Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Learning about Minnesota’s worst mining disaster September 1, 2021

A photo of iron ore miners displayed at the Soo Line Depot Museum in Crosby, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo July 2021.

I CANNOT IMAGINE WORKING as a miner. Underground. Enclosed in tight spaces. Enveloping darkness. Fear and danger and sometimes unsafe working conditions. I couldn’t do the job. I need light and air and space. To feel free, not trapped.

A photo of the Milford Mine displayed at the Crosby museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo July 2021.

On February 5, 1924, nearly 50 men mining iron ore in the Milford Mine on the Cuyuna Iron Range in central Minnesota faced their greatest fear. Death. They were only 15 minutes from the end of their shift when the unthinkable happened at 3:45 pm on a Tuesday. When mud, water and quicksand from Foley Lake flooded the shaft. Only seven of the 48 miners escaped.

Mining photos and equipment are part of the museum display. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I cannot imagine the horrible scene which unfolded in that mine as these hardworking men struggled to get out. To survive. To return to their families. To see the light of day. To breathe.

The headline in the Duluth newspaper erroneously reports that 42 (not 41) miners drowned. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Forty-one men died as the 200-foot deep mine shaft filled with water to within 15 feet of the surface in just 20 minutes. That’s not much time to scramble up a ladder to safety.

Canaries really were used to detect gas levels in mines, as replicated at the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Until two months ago, my knowledge of Minnesota’s worst mining disaster was limited to just that—an awareness that this tragedy happened. Beyond that, I was uninformed. I don’t recall ever hearing of this disaster in any history classes.

Info on use of caged canaries is included in the museum exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Yet, this event, this substantial loss of life in a single horrific tragedy, needs to be taught and remembered. It’s an important part of our state’s mining history and of the families who lost loved ones in the Milford Mine. I expect many a family in the Crosby area—the mine was located just miles from town—can trace genealogy back to the disaster.

The Soo Line Depot Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

In Crosby, the Soo Line Depot Museum, 101 1st St. NE, features a display on iron ore mining with an emphasis on the mining disaster at Milford. The displays heightened my interest, my desire to learn more. And I did by visiting Milford Mine Memorial Park located some four miles north of Crosby on Milford Lake Drive, just off Crow Wing County Road 30, just off Minnesota State Highway 6.

Miners pose for a photo in this image displayed in the Soo Line Depot Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo July 2021.

I’ll take you to that memorial park, which personalizes this tragedy and honors the men who died and those who survived. It’s a remarkable park in volume of historical information and setting—on-site of the disaster. Boardwalks and hiking trails lead visitors into the woods, across marshland and along a mining lake. In a beautiful natural setting, where, 97 years ago, 41 miners died, trapped underground.

A list of mines on the Cuyuna Range shown at the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

NOTE: The Soo Line Depot Museum closes for the season on Labor Day weekend and reopens Memorial Day weekend. Milford Mine Memorial Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Deerwood: Water tower on the range August 30, 2021

An historic 1914 water tower in Deerwood, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

A TIME EXISTED WHEN I PAID minimal attention to water towers. They all looked the same. Simple silver metal structures rising on leggy supports above prairie towns, dwarfed only by grain elevators.

Through the decades, those standard water towers have mostly vanished, replaced by more modern holding tanks. I understand the need to upgrade, to improve, to advance. Communities grow. Needs change. My city of Faribault is currently planning a new water tower, which will be visible from Interstate 35. If Faribault ever housed a simple metal tower, it was long before I moved here.

Community identifier. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

But in the small town of Deerwood in Crow Wing County, a vintage water tower still stands, by a city park with picnic shelter and splash pad, near an apartment complex, next to the fire station and across the street from the historic Deerwood Auditorium (city hall and police department).

Randy and I discovered the 1914 water tower when we stopped for a picnic lunch en route to a family lake cabin on a Saturday afternoon in July. Previous drives north, we drove right through Deerwood without pause. In a hurry to get to our destination.

That’s problematic. That word, hurry. By hurrying, we too often miss simple delights. Like the historic Deerwood water tower.

Looking up at the tower offers artistic and architectural angles. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

I grabbed my camera to photograph the tower, attempting to document it from multiple perspectives. Architecturally. Artistically. Historically.

Identifying construction information at the base of the Deerwood water tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Upon later researching the Deerwood water tower, built by the Des Moines Bridge & Iron Co., I learned it is one of five such Cuyuna Iron Range water towers on the National Register of Historic Places. Added in 1980, the other towers are located in Crosby, Cuyuna, Ironton and Trommaid. They are known collectively as the “Cuyuna Range Municipally-Owned Elevated Metal Water Tanks.”

Just another underneath view. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

The towers, erected between 1912-1918, were of historical importance in development of the Cuyuna Iron Range. Tax revenue generated from the iron ore mines funded their construction.

Posted on a street corner by the water tower, a positive message. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

I appreciate that these five towns on the iron range valued their aged water towers enough to pursue and acquire historical designation. The water towers represent a time in Minnesota history. They represent, too, the architecture and art of yesteryear.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear of vintage water towers you’ve noticed and appreciate. Tell me, too, why you value them.

