(Author’s Note: Through Facetime, I joined a Book Club in Minneapolis-St. Paul, answered questions about Birds of Passage, and spoke about Italian immigrant history including Minnesota.)
The Minnesota Iron Range, Vermilion, Mesabi, and Cuyuna mines, produced the majority of the iron ore in the United States. from 1900 to 1980. By 1920, the Iron Range exceeded a hundred thousand people, with immigrants half the population and 85% of the mining workforce. The largest group of immigrants were Finnish (25%), then Croats, Slavs (10%), and Swedes (10%). About five-thousand Italians worked the Iron Range.
There were two major strikes at Mesabi during the formative years for the country’s unions. In 1907, the Western Federation of Miners struck Oliver Iron Mining (U.S. Steel), because 200 workers were laid off. Strikebreakers and sheriff’s deputies kept order and broke the strike. In 1916, the Industrial Workers of the World struck and 40 miners walked off. Violence marked the strike. Oliver Iron Mining refusal to negotiate, and put pressure on retailers who gave credit to striking miners.
The pattern of Italian immigration to the Iron Range was similar to immigration elsewhere. Northern Italians were the majority before 1900, Southern Italians after 1900. Unskilled immigrants were put to work as trammers, shoveling ore into mine cars. As the Italians learned English, they moved to higher positions like foremen and paymaster. Many opened grocery stores, bakeries, and tailor-shops to support the community. Italian-operated saloons were social gathering places for immigrants. Often, Italian women ran the boarding-houses for other immigrants.
Two famous Iron Range Italians were Jeno Paulucci and Robert Mondavi.
Jeno Paulucci’s family owned a speakeasy. Jeno’s career began selling olive oil door-to-door. Paulucci learned to grow Chinese bean sprouts, then started Chun King Foods, which became a multi-million-dollar enterprise.
Robert Mondavi’s parents owned a boarding house and grocery store. During Prohibition, individuals were permitted to produce 200 gallons of wine. Mondavi’s father became a wholesaler, selling California grapes to Italians in the Midwest. In 1920, the family moved to California, began to produce wine, and Mondavi became one of the country’s leading brands.