable nod of gratitude to the Iron Range Historical Society (IRHS).

Originally known as the East Range Historical Society, the organization was established in 1973, and it quickly got down to the gritty business of collecting historical material and recording interviews with community elders—all in the spirit and interest of preserving Iron Range history.

In the run-up to the establishment of the Iron Range Research Center, there was considerable conversation and negotiation about the role and responsibilities that the IRHS would serve within the research center itself. Ultimately, it proved to be a contentious affair, and the IRHS chose to dissolve the cooperative arrangement in 1985. That said, the society deserves recognition for its role in launching the IRRC’s archives program. In fact, some of those earliest collections first identified by the society are still preserved in the research center’s archives. Perhaps even more importantly, the society’s members were instrumental in recording more than 200 oral history interviews with numerous Rangers who participated firsthand in the Iron Range’s pioneering days of the early 20th century.

I refer to the archives’ historical collections and records as the crown jewels for this reason: They are the ingredients available to any and all comers who wish to whip up a tasty dish of Iron Range history, whether for personal consumption or shared among the masses. An excellent example of this latter type is Marvin Lamppa’s book Minnesota’s Iron Country: Rich Ore, Rich Lives, which was published in 2004. Marvin was the original director of the Iron Range Research Center, and he singles out Ed Nelson (the center’s original archivist), “whose insistence on the need for a history of the [Iron Range] region brought me out of retirement.”

Marvin also cites more than a dozen IRRC collections and resources that he used in writing the book. More recent scholarly efforts that have singled out the IRRC are Jeffrey T. Manuel’s Taconite Dreams: The Struggle to Sustain Mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range 1915-2000 (2015) and Gary Kaunonen’s Flames of Discontent: The 1916 Mesabi Iron Range Strike (2017). And it is expected that Power in the Wilderness, Aaron Brown’s long gestating research-and-writing project on Hibbing mayor Victor L. Power will be published in 2022.

Now, it is true that we staff aim to be courteous and professional…but we are not above a little humor. It turns out, though, that the joke was on us this past April (sort of). For the 11th episode of its 12th season, the Travel Channel’s original television program The Dead Files focused on a private residence in Coleraine, Minnesota. In the second half of the episode, the research center serves as a backdrop for the ongoing investigation—including in the bowels of the archives storage room itself. On Thursday, April 9, we proudly encouraged followers of our Facebook page to tune in to the episode’s premiere …only to feel a bit abashed that space aliens were at the center of it all.

Iron Range stories, one morsel at a time

As the archivist, I am in a privileged position to have such all-encompassing access to the archives’ collections—and it is the IRRC’s understood purpose to provide as much access as allowable—but there is so much more documented history here than one person can reasonably digest. What follows, though, are some bite-sized morsels that I have come across in my more than eight years here:

• Previously unpublished photograph of
billowing smoke dated September 5, 1908—
the day Chisholm burned to the ground.
• Documented proof that Virginian Nikola
Lulic (a survivor of the Titanic disaster) was
found guilty of gambling but had his $25.50
fine suspended because he had no money
… which begs the question: What was he
gambling with?
• Mesaba Transportation Company’s original certificate of incorporation, dated December 15, 1915. If you aren’t familiar with
Mesaba, you likely heard of its successor:
Greyhound Bus Lines.
• Oral history interview by Dana Butchart,
a native of north Hibbing, who flew for the
Canadian Royal Fliers during World War I.
(By the way, Butchart drove for the Mesaba
Transportation Company as a teenager!)
• Photographic documentation of Irja Lindgren (who grew up in Pool Location, north
of Hibbing) helping U.S. diplomats evacuate
Oslo, Norway, in April 1940, in advance of
invading Nazi forces.
• Photographic documentation of recovery
efforts at the Dachau concentration camp,
part of Hibbingite Vernon E. Anderson’s
personal collection. Anderson, a U.S. Army
POW, was freed from his nearby camp a day
after Dachau was liberated.
• A copy of Christopher Michael Pratt’s
birth certificate. Who’s he, you ask? Only
the leading man in such blockbusters as
Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World.

This is a survival story

As I said at the outset, the story of the Iron Range Research Center (as an extension of MDC) is one of survival. In the midst of a financial recession, it was announced on November 19, 2009, that MDC was laying off all employees and shuttering all operations. Later that month, the Mesabi Daily News’s editorial board recommended that the IRRRB not provide an automatic financial bailout to Ironworld Development Corporation (IDC). Even so, it noted that MDC “is an important reservoir of Iron Range history” and “it was to be an historical preserve for the grand and rich history and traditions of the Iron Range.”

Due to the nonprofit board’s diligent and cooperative efforts, MDC opened once again to the public in May 2010. The very next month, 40 teachers from all across Minnesota participated in a week-long crash course in Minnesota Iron Range history. Some of what they learned originated from the Iron Range Research Center—that historical preserve—and its vast and vital historical collections.

As Gary Kaunonen wrote in his book Flames of Discontent, “Archives are so important to the work that historians do, and I want to stress my appreciation and admiration for those who care for and preserve our collective past.”

Christopher Welter lives in Hermantown. He is the archivist at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.

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