Italian immigrants began settling in Minnesota 200 years ago and at the beginning of the 20th century the largest concentrations were living on the Iron Range, in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Stillwater. Early arrivals tended to be from northern Italy. Railroad workers hired in Chicago and sent northward, took up residence in St. Paul and Minneapolis and later in other towns. Railroad jobs led others to Cumberland and Hudson in northern Wisconsin and many immigrants moved back and forth between these towns and the Italian communites in Minnesota.
First mined in the 1880s, the three ranges – the Vermilion, Mesabi and Cuyuna that make up Minnesota’s Iron Range – provided an economic core for northeastern Minnesota. They also drew waves of immigrant workers, creating the state’s most diverse melting pot and a distinctive cultural legacy that still defines the region. Although mining has declined since the 1960s, the mines and the tight-knit communities they fostered have developed a new industry focused on cultural-heritage tourism.
On the Mesabi, iron ore was originally mined both underground and in open pits above ground. Few skills were required. Many Mesabi Range miners were immigrants, recruited by mining companies, including the Oliver Iron Mining Company, a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation. From 1900 to 1980, the Mesabi Range contributed about sixty percent of the country’s total iron ore output. Production peaked in the 1940s, when more than 600,000 tons were shipped to serve the nation’s needs during World War II. Production remained high in the 1950s and then began to decline. It had taken less than 100 years for industrial demand to deplete the supply of high-grade ore.
Living and working conditions on the Iron Range were poor and mining companies openly discriminated against immigrant miners by giving them the most dangerous and lowest paying jobs. New immigrants were easily exploited because they did not speak English, had little money and were far away from their families and social support networks.
The history of the American labor movement is peopled by immigrants to this country. Finnish, Southern Slav and Italian immigrant laborers were prominent in labor movements in the logging and mining industries of Minnesota and its neighboring northern states of Michigan and Wisconsin. The Range, as the three ranges were jointly nicknamed, was a major site of strife between owners and laborers and a fertile field for labor organizing.
The Mesabi Range is where much of the strife occurred and where historic battles between labor and management were fought. Two strikes on the Mesabi — one in 1907 and another in 1916 — are legendary in the struggle for workers’ rights and fair wages. The 1907 strike was the first organized, widespread strike on the Iron Range. The immigrant miners had little experience with unions or large-scale strikes. Previous work stoppages had been unplanned reactions to localized problems. The Western Federation of Miners (WFM), an organization connected to several bloody, mining-related labor struggles, sent its first organizers to Minnesota in 1905 at the request of local activists. By June 1907 the WFM had organized fourteen locals. Although the union had been planning a strike, the immediate cause was the layoff in July of 200 union members by the Oliver Iron Mining Company. A strike was called on July 20 and, in early August, strikebreakers were brought in and “deputies” were hired to protect them. By mid-August, sufficient numbers of strikebreakers, combined with improved economic conditions, broke the strike. Despite minor hostilities between the strikers and the deputies, the strike was relatively peaceful.
Forty miners walked off the job on June 3, beginning the 1916 strike. The unorganized miners soon realized they needed help. Unlike the 1907 strike, this time the Western Federation of Miners was not interested in organizing the miners. Instead, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) responded, sending in some of their top organizers. Many of the strikebreakers from 1907, ironically, became instrumental in the 1916 strike.The 1916 strike was marked by violence. The civil liberties of strikers were violated, mine guards and police used force to intimidate strikers, union leaders were jailed, economic pressure was exerted on merchants who extended credit to strikers and, finally, the Oliver Iron Mining Company refused to negotiate with the strikers. The strike was called off on September 17. The miners did win some important short-range reforms from the mining company, but the company’s anti-union attitude persisted for another quarter century. A more serious altercation occurred at the Stevenson Mine west of Hibbing, when laborers protested the discharge of an Italian foreman. The strikers, most of whom were Italians, Finns and Southern Slavs, reportedly harassed the “loyal employees” who wished to continue working. To reduce tensions, officials closed the local saloon and brought the county sheriff and 42 deputies to the scene. The presence of so many armed men quelled the “enthusiasm” of the strikers and within a week they were back at work.