Please click here to read my previous post about the historic Deerwood Auditorium. And click here to read my post about the town’s deer sculpture in Elmer Park.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

About that auditorium in Deerwood August 27, 2021

Deerwood Auditorium, located a block from the water tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

THE STURDY STONE STRUCTURE anchoring a corner in Deerwood drew my photographic and historic interest during a recent stop in this central Minnesota community in Crow Wing County.

What craftsmanship in this stone-faced building. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

How could it not? Buildings like this with a fieldstone facing hearken from a bygone era, from days when intense hands-on labor factored in to construction. Workers hauled 800 tons of fieldstones from the site of the Cuyuna Country Club to build the Deerwood Auditorium between 1935-1936.

So many fieldstones harvested and used in construction of the auditorium. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

That’s a lot of rocks. I understand, not because I ever hauled that much stone anywhere. But, as a child, I spent many a summer plucking rocks from farm fields in southwestern Minnesota and tossing them into a wagon. Picking rock is hard work. Darn hard.

Imagine the time, labor and effort involved in constructing these walls. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

I admire the tenacity, determination and ingenuity of our forefathers. They relied on local natural resources to build buildings. And, in the case of the Deerwood Auditorium, materials also from the old Meacham Mine machine building to incorporate into the structure.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Donations and Works Progress Administration funding and labor were also part of this project.

A side and rear view of the building. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

The completed building included village council chambers, a kitchen, locker rooms, library, space for fire fighting equipment and that all-purpose 38 x 80-foot gym with overlooking second floor balconies. Today the auditorium, on the National Register of Historic Places, serves as a community center and gathering spot for celebrations like weddings, birthdays and family reunions.

Another side view of the historic Deerwood Auditorium. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Back during construction, locals aimed to have the building finished in time for the community’s annual fall lutefisk dinner. It was completed for the event, which drew an estimated 1,000 diners to feast on the lye-soaked cod of Norwegian culinary delight.

The front entry with identifying usage information. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

On the July Saturday I paused to photograph this WPA building, I knew none of these historical details. I couldn’t get inside the Deerwood Auditorium, today home to city hall, the police department and community center. Oh, how I wish I could step inside. To take in the history of this place. To imagine locals packed shoulder to shoulder forking down slippery, smelly lutefisk, their conversations creating a deafening din.

Once the library entry… Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

I settled instead for appreciating the exterior workmanship, the talent and strength required to build this remarkable building. The craftsmanship. The hours and hours of labor. That shows in a structure that exudes strength, that honors those who work with their hands, for their work endures.

Please check back next week for one final (of three) post from Deerwood.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Racing woodticks in Cuyuna August 3, 2021

The Woodtick Inn in Cuyuna. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I GET GIDDY UPON discovering something totally odd and quirky or whatever word fits a place like the Woodtick Inn, host to the annual Woodtick Races in Cuyuna.

Cuyuna City Hall. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

During a recent cabin stay in the Brainerd lakes region, Randy and I routed through Cuyuna on our way to Crosby some four miles to the south. We often follow the road less traveled because doing so can lead to fascinating finds.

Woodtick Races scoreboards posted on the side of the Woodtick Inn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

And for us on this day, it was the woodtick-dubbed bar and grill and, of all things, Woodtick Races. The Inn hosts the races annually on the second Saturday of June.

An artist’s rendition of a woodtick hangs on the bar’s exterior. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

But let’s back up a minute. What, exactly, is a woodtick? It’s a parasitic arachnid. Yup, a nasty bug that will latch into your skin and suck your blood. Many varieties of woodticks exist. But those raced in Cuyuna are the common American Dog Tick. And, yes, these ticks will find a host in a dog.

The sign which first caught my eye when entering Cuyuna. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Many years have passed since a woodtick determined I would be a good feeding source. But, as a child, I often found ticks stuck to my skin after playing outdoors. And, yes, they can spread diseases. And, no, I don’t like them. Not one bit.

The Woodtick Inn also welcomes anglers in this big fishing region. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

But I can embrace Woodtick Races. What a novel event that puts Cuyuna, a former iron ore mining town in Crow Wing County, on the map. Or at least on our map. Cuyuna, a community of about 350, sits on the Cuyuna Iron Range. While the local mine closed long ago, going from boom to bust between 1907-1925, the mine lakes left behind now draw vacationers into the region.

There’s plenty of outdoor space for racing woodticks. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

And I expect the annual Woodtick Races also draw plenty of participants and curious observers. This year, the 42nd annual event, the top three cash prizes ranged from $224-$560. That’s a good chunk of change for a race with a $5 entry fee and an additional $1 if you buy a “caught” tick rather than bring your own.

Lots of original signage identifies the Woodtick Inn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I wondered aloud how event organizers gather woodticks for the races. “Send a kid into the woods,” Randy joked.

Meat raffles are a draw at the Woodtick Inn also. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

However those ticks are gathered, the rules call for racers to place their woodticks in the middle of a circle on a table. Whichever tick reaches the outside of the circle first wins. And, yes, referees oversee the races.

In 2021, Gopher Tackle, based in Cuyuna for 40 years, was sold and relocated to Milford, Iowa. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Some day I hope to witness these races at the Woodtick Inn in Cuyuna. And I need to further explore the spread-out town named after surveyor Cuyler Adams and his Saint Bernard, Una. The Cuyuna I saw is vastly different from a boom town that once housed a hospital, high school, theater, hotels, saloons, grocery stores and much more. A town once teeming with iron ore miners and their families. And today, woodticks.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling