MOUNTAIN IRON - A Facebook post from May read, "We are sorry to announce that Merritt Days 2020 is cancelled. God willing, we will be back for a great 2021 festival. Stay healthy and safe. Have a great summer."
The event named for Leonidas Merritt, who in the 1890s discovered iron ore on the site to become Mountain Iron, has joined the list of many other Iron Range celebrations cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Merritt Days began in the early 1990s, when Mountain Iron observed its centennial. The celebration has traditionally held events in August for all ages with various interests - the Larry Nanti Memorial 5K/10K Run/Walk, concerts with some big-name acts, a parade, car show, pancake breakfast, bingo, street dance and sporting events.
The annual celebration had been cancelled in 2019 due to a dispute between the festival planning committee and the city council regarding funding. But it was to be back this year. In December the Mesabi Daily News published an article, reporting, "Merritt Days may be many months away, but preparation for the return of the popular longtime summer celebration is kicking off with a fundraising concert as the new year approaches." Jason Gellerstedt, a member of the Merritt Days Committee, told the newspaper, “Merritt Days is back. We had to take a year off, and we hope the public understands."
A brief history of the Merritt family
Following a gold rush that had turned into an iron rush on the Vermillion Range, Leonidas and Alfred Merritt began hunting in the 1880s for iron ore in the area known to Native Americans as the "Mesaba." While some ore had surfaced on the eastern end of the Mesaba, it was not rich enough to be worth processing. The Merritts became the first to meet with success when they found rich, marketable ore on the west end of what would become the Mesabi Range.
Soon after that, the rest of the Merritt family got involved, including five brothers and some nephews. In 1890, the brothers drilled their first successful mine, which would eventually become Mountain Iron.
The brothers could not transport the ore, however, since no railroads yet ran out to the Mesabi Range. Under their watch, the Duluth, Missabe, and Northern Railway was built in 1891. Before long the Merritts' creditors demanded repayment of their loans, but they simply did not have the cash. So, they turned to industrialist John D. Rockefeller, who agreed to help in return for a significant interest in the Merritts' company, and the brothers were virtually forced to accept. Unfortunately for the Merritts, their stock did not hold its value and, in 1894, the family had to sell off their remaining shares to Rockefeller. The Merritts tried to sue Rockefeller for fraud, but, in the end, the whole family only got $1,000,000, enough just to pay off their creditors. After discovering iron ore on the Mesabi Range and spending five years mining and developing it, the Merritts had built a fortune and lost it all.