A half-century after the iron ore of Minnesota’s Cuyuna range played out, community leaders are working to transform mining’s red-dust legacy into a more sustainable economic future. The emerging recreation economy brings in business, attracts younger residents who have economic options, and builds a sense of hope, proponents say.
They say riding a bike is easy once you learn how. I’m not so sure about that. Several thousand country miles on bicycles didn’t seem to matter much the first time I shot down the jagged trails of Cuyuna on a fat-tire mountain bike.
The curving, sloping trails allowed tremendous speed in remarkably tight spaces. Saw-toothed shelves of low-grade iron rock sailed past my right ear while 30-year poplar trees brushed my left shoulder. I relished the chance to attack the iron-stained red hills because it seemed like the only part of the ride I controlled; the rest was an exercise in survival.
This was like no physical activity – certainly no bike ride – I had ever experienced before. It was exhilarating. As a young GenXer/old Millennial I would crudely compare the ride to a most excellent video game. That’s exactly the feeling that leaders in the small towns of the Cuyuna Iron Range in north central Minnesota hope will draw new people and create a stable economy.
“Most people who come here leave with an amazing, dynamic story,” said Aaron Hautala, president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew. “We’re not here to be good for Crow Wing County, or good for Minnesota. We’re here to be one of the top 10 in the world. We have the opportunity. We have the landscape.”
The Lay of the Land
The Cuyuna Range was one of three major iron ranges in Northern Minnesota that supplied the war efforts and economic booms of 20th century America. The men of my family mined all of them. My great-grandfather and grandfather worked the Cuyuna, helping close it down in the late 1950s. The Vermilion Range near Ely closed in the 1960s. The much larger Mesabi Iron Range, where I was born and still live, remains a major iron ore producer but struggles with the economic booms and busts common to the mining industry.
“The red dirt is our signature,” said Hautala of the distinct iron ore dust that covers nearly every Cuyuna trail. “People love it. People rub it on their faces just to have it. I’d never give up our mining heritage of this area. It’s the soul. It’s why people want to come to Cuyuna. Now we have tools we never had before so now is the time to use this area for recreation.”
The Cuyuna includes the adjacent cities of Crosby and Ironton, the small village of Cuyuna and a handful of small towns, all located within a few miles of one another. This once-sleepy section of the North Woods is just 20 minutes from Brainerd, and two hours from Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, Minnesota; Fargo, North Dakota; and my home on the Mesabi, respectively.
Hautala, who is also a marketing professional, and other local leaders think that strategic location will help attract people to the region’s former mining haunts for biking, paddle boarding, kayaking, fishing, and camping — first tourists, then eventually young entrepreneurs and professionals. The goal is something none of Minnesota’s iron ranges have ever really had: a sustainable, renewable local economy.
That’s no easy task. When the Mesabi Iron Range was hit with a localized depression in the early 1980s, some towns lost as much as 40 percent of their population. Crosby, the biggest of the Cuyuna Range towns, has retained its population. The town currently has about 2,400 residents after dipping to about 2,000 in the decades following the mine closures.
An influx of retirees is responsible for much that growth. There are fewer young families and far more retirees and seasonal residents.
But in recent years the community has started pouring efforts into attracting younger people through recreation, a strategy that Hautala believes over time will attract GenX and Millennial populations.
“It provides a new way of going outdoors that’s relevant,” Hautala said. “Everyone says these kids should put down the iPad, but we have to give them something that’s competitive to that. That’s what we did with these trails. We asked how can we create a product that can rival the experience of playing some game? We’ve done it. Kids are happy to put down that game because they’re having more fun out here being fit.”
The Cuyuna Country Recreation Area boasts more than 25 miles of mountain biking trails, connected with the Cuyuna paved biking trail system that links with the Paul Bunyan state trail. A state bonding project will expand 50 more miles of mountain biking trails, creating three full days of mountain biking opportunity for future visitors. But biking is just the tip of the paddle, with water and even underwater recreation also blending into the mix.
“It’s different. It’s 21st century. It’s the new normal,” Hautala said. “We’re using it to create an economy that didn’t exist, but it will and it does. It’s starting to succeed.”
The bell jingles as the door opens to Cycle Path bike shop in downtown Crosby on a surprisingly busy Wednesday morning. Owner Jenny Smith is working with two customers, a pair of visiting classical musicians looking to try out the local trails. Nearly every display model on the shop floor features tires already stained red with Cuyuna dirt.