Today, there’s no better place to learn about the Range’s legacy than at the Ironworld Discovery Center in Chisholm. Interactive exhibits in this mining museum, set on the edge of an abandoned mine pit, include everything from the early geology of the region to the story of taconite (iron ore). Wall-sized pictures show the men and women from 43 nations who transformed a dense wilderness into an industrial society in less than 100 years. Mary Ellen Mancina-Batinich directed an oral history project called, Italian Voices, that collected interviews in the late 1970s with the men and women who emigrated from Italy to Minnesota. The interviews provide a window into the world of the ordinary Italian immigrants, ranging from iron miners, labor activists, women at home and at work, small businessmen and women and people from all walks of life. Just some ot the stories include: a boardinghouse keeper found her kitchen in a mess after Saturday-night revelry and refused to cook on Sunday; an iron miner pried frozen ore from his car in 40-below temperatures and a grocer who made sausage, brewed wine and foraged for mushrooms and dandelion greens to sell in his store.
A few more stories:
Jeno Paulucci was born on July 5, 1918 in Hibbing, Minnesota. He was born just a couple years after his parents immigrated to the Iron Range from a small mining town in northeastern Italy, called Bellisio Solfare. Jeno began his career selling olive oil door to door. During Prohibition, his family ran a speakeasy out of his family’s basement on the Iron Range. Jeno did all he could to help, even making most of the wine himself.
After this chapter in his interesting life, he moved to Duluth at the age of 16 and began a job bartering fruit and vegetables on First Street. Jeno enrolled in the Hibbing State Junior College’s pre-law program. However, he had an offer for a job selling wholesale products, and left his education without a second thought. On a sales trip with this company, he learned to grow Chinese bean sprouts, with which he decided to start his now worldwide company, Chun King Foods. Today, Jeno’s business is worth $450 million. Just 15 years ago he started yet another brand, Michelina’s frozen meals, named after his mother.
The Amato family’s pathway from southwestern Italy to Minnesota’s Iron Range is a long one. Their story is told through the recollections and documents of Melanina Amato Degubellis. In 1901, Giuseppe Amato and his two brothers came to northeastern Minnesota where they worked as miners. After years of saving in Italy, his daughter, Melanina and her mother, Concetta set out to join Giuseppe in Minnesota. However their inability to speak English got them lost on their journey. With the help of many Italians along the way, the family was reunited in Chisholm, Minnesota. While such a detour was exceptional, the importance of others during their journey was not.
Founder the Robert Mondavi Winery
Robert Mondavi’s parents emigrated from the Marche region of Italy and settled in the Minnesota city of Hibbing. Mondavi was born on June 18, 1913, in Virginia, Minnesota. His mother ran a boarding house for local Italian laborers and his father was the proprietor of a grocery store and later, a saloon. However, a Prohibition law was enacted in 1919, which outlawed the sale of beer and liquor, threatening Cesare Mondavi’s business. The law allowed for individuals to produce up to 200 gallons of wine though, so Mondavi’s father decided to become a grape wholesaler for the many Italian families who wanted to continue enjoying their traditional wine with meals. Cesare Mondavi’s business often took him to the West Coast. So, in the early 1920s, the family relocated to Lodi, California, south of Sacramento.
These kinds of stories are what makes oral history interviews such compelling reading and, more importantly, provide information that would not necessarily be obtained elsewhere. The traditional historical accounts from working-class people are sparse, making the oral interviews even more crucial in trying to interpret the past of all Americans—not just those who left behind written records.
Pork is King on the Iron Range
Iron Range Porketta
Not to be confused with Italian porchetta, Iron Range porketta is a fennel-and-garlic-seasoned pulled pork originating in Minnesota. The pork butt is butterflied to speed up cooking and cutting a crosshatch in the surface of the meat ensures that the seasoning—a mixture of granulated garlic, crushed fennel seeds, salt, and pepper—will penetrate the meat. Before roasting, the meat is topped with sliced fresh fennel for a second layer of flavor.
