Front page news in the April 12, 1985, Mesabi Daily News told the story of the serious downturn in the Iron Range's iron mining industry.
That was 35 years ago, and gone were the 1950s, with the building of taconite operations Reserve Mining at Babbitt and Erie Mining near Aurora. Gone were the 1960s, when U.S. Steel's Minntac at Mountain Iron and Eveleth Taconite came to be. Gone was the big mining boom of the 1970s.
The story, dateline Grand Rapids, read "A shipment of 60,000 pounds of food from the Pillsbury Co., designed to help economically stricken families on Minnesota's Iron Range, arrived at the North Central Food Bank Thursday.
"Earlier this year Pillsbury donated 40,000 pounds of food... The company agreed to give up to 100,000 pounds of food for every pound donated by people on the Iron Range. It is estimated it will feed approximately 18,250 people for three to five days. Company officials said the donation is part of the company's efforts to address the issues of youth and hunger."
A fledgling reporter remembers one of her first assignments upon being hired at the Mesabi Daily News in early 1984, was to do a story on someone who had been laid off and would leave Minnesota to find employment. Richard and Rosemary (Postudensek) Mattson of West Eveleth would be the subjects. They were among hundreds forced to find work elsewhere out of sheer necessity.
Rosemary Mattson recently told the Mesabi Tribune, "The reason we moved to Colorado was we answered an ad in the Mesabi Daily News for a conveyor belt repairman and that's what Richard did in Virginia for many years." (Conveyor Belt Service Inc. in Virginia supplies equipment and does repairs for the mines.)
The couple sent a resume to a company in Colorado and Richard Mattson was called to come for an interview. "We loved the area. We moved to Longmont, north of Boulder. The owner of Solid Systems liked Richard and hired him." She was hired as an administrative assistant at the Longmont Times-Call newspaper "with a great recommendation from Jim Krause of the Eveleth Scene," she said. "While we were out there, he would hire other Conveyor Belt repairmen from the Range who were laid off to come out there and work." The Mattsons and their four children, Rich Jr., Anna, Glen and Cathy, lived in Colorado for two years. Richard Mattson died 30 years ago at age 49, and Rosemary still lives in West Eveleth.
The mid-1980s was a difficult time for the mining industry. A June 1985 Mesabi Daily News story carried the headline, "Hanna slates Butler closing," and the story began, "NASHWAUK — Hanna Mining Co. management and union officials met and shutdown dates were posted at Butler Taconite in Nashwauk and at National Steel Pellet Company in Keewatin... The shutdown will affect about 450 workers at both plants." Butler closed permanently in 1985. An August 1985 MDN story read, "The Butler Taconite Company plant will be dismantled, ending speculation that the plant might reopen or that another industry would occupy the facility, an M.A. Hanna official said. And 17 years later after numerous troubles including a lockout of the union hourly workers, National Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2002. It had been the nation's fifth largest steel producer.
Also in the summer of 1985 apppeared this ominous front-page headline: "Will Erie be next shutdown victim?" Peter Kakela, a Michigan State University researcher, listed Minorca (Arcelor-Mittal), Hibbing Taconite and U.S. Steel's Minntac "as three of the Minnesota operations most likely to stay in business." Eveleth Mines (now United Taconite)he said was another possible closure. Erie Mining, then run by LTV Steel, was permanently shut down in May of 2000, and Steelworkers Local 4108 president Jerry Fallos would say in a MDN special edition story in 2002, "It's a compklete shock. It's just devastating for everybody. Everybody is going to be scrambling for jobs." PolyMet Mining will eventually become operational on the LTV site.
Now 35 years later, other plants have been idled. In April of this year, U.S. Steel announced it would close its Keetac mine and processing facility in Keewatin and lay off 375 of its 423 employees as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hurt demand for steel.
Keetac would be the second Minnesota mine and plant to idle and lay off employees this year — Cleveland Cliffs announced it would shut down Northshore Mining in Silver Bay and Babbitt , laying off 470 of its 570 employees. A story read in part, "After further study of current demand, we must make additional adjustments to our raw materials production and indefinitely idle our Keetac facility to respond to the sudden and dramatic decline in business conditions resulting from the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic." Dan Pierce, Steelworkers Union Local 2660 president, said the local was "in the process of negotiating with the company for employees that have three years or more."
U.S. Steel had idled this year two of its blast furnaces at Gary Works plant in Indiana as demand for steel sunk, from General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler closing production plants to help curb the spread of coronavirus. And at that time Keetac was producing each year 6 million tons of pellets for U.S. Steel's plants.
The mayor of Keewatin, William King, retired police chief who has been in Keewatin a long time, told the Mesabi Tribune this week, "We've been through this (Keetac layoffs and shutdown) before. It's a pretty strong community. We just hope for the time it's going to reopen. We hope it will be back and running by spring." The city's businesses were hit by a "double whammy" with the COVID crisis and the mine shutdown. "We just keep hoping there's going to be a need for steel. We've always been told it's a very high-quality product Keetac produces. We always hang our hat on that." And he said, "When our houses go up for sale, they don't last too long. Our taxes are low... we can pride ourselves in that."
The owner of the Vene Qua bar (vene qua is Italian for "come here") in Keewatin, Annette Faulkner, told the Mesabi Tribune this week she is hoping that Keetac will reopen eventually. "I'm hoping so for everybody. It's something when a mine shuts down." Faulkner bought the bar in 2002 — the same year National Steel filed bankruptcy.
The COVID-19 pandemic is "hurting everybody... the trickle-down effect," Faulkner said. She sanitizes daily everything in the bar and an insurance office located in the same building. "I don't think it's ever going to get back to normal, especially with all these layoffs. People are hurting for food and money to make their payments to pay their insurance and car payments," she said. "It's crazy. I'm just hoping everybody can get back to work and increase the revenue around the area ... a good outcome for everybody."