When I was growing up, my parents would often mention boarding houses. Not that they had ever lived in one, but they certainly knew people who did. Both of them, for instance, had bachelor uncles who lived in boarding houses.
Boarding houses in the little communities known as “mining locations” were built by the mining company for the unmarried males who worked in the company’s mine, just as the company built single-family homes there to rent to their married workers. There were also boarding houses not owned by mining companies in larger towns. Sometimes a boarding house catered to a particular nationality.
My Mother, growing up in the St. Paul and Mississippi Mining Locations north of Keewatin, clearly recalled where within each Location the boarding house was situated. Often, when school was not in session, the Location children would walk to work with their fathers when their shift at the mine was about to start. Along the way they would stop by the Location’s boarding house to pick up the men who lived there. Some of these men, she would tell me, were related to the children, being their uncles or cousins perhaps. The whole group of men and children would then walk on to the mine. There might be half-a-dozen or more languages being spoken as they walked along together.
As she described it, there were more men who poured out of the boarding house on these mornings than the number of men who came from the family houses. The boarding house men were often single (sometimes a man might be married but his wife was still in Europe) and they seemed to like having the children around in what must have often been a lonely existence.
As in the lumber camps, a well-run kitchen gave the place a good reputation. Good food made for happy workers. Clean floors and bedding were important, but a full stomach made up for other shortcomings!
When a mining location was eliminated, the buildings might be moved on to another mine that the company owned. Sometimes the buildings might be moved into a nearby town, perhaps bought from the mining company by the town’s government to be sold to new residents. And sometimes the mining company sold a house directly to an individual, maybe just for the price of the individual paying to move the building.
The following article is a reminiscence written by Selena Rosewall McCracken in 1981 as part of a project at the Hibbing Historical Society. It was published in the Hibbing Daily Tribune on March 25, 1987.
In the first two decades of the 20th Century, many new mines were being started all over the Mesabi Iron Range. This included both open pit and underground mining. This meant providing houses for both the families of the workers and single men, too.
The mining companies developed mining locations near the mine. Some of these mining locations had only a few houses and while some had many and were regular little towns with a school and even a store or two. Some of these larger locations near Hibbing included Penobscot, Stevenson, Mahoning, and Monroe.
To provide lodging for single workers, company boarding houses were built in the locations. Most locations had only one boarding house, but a few had two. Kerr Location, west of Hibbing, where I lived did have two boarding houses. One was for men of Finnish descent and we called it the Finn Boarding House. The Finnish men liked underground work the best. My father, who was an underground mining captain, often said what good workers they were.
Boarding houses in general were a long, two-story house. One coal or wood heater in the hallway upstairs was the only heat for all the single bedrooms. The doors might be taken off their hinges to help the heat circulate into the rooms. Each room was provided with a bed, a table for the kerosene lamp and a chair.
Often a family would operate the facility. Sometimes it was two women or a couple along with a single brother or sister of one of the operators. The family would live in part of the downstairs. There was a dining room or lounge for the roomers on the first floor and another heating stove was here, too.
There was running water but no bathing facilities at the boarding house. The men would wash up in “the dry” near the mine. (The dry house or “the dry” was a large building where the miners could wash themselves after work. Sinks, towels and sometimes even showers, were found here. The men would then change into their “dry clothes” that they had left there at the beginning of the shift.) In the dry were huge sinks and Lava-brand soap. Women were hired to do clothes washing, ironing, and cleaning up the dry.
The mining company typically owned the boarding house. Board and room ranged in price from $24.00 to $30.00 a month. This sum was deducted directly from the miner’s paycheck. (Miners in the Mesabi mines were paid $1.95 to $2.55 per day for perhaps 257 days a year of work. This was slightly more than the pay scale at the mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)
Men who worked those 12-hour days were served a big breakfast and a late dinner at the boarding house. Their noon lunch was packed in a lunch bucket (also called a dinner pail) and put together by the boarding house cooks. These buckets were oval shaped and made of tin or aluminum. The center was about half the size of the bucket and held in place by a rim around the top of the pail, then the cover.
Coffee or tea was put in the bottom of the bucket. Then the center section was put in place. This section held the sandwiches, cake, cookies, or fruit. Some lunch buckets also had a very shallow section which fit in before the cover was put on. This, according to some people, was for pie.
Often the men warmed their tea or coffee on the locomotive or steam shovel or on the stove inside the mine’s “warming shack.”
The parents of one of my childhood playmates operated a boarding house for a few years in the mining location where we lived. I would sometimes sit in the kitchen watching while the lunch buckets were being packed. Large beef and pork roasts, well cooked, were sliced. Homemade bread, both white and dark, was used for a sandwich, or just a slice or two put into the lunch bucket alongside the meat. Many varieties of pies including mincemeat, raisin, prune, apple, and lemon were made by the cook. It seems hard to imagine, as I write this report, but no lunch meats were used.
In the kitchen was a big icebox for storage and the basement was also used. Meat was bought in halves and quarters. There usually were also cases of pop on hand and always a big coffee pot was on the stove and a slightly smaller pot with tea.
The workers returned the lunch buckets to the kitchen at the end of the day. The buckets were washed, dried, and set out ready to be filled for the next shift.
After supper the men enjoyed sitting in the large, heated sitting room, smoking, visiting, or playing cards. Most boarding houses had large porches, so that was another place to sit in the evenings during nice weather. Men could take a walk to the nearest general store. There might be one in their Location or the next one along the road. The nearest one to our home in Kerr Location was the T.B. Hamre Store in Carson Lake.
I remember some of the families who ran the boarding houses near where I lived. Salvas operated a Finnish boarding house. Other families who ran boarding houses were the Gundersons, Wilcoxes, McCleans, and Mahies.
Single men worked during the ore season, then were laid off in the fall when the mines closed until spring. It was seasonal work for these men because of the cold weather. Single men often left the Locations then to move in with relatives in another area or find work at another job for the winter. Some men got work on the Iron Range doing mine stripping - removing the topsoil, rocks and trees to get at the veins of rich ore. Depending on the weather, this work might go on all winter. Other men found jobs out in lumber camps where winter was the busy season.
We could always tell when ore season was going to start. Young men would return by Shubat Bus from Hibbing where they had been hired for another season at the main mining office. Their first shopping trip would be to T.B. Hamre Store for work clothes. These were mostly overalls, heavy work shirts, work shoes, and, if they were a newcomer, a shiny new lunch bucket.
The following items are taken from the Hibbing Daily Tribune or the Mesabi Ore, which are on microfilm at the Hibbing Public Library and/or Iron Range Resource Center at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.
August 16, 1955
Hibbing’s brand-new elementary school, the Greenhaven, provides 22 classrooms, a library, and a lunchroom. Among the children attending the new school are kindergarten twins George and Roxanne Cermack.
November 3, 1970
Today at the polls voters in the Town of Stuntz are voting on four ballots: a state ballot, a county and district ballot, an amendment ballot, and a Town of Stuntz ballot. Of particular interest is the amendment to the State constitution which would lower the voting age to 19.
November 19, 1980
Hibbing’s A Company, 94th Armored Battalion, Minnesota Army National Guard, spent several weeks at Fort Ripley this past summer. The tank crews spent time on the tank range maneuvering and practicing with the tank’s guns.