- 3 tablespoons fennel seeds, cracked
- Salt and pepper
- 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
- 1 (5-pound) boneless pork butt roast, trimmed
- 1 fennel bulb, stalks discarded, bulb halved, cored and chopped
- 8 crusty sandwich rolls
1. Combine fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon salt, 2 teaspoons pepper and garlic in a bowl. Butterfly pork and cut 1-inch crosshatch patterns, 1/4 inch deep, on both sides of the roast. Rub pork all over with spice mixture, taking care to work spices into the crosshatch patterns. Wrap meat tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 or up to 24 hours.
2. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees F. Unwrap meat and place in roasting pan, fat side down. Spread chopped fennel evenly over the top of the roast. Cover roasting pan tightly with aluminum foil. Roast pork until temperature registers 200 degrees F. and a fork slips easily in and out of the meat, about 4 hours.
3. Transfer pork to a carving board and let rest for 30 minutes. Strain liquid in the roasting pan through a fat separator. Shred pork into bite-size pieces, return to the pan and toss with a 1/2 cup defatted cooking liquid. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reheat gently. Divide meat among rolls and serve.
Prepping the Porketta
BUTTERFLY: Slice through the pork parallel to the counter, stopping 1/2 inch from the edge. Then open the meat flat like a book.
CROSSHATCH: Use a chef’s knife to cut a 1-inch crosshatch pattern 1/4-inch deep on both sides of the meat.
Italian Sausage with Pasta and Herbs
- 1 lb Italian sausage
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cups zucchini, cubed
- 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
- 8 oz rotini pasta
- 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
- 2 tablespoons dried herbs (basil, sage, parsley)
- Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Cut sausage diagonally into one-inch pieces and cook in a large skillet over medium heat, brown evenly, about 10 to 15 minutes. Pour into a bowl and set aside.
Heat olive oil in the same skillet and add zucchini and red pepper. Cook over medium heat until tender but still crisp, 3 to 4 minutes.
Cook the rotini according to package directions. Drain and reserve one cup of cooking water. Add pasta to the skillet with the vegetables and stir in ricotta.
Add 1/2 cup pasta water and stir until creamy. Stir in sausage. Add more water if mixture is too dry. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and Parmesan. This recipe makes 4 to 6 servings.
Iron Range Pot Roast
This type of seasoned pork roast was popular with Italian immigrants who came to northern Minnesota to work in the iron mines, hence this recipe’s name.
- 3 lb boneless pork shoulder roast
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon celery seed
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- Olive oil
- 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch slices
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 3/4 cup beef broth
Mix together seasonings (Italian through pepper) and rub over the entire pork roast.
Brown roast in a little oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, turning often to brown evenly. Place potatoes and garlic in 3½ to 4-quart slow cooker; pour broth over and top with browned pork roast. Cover and cook on “low” for 8 to 9 hours, until pork is very tender.
You can also brown the roast in a Dutch Oven, add potatoes, garlic and broth. Simmer on top of the stove for about 4 hours or until very tender. Recipe serves 6 to 8.
Pork and Olive Bruschetta
- 1 (1 1/4-lb) pork tenderloin, “silverskin” removed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 24 (1/2-inch-thick) baguette slices
- About 1/3 cup green or black (or both) olive spread, also called olivada or tapenade
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Combine Italian seasoning, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub all over pork. Add pork to the skillet and cook, turning occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes.
Leave pork in skillet, place pan in the oven and roast, turning occasionally, until an instant-read meat thermometer inserted in center of the pork reads 145 degrees F. about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove pork to a platter and let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes.
Reheat skillet over medium-high heat. Add wine and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits in the pan with wooden spoon. Cook until reduced to about 2 tablespoons, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
Slice pork crosswise into 24 slices. For each bruschetta, place one pork slice on each baguette slice. Top with about 1/2 teaspoon olive spread and drizzle with pan juices. Serve warm.
This recipe serves eight (3 bruschetta each).
Read About Life On the Iron Range
New York Times best selling novelist, Adriana Trigiani’s novel, The Shoemaker’s Wife, captures the immigrant experience of the early 1900′s. Much of the novel takes place on Minnesota’s Iron Range.
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