Barnstorming the Midwest: Iron Range, Biwabik Edition

While my last trip to the Iron Range was doubly-immersive, acclimatizing to both the politics and the culture of Minnesota’s Northeast, this one took on more of a “business trip” feel. This was both good, because I explored the deteriorating relationship between Perpich and the DFL, and frustrating, because it provided fewer outlets when things really got confusing.

Given that last time I visited the Iron Range and explored Perpich’s electoral success, it seemed high time that I explored cracks in the new DFL coalition of the 1980s from the perspective of Perpich’s complicity. The DFL of the early 1980s, you’ll remember, emerged as part of State Chair Mike Hatch’s “centrist” (really more “progressive centrist,” but we’ll save unpacking* that for the dissertation) machinations at the 1982 party convention. This uneasy marriage of social moderates and conservatives with progressive activists came home to roost in Perpich’s 1990 downfall, but this trip I wanted to explore how Perpich himself brought that about and get a clearer idea of his legacy after his decade of governance.

To do that, this research trip focused on the DFL and Perpich as passing ships: how they both organized–virtually independently–to win elections and build the party.

The Research


Rudy Perpich Papers (100%)


Perpich was gifted the 1986 election. By 1982 the Minnesota Independent-Republican Party had veered dangerously to the right, as anti-abortion zealots and Reagan conservatives grabbed hold of the nomination process down the ballot and put up first a businessman (Wheelock Whitney) and then a hard-line conservative in Tracy farmer Cal Ludeman, allowing Perpich to comfortably scoop up the middle.

In northern Minnesota, for example, Perpich received aid from Ludeman’s 1980 electoral foe, David Green, who by 1986 worked for the DFL House Caucus field office in the Bemidji-Park Rapids area. In a letter to Perpich, he advised that “the DFL would be wise to get the feminists working hard behind the scenes to get the vote” and “steal some of the thunder from the IR on the pro-family issue,” noting Ludeman’s votes against the ERA, anti-discrimination measures in housing for families with children, and battered women’s shelters.[1] While we’ve discussed in the past how in 1990 Arne Carlson ran to the left of Perpich on most social issues, in 1986 any dampened turnout among feminists and progressives was offset by (1) crossover voting for Perpich, especially among farmers in Minnesota’s northwest and southeast, and (2) a lack of voter enthusiasm of Ludeman’s out-of-step social conservatism.

That said, we need to recognize just how popular Perpich had become.

A “statewide political machine.” That’s what Star Tribune writer (and Perpich biographer) Betty Wilson called Rudy and his Iron Range band right after the 1986 election. “The Perpich campaign,” Wilson recounted,

skillfully packaged the DFL governor as a compassionate leader who could claim credit for putting the state on sound fiscal and economic footing. It made maximum use of his powers of incumbency to generate favorable ‘news.’ He made countless staged appearances aimed at interest groups ranging from farmers and senior citizens to teachers and labor groups. His office put out a constant stream of upbeat releases, such as statistics on new jobs and a long list of honors for the Perpich administration.”[2]

That machine was unafraid of Metro elites. When Mike Hatch challenged Perpich in the 1990 primaries, Iron Rangers clamored to the fight, defending Hatch’s attacks on Perpich’s environmental and social records. When Hatch, in a fundraising letter, attacked Perpich and the Iron Range Research and Rehabilitation Board for their pro-development approach in the North Woods, Virginia State Rep. Tom Rukavina responded:

We could clear cut northern Minnesota and still do less environmental harm than what’s happening in the metro area with the building expansion going on. I can also confidently tell you that our mines cause less harm to the environment and groundwater than one new shit plant in your expanded area.
Mike, if, by a long shot, you happen to win the primary with your anti range/anti Rudy campaign, I want to remind you that you can’t win a general election without ranger support. And, if you keep up with your negative type of campaigning, I will do my damndest [sic] to see that the range votes for a third party candidate.[3]

I emailed Rep. Rukavina (who I met when I was a page in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2007), and he hasn’t changed a bit. Now a St. Louis County Commissioner, he remains passionate about DFL politics, specifically the Iron Range machine. Its impact on statewide politics has receded a bit with population trends, but the region and the legacy of the Perpich-era machinery remain visible in Minnesota’s political, historic, and electoral geography today.

