Between 1962 and 1980, the iron and copper mining companies that had sustained Iron County, Wisconsin, since the late 19th century closed. We know the numbers: the closure of the mines put thousands of people out of work. From 1950 and 2010, Iron County lost over 2,000 residents—one third of its already small population. The shrinking population was particularly evident in the school enrollment numbers: between 2000 and 2010, enrollment in the Hurley School District dropped 19% to 626 students, reducing annual state aid to the county by $1 million to $3.5 million. Today, few employment opportunities, geographical remoteness, and access to only two grocery stores make everyday life challenging for one of the poorest and grayest counties in the state.
But do we really know the story behind the numbers and the experiences beyond the narrative that boom-and-bust of mining is simply “inevitable”? Who, exactly, left Iron County? Who stayed behind, and why? A generation after the mines closed, how do those who stayed in an emptying-out community make sense of the rapid changes they are witness to? Understanding lived experiences of those who stay behind in former company towns can illuminate possible futures for these remote and historically-rooted places in Wisconsin and throughout the North American rust belt. Furthermore, starting a conversation around shared experiences of “making do” in hard times may spark a sense of community among geographically and generationally disconnected residents.
Stream or download my report from Iron County below. A transcript, edited for clarity, follows.
At the Iron County Historical Society Open House, I spoke with Gardy LaMarsh, Hurley Class of 1972. He currently teaches naval science at a magnet school in St. Paul, but he comes back as often as possible to visit friends and family in the region. He remembers a Hurley that looked—and sounded—very different than what we see today.
Gardy LaMarsh: I grew up on Fourth Avenue and also on Maple Street. Those are the two houses we lived in. Lived just a block from the railroad tracks on Fourth Avenue, so my earliest recollections were of the ore trains going through. My brother and I used to sit on the little hillside, looking down on the trains, watching them go through and that was constant all day long. The ore trains just ran and ran and ran, and they would run throughout the night. After a while, it’s just part of growing up. We didn’t really notice them so much, unless you happened to be stuck behind one trying to get home from school for lunch, or trying to get back to school. Teachers knew that if you were late coming back from lunch, you’re probably stuck behind the train that was two hundred cars long. So we were forgiven.
The 1950s and 1960s were a really good time for this area. Other folks told me about the dress shops, shoe stores, bars, and restaurants lining Silver Street, about cruising Hurley and Ironwood with high school friends on a Friday night, and about cooking up favorite traditional Polish, Italian, Cornish, or Finish foods with grandparents.
In all these stories, things changed when the mines closed. Ron Maki’s experience summed up many of the changes people of iron county felt in the 1960s.
Ron Maki: In 1962 the Montreal Mine closed. The governor at the time said, “Well, the people would just have to move and reestablish themselves. Sell their homes.” The problem is, who you gonna sell your home to? Your neighbor had one for sale. But what happened, many of them moved to Kenosha. American Motors hired everyone from the Montreal Mine.
Like so many men who lost their mining jobs, Ron’s dad commuted five hours south to Kenosha during the work week.
Maki: Work in Kenosha was all together different, doing the same thing over and over. They weren’t used to that. Even though they worked underground in the mine, they did different things. I think he was 48 or so; it’s hard to readjust.
As many families decided to move in search of work, folks back in Hurley had to readjust, too. Hurley today is so different from Hurley several decades ago. Let’s hear again from Gardy:
LaMarsh: I walk the streets now and they are quiet. When I was a kid, there were kids everywhere. We had the largest graduating classes from Hurley, in the late 1960s. Through about the mid 1970s the classes would’ve been even larger had the mines not closed. So many of our friends moved away. You know, I went to Saint Mary School. I think the folks that went to South Side and Montreal and Saxon and Upson and all these other places would tell you the same thing, that classmates just started moving away and classes grew smaller and smaller.
I heard a similar story when I stopped by Sharon’s Coffee Company to visit with Melanie Ellerson and her friend Sherry. These women were classmates in Montreal when the mine shut down. This is Melanie:
Ellerson: So Sherry and I were talking. I said I remember going to school in Montreal, and little by little we were losing classmates. Because they were all moving away and our class size got really small. It was all because of the mine.
Melanie’s entire family felt the repercussions of her dad losing his mining job.
Ellerson: My dad really struggled to find work after that. I mean he tried everything from selling vacuum cleaners to insurance, just to help. My brothers had to leave home when they were 18, and one brother went off to college. He was lucky enough to do that, so. But he would send home money, to take care the rest of us. It was rough time.
Melanie’s family made it through, though Melanie did move away to find work. But last year, Melanie and her husband returned to Gile to move into her parents’ house. She is part of a growing trend of recent retirees who are coming back to live in Iron County.
For a county that has faced a lot of economic hardships, it has a hold on so many people’s hearts. And though natives of Iron County have dispersed across country, there’s still something special about this place, even just to visit.
At the all-class reunion, Bill Richie put it like this:
Richie: If you know anything about mallards, where the young ones are fledged, where they learn to fly, they come back to the same place. This is where we learned to fly, so to speak. and we wanted to come back to visit. That’s the analogy I would use. Just home, this is home.
During the Iron County Heritage Days festival, I ended all my conversations with one question: What do you dream for Iron County? Here’s Joan Thomson Voveda:
Voveda: I would hope for some economic development, so young people will see the need that they can come back, they can have jobs. Because it’s a beautiful area, and it’s such a good area to raise kids and be. Lots of recreation. I would hope that they have enough autonomy to draw young people and young family so they would come and stay. You always hope. This is a jewel up here.
Almost everyone shared Joan’s desire to see more economic activity in Iron County. But still, so many people are proud to call this place home. At the County Fair, I watched two local business owners compete to buy a pie for $700, all to support the 4-H clubs. At the all-class reunion, so many out-of-towners told me that they still subscribe to the Daily Globe and Miner newspapers. At the Historical Museum, dozens of visitors shared stories of Montreal, Saxon, Iron Belt, and Hurley.
Here’s Bill Richie again:
Richie: The enormous amount of pride in this community. If you’ve been around the United States at all, you meet people who ask,“Where are you from?” “Well I’m from a little place in Wisconsin called Hurley” “Oh, Hurley!” It’s amazing.
Featured image: Silver Street, Hurley, Wisconsin, August 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Amanda McMillan Lequieu is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s joint Departments of Sociology and Community and Environmental Sociology. Her research interrogates the relationship between structural, environmental, and economic change and lived experiences of home and community. Specifically, she is interested in how low-income communities adapt to globalizing economies and changing environments over time, through the lens of land tenure, environmental history, and economic development/undevelopment. Website. Contact.