Summers are a great time for reunions…well, most summers. Obviously, in this pandemic year of 2020, reunions have been put on hold. Let’s hope that NEXT summer we can all enjoy the gatherings of families, classmates, and townspeople once again.
I’ve attended some great reunions, and some of my favorites were in Keewatin.
My Mother, Julia Verrant Palcich, was born in the St. Paul Location north of Keewatin in 1917. When she was two, her family moved to the Mississippi Location, about a half-mile through the woods from their previous home. When she was school age, she would walk with the other children from the Mississippi Location to the nearby St. Paul Location School, trudging through those woods each day. All of those underground mines and their adjacent locations are vanished now, all of that land taken away by the mine pits and overburden dumps.
Beginning when she was in 5th Grade, the location children were bussed into Keewatin for school in the morning, home for lunch, back for afternoon classes, and home again at the end of the school day. Her family moved into Keewatin when she was in 7th Grade and she graduated from Keewatin’s Robert L. Downing High School in 1935. She went to teachers’ college in Duluth (what became UMD), taught in several country schools in Aitkin and Itasca Counties, and then back home to her alma mater, the Keewatin Elementary School. Eventually, she and my Dad (who was from Chisholm) would marry and live with her widowed father in Keewatin for a couple of years before moving to Hibbing in 1951. But Keewatin was in her heart all of her 93 years of life.
Because of her love for her hometown, and the many friends she and my Dad had there, while I was growing up many Sunday afternoons were spent visiting in Keewatin. A great many July 4th’s were spent there and I also attended several Keewatin Reunions with my parents. Between the people in their parents’ generation who were still alive, the people in their own generation, and the people in my generation, it was always easy to laugh and visit and eat!
The little town of Keewatin is still is beloved to many. Joe and I love spending July 4th at the parade. The Memorial Day program organized by the VFW and its Auxiliary is also on my annual calendar. We are lucky to still have strong small towns like Keewatin on the Mesabi Iron Range.
In July, 1981, Keewatin celebrated its 75th Birthday with a fine reunion. The Hibbing Daily Tribune published a special supplement with photos and articles recalling Keewatin’s history. The following is an article from that supplement.
The village of Keewatin began in controversy.
The Pillsbury, Longyear and Bennett families platted the future townsite, and a petition for incorporation was filed the day before New Year’s Eve, 1905. Opposition arose to the new village, and when the election was held July 31, 1906, the petition was voted down.
Max Shuirman and P.J. McGuire decided to get to the bottom of things, and they hired some lawyers to look into the vote. Now, all these years later, no one knows for sure all the shenanigans that were involved, but the district court ruled that the actual tally was 47 in favor and 40 opposed.
The site for the new community was in the middle of a cedar swamp about halfway between the metropolis of the Mesabi Iron Range, Hibbing, and another small village that had recently been founded, Nashwauk. It was located at the extreme eastern side of Itasca County adjacent to a Great Northern Railroad spur that went on to Nashwauk.
The township company originally had ideas of naming the new city “Apollo,” but they settled on Keewatin. The Ojibway word “giwedin,” from which the town’s name is taken, means north or north wind. In Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” the word “Keewaydin” means northwest wind or home wind. Keewatin is also the name of a large wilderness region of Canada near Hudson Bay, where the word is sometimes interpreted as meaning “at the back of the north wind.” Keewatin is also the name of a rock formation near the Mesabi Range. It was probably the rock formation that served as a basis for selecting the eventual name for the new town.
The land was surveyed, following the settlement of the vote, by the Duluth Engineering Company, and the lots were drawn out at 25 by 125 feet with all mineral rights reserved.
President E.F. Remer called to order the first meeting of the city council on March 12, 1907, in the office of the St. Paul Mine, just north of the new village. Other members of the first council were Roger Hickok, clerk; Frank Dellwo, Jack Bush, and Pete Bergstrom, trustees; and Charles Adams, treasurer.
Martin Hughes, a noted lawyer who later went on to fame as a judge on the Range, was appointed the first village attorney at $35 per month. Ed Claffy was named police chief at $75 per month, and Clerk Remer was paid $50 per month. The treasurer was allocated two percent of all the money he handled for the village. The street commissioner and fire chief were paid for the time they worked. Dr. Kane from the Stevenson Location was named community’s first health officer.
As in most Range villages, the first order of real business for the new council was to approve seven liquor licenses. Keewatin began primarily as a logging community, and later became a mining town. In either case, one of its functions in those early pioneer days was to be a recreation center for the men who worked the long, hard hours in the forests and the mines. Another first act of the council was to build a jail, at a cost of $455, on the lots where City Hall now stands. (These two early decisions of the council are probably connected, don’t you think?)
Fred Culver was hired to give the new town some class and a step out of the mud by building board walks in town at 78 cents per foot for an eight-foot walkway. He also built a wooden walk out to the St. Paul Location for $875.
Frank Harrison was hired to give the village some illumination, and so he installed five cedar poles with gas lights attached to them. In order to pay for all the work of changing a swamp into a village, the council also levied taxes to the tune of $9,000, the passed the first 24 village ordinances.
The first houses were log shacks, but solid, permanent houses soon began to appear. The Bray, Mississippi and Bennett Mines joined the St. Paul Mine, and the influx of miners needed a place to live and a place to spend their money. The village grew quickly, and more improvements were added.
Bond issues were approved for the sinking of a well, the establishing of a public water works system, the installation of an electric light plant, and a sewer system. The first cement walks were laid in 1913, and the first street paving was done in 1914. A village hall was completed in 1910, and Spina and Hayes Additions were opened and Bennett Location was annexed. Municipal heating began when the exhaust steam line was linked to City Hall in 1912, and this heating system continued to serve the community until the late 1970s.
The early days saw immigrants from all over the world settle in Keewatin. “Little Italy” and “Little Austria” were part of life in the new community. Slowly these settlers became Americanized, and their children attended the new schools that were being built.
In June of 1906, before the vote was even taken on establishing the village, a certificate of organization of a common school district between Keewatin and Nashwauk was approved by the state. From the earliest days of the two communities, there was been a history of shared school services.
Keewatin’s first school was built on the present school property at a cost of $9,000. It had two rooms that housed 25 students at the beginning, and forty by the end of that first year. The teacher’s quarters were on the second floor and the janitor and his family lived in the basement.
By 1910 there were 194 students in the system and five teachers. Also that year, water and power were installed and the grounds were landscaped. The school at the St. Paul Location was built that year for $22,000, and educated children until it was torn down in 1931. In 1914, Keewatin’s new grade school was completed with 10 classrooms, an auditorium, and other student areas. The first Keewatin School Band was formed in 1915.
The Bennett Location School was constructed in 1920, one of the finest schools built on the Range up to that point. In 1922, Robert L. Downing High School was completed and named for the Bennett Mine Superintendent. By 1929, the Keewatin schools had an enrollment of 794 pupils, still an all-time high. The Class of 1932 graduated 56 students, the largest class in the history of the school.
The village continued to grow as many of the mining locations in the area were shut down by the mining companies. Many of those location houses were moved into Keewatin, and the village can boast of houses from nearly every location on the West Range.
Keewatin changed through the years. Some good changes, some bad changes, just as some years were happy while others held great sorrow. But Keewatin still stands tall as a town that many are still glad to call home.