1990 revolutionized party politics in Minnesota. My dissertation will go all the way to 1992, but I left convinced that the period between 1988 and 1990 changed the course of the Minnesota DFL, for better and for worse. Party leaders, in the wake of the Skip Humphrey loss in the 1988 Senate race, argued that “it is an appropriate time for the DFL Party to engage in some soul-searching about its directions… The DFL needs to rediscover its basic principles, determine how the principles relate to the issues of today and create a vocabulary to connect to voters.”[4] That soul-searching, as DFL activist and now Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court David Lillehaug argued, would chart a course in which the party would turn toward progressive-populist economics while reconciling its socially-conservative voters with its many interest groups. It was an uncertain future, but one with an emerging vision within new party leaders.

Perpich, as it turned out in 1990, was not part of that future. He cited financial concerns when he declined to campaign for Wellstone in 1990, but t was clear that Rudy and the modernizing DFL had diverged irreconcilably.[5] When, as I detailed in the last Iron Range post, he was faced with the center-right write-in candidacy of Arne Carlson, he could neither capture the Vital Center nor count on a now-resurgent progressive-populist left wing of the party. He flirted with a gubernatorial return in 1994, but shifting political winds and his own battle with colon cancer–which he lost in 1995–meant that Rudy’s length of statewide service had ended in 1990.

His example lives on. I hope I’ve illuminated here just how complex a figure Rudy was–beloved on the Iron Range, at best tolerated in the Twin Cities, and all things to so many people. He was perhaps the biggest figure at the time to shun the party endorsement process and win a primary, and he built an electoral majority which helped the DFL, whether it wanted him or not, maintain a majority of rank-and-file voters in places which today we write off as conservative. For all the antagonism I’ve detailed, though, and while Paul Wellstone steals the spotlight in 1990, other DFLers found inspiration in Perpich’s example:

You are a truly remarkable man. You are a model for me in political skills, personal relationships, and especially in the way in which you treat those who work for you. Your unfailing good spirit in the face of the greatest adversity sets a standard which I can only hope to approach in my future endeavors…. I believe that our friendship was truly forged during those dark and uncertain days and months which followed your defeat in 1978. It was then, through our visits in New York and transcontinental telephone conversations, that we demonstrated to each other that our friendship was not one of mere political convenience, but rather a genuine and personal one.[6]

So much did this man follow in Rudy’s image, then, that he ignored a party endorsement, ran in the DFL primary, and won. After serving an undistinguished term in the U.S. Senate, he responded again to adversity. In 2018 Mark Dayton will step down as Minnesota’s longest-serving DFL governor since Perpich. It’s not hard, looking back, to see how Dayton learned those lessons along the way.

The City Region

The view from Tom and Ann’s porch, of Sabin Lake–the eastern boundary of Giants’ Ridge Resort in Biwabik–as the sun sets.

As I mentioned after my Grand Forks and River Falls trips, the grind of the road was beginning to get to me at this stage of the summer. That’s probably a bit on me for being a little soft about staying in a tent for a week and not practicing healthier diet/sleep/exercise patterns, but there’s also a level of commitment it takes to drive 50 minutes through the North Woods to the archive every morning. It wears on you because while one day a week you’re having productive thought-sessions on how you want to format your Review of Literature, the other four you’re wishing Dan Barreiro would be less insufferable or wondering what a song about Southern girls is doing on the country radio station in Duluth. I should get better about listening to podcasts.


Two family friends, a different Tom and Ann, were overly gracious and gave me the run of their cabin outside Biwabik until they arrived Thursday night for the long Labor Day weekend. We’re talking a cabin’s cabin: beautiful wood construction inside and out, a large porch facing the lake, high ceilings and a large fireplace… I was not remotely worthy to be staying here. So thank you, Tom and Ann.

What this gave me the opportunity to do was work with WiFi while sitting on a porch watching the sunset. Am I spoiled? Absolutely. But after camping in Grand Forks and rural northern Manitoba, I can’t say I was complaining. Just look at those views.


As you can see from the featured image, there’s a vibrant iron-themed tourism industry operating on the Iron Range. That’s in large part thanks to Governor Perpich and the Iron Range DFL, who acquired both state and private funding for recreational opportunities across the 100-mile Mesabi Range. While Iron World–complete with mini golf, a working train car, and replica mines–is a tourist destination for those visiting the Range, it doesn’t stop there. The Chisholm Iron Man Statue (the feature image) looms high in the air across the street. Standing 81 feet tall, constructed out of iron ore, and now 30 years old, it is quite the symbol of how large iron and the culture of mining (and masculinity) loom over the region and perhaps indeed the state.

The cabin is located on North Wynne (Sabin) Lake, one of the two lakes on the east side of the Giants Ridge Ski Resort. It is a classic Iron Range lake–rust red from rocks and seemingly cut in slits right out of the hills. From the road, you tend to plunge down the hill straight to the water, passing the jagged outcroppings and pine trees until you reach the dark, yet clear, water.


The city itself combines the feel of the Scandinavian mining town with the architecture, for some reason, of Bavaria (including an imposing three-story City Hall and public building that’s also home to the town’s grocery store. Don’t ask me). There’s a large statue to Honk the Moose on the east end of downtown, honoring the main character of a 1935 children’s book that was set in Biwabik, and a number of good bars and local restaurants dot the Vermillion Trail, which forms the main street of town.

My walking around Biwabik was all done while I waited an extra 15 minutes for a pizza I’d ordered, which I wasn’t all that mad about because it gave me a chance to see the section of the city that isn’t as done-up. That led me to walk toward a set of tennis courts and basketball hoops I could see down one of the neighborhood streets. Near the end of one street, a block opened up toward a full city block which was a vacant lot, across which sat, yes, a small park with tennis courts, skateboard ramps, and basketball hoops, but also the former VC Reishus School.

The boarded-up VC Reishus School, which sits abandoned on the northern edge of Biwabik.

Were I not in a greater hurry to get my food and head back to the cabin, I might have poked around the school a little more or at least walked its perimeter and looked to commit some minor act of trespassing (though there are photographers out there who have, presumably, legally entered and photographed parts of the school like the swimming pool and recreation area). Students from Biwabik now bus to nearby Aurora, where Mesabi East Schools serve the communities of Aurora, Hoyt Lakes, and Biwabik.

Places like Biwabik serve, now, as recreation for those of us from the Twin Cities who want tastes of the Iron Range, but sites like VC Reishus School are a reminder of what used to be in these once-bustling mining towns.

The Beer

The beer I got for this trip I either brought up from the Twin Cities or grabbed on my stop in Duluth the morning I drove to the Range. In fact, I learned that while I had just missed the Iron Range’s first craft beer festival, hosted in Virginia just a week prior, at the western terminus of the Range in Grand Rapids, two breweries are set to open in the coming year. Add to that the long-established Boathouse Brewpub in Ely, on the far northeastern end of the Range,m and there will at least be a local option, though cities in the heart of the Range like Hibbing, Chisholm, and Virginia are still at the point where they don’t have–and may never have–the capital and/or demand for one.

That led me to two beers that I’ll briefly review: Surly’s Rising North pale ale and Blacklist Artisan Ales (Duluth) Rhubarb Wit. Rising North, which I’d first tried at a Minnesota United FC game, is a pretty standard American Pale Ale. It pours a nice orange color, tastes of some citrus, and then finishes crisp and bitter. Nothing to write home about, but a really nice summer craft beer that I definitely enjoy at MNUFC games.

The Rhubarb Wit was a little more complicated. It advertised as “tart,” which I just didn’t get. It had aromas of rhubarb, which was good, but then it gave way to the more standard spiciness of a witbier. While that’s fine if you’re a witbier person, I am not. So it goes!

What’s Next

This is about a month overdue at this point, which is in large part due to my travel schedule. I’ve since been to Atlanta, spent a week in the Twin Cities, gone to Brookings on a whim, and now am in Boston to do work in the Michael Dukakis Papers, along with a brief sojourn to Milwaukee for a Digital Humanities symposium, which is (along with Atlanta) what I hope to recap next.

Past Trips

Iowa City
St. Paul, St. Cloud
Iron Range, Lake Vermilion Edition
Grand Forks
River Falls

[1] David Green, “A Look at the Cal Ludeman Candidacy,” n.d. Rudy Perpich Papers, Cal Ludeman Subject Files, Box 8, Iron Range Research Center.

[2] Betty Wilson, “Ludeman was facing formidable statewide political machine, Minneapolis Star and Tribune, 4A, November 5, 1986.

[3] Tom Rukavina to Mike Hatch, July 27, 1990. Rudy Perpich Papers, Mike Hatch Subject Files, Box 10, Iron Range Research Center.

[4] Mark Gruenberg, “Perpich won’t help Wellstone,” Ottaway News Service, reprinted in Owatonna People’s Press, September 18, 1990.

[5] David Lillehaug, “Election Shows Need for Soul-Searching,” Idea News: A Publication of the DFL Education Foundation, Winter 1989, p. 2. Rudy Perpich Papers, DFL Subject Files, Box 9, Iron Range Research Center.

[6] Mark Dayton to Rudy Perpich, November 17, 1986. Rudy Perpich Papers, Box 9, Iron Range Research Center.

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