“When I moved here [the local economy] was really very stagnant,” said Smith, a Bemidji, Minnesota, native who spent time in the Twin Cities. “It was a dying town. People were still waiting for the mining to come back, hopeful it would. It was a lot of empty stores. A lot of hopelessness, I would say. People didn’t feel like there was much future in the area.”
Smith bought the bike shop and joined community efforts to build and expand the trail system. With fat-tire biking opening a new winter season she stays busy year-round, so busy that she welcomes rumors of a new bike shop opening next year.
“Merchants are happy,” she said. “Locals are excited because they’re seeing changes. They’re seeing new businesses. People are seeing positive change. People seem more energized, more hopeful, more excited about the future.”
Bust No More
Doug Hodge bought the Crosby Bar three years ago from the widow of the previous owner, who was a Crow Wing County commissioner. Shortly after Hodge bought the bar, he was also elected county commissioner in an old Iron Range tradition of electing local leaders from behind the bar.
Despite the old-school politics, Hodge has seen the advantages of the Cuyuna’s recreational resurgence, both as local politician and as a business owner. After years of his district being the most depressed part of Crow Wing County, Hodge said it’s now seeing the most new activity. When business picked up, the town needed more dining options, so Hodge added a restaurant to his bar and liquor store.
“With mining shutting down and the snowmobile [factory] that shut down, we’ve had a lot of highs and lows,” said Hodge. “We’re starting to see the majority of the community buy into [a recreation economy]. We’re not going to see this big plant that might shut down. This is where we have an opportunity to grow and get better.”
Real estate agent Joel Hartman has lived near Crosby and Ironton his whole life. Like most northern Minnesota real estate agents, he’s made a living selling expensive lake homes to Baby Boomers. But he sees new real estate trends forming. Property next to the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area is increasing in value. Hartman said he’s selling inexpensive old mining houses in town to young professionals who use them as base camp for outdoor adventures, often bringing their kids there the same way the previous generation might have gone to a cabin.
“Millennials have these huge college debt burdens, so they can’t afford to buy $300,000 lake homes,” said Hartman. “They also care more about their health, so they’re buying lower cost vacation property that lets them get involved in outdoor activities.”
The latest edition of the Crosby-Ironton Courier rests on the bar. The new royalty from the local pageant smiles from the front page. Miss Crosby-Ironton stands atop a paddle board in a summer dress and sash, while Miss Congeniality kicks off her heels to pose on a fat-tire bike in an elegant black gown. The princess in the back, who apparently drew the short straw, is wearing a bike helmet and a life jacket. It’s another example of how the town has come to fully embrace a whole new identity.
While the new recreational economy focuses on young families, the idea was pioneered decades ago by Cuyuna leaders who are still active. Barb Grove was instrumental in the early development. A brash retired lady with short white hair and sunglasses, Grove pens a local history column under the pseudonym “Mama Cuyuna,” an affectionate nickname she’s earned in more than 30 years of community development, advocacy, and curating the region’s mining heritage.
Grove said it took decades to change the attitudes of local officials and residents, most of whom started out firmly opposed to investing in parks and recreation in an area so closely tied to iron mining. She said it was a struggle, but a joyful one.
“Somebody else was supposed to come in from the outside to revive it,” said Grove. “What they didn’t realize or understand or trust was that they had to be the instrument for their own future. That’s a whole switch in mentality. You can design your own future.”
The Cuyuna Country Recreation Area was until recently a fairly lawless patch of old mining grounds where people dumped garbage, held illicit parties, and rode ATVs with abandon.
“Half the town was conceived out there,” joked Grove.
But something started to happen to the barren red piles of mining overburden and deep pit lakes: Mother Nature returned on her own. Trees took over the sides of the steep hills, and fish and wildlife populated the 400-foot-deep clear waters. The result was a world of natural beauty protected from the wind. Grove spent decades winning battles to create trails, clean up trash, and eventually earn the state’s blessing to create the Cuyuna Country Recreation Area.
Deep, Clear and Cool
A short jaunt from town, we set out on the Pennington mine lake north of Ironton in John Schauback’s boat. We waited in line to use the dock behind scuba divers and a pair of paddle boarders. Abandoned underground mine shafts lie hundreds of feet below these waters now. The water is so clear you can see old trees 50 to 100 feet below. A merganser swims by, along with half a dozen loons that pass just feet from the boat.
Schauback, a soft-spoken, thoughtful grandfather who happens to have calves of steel, was another early bike trail pioneer on the Cuyuna.
“We need to get enough people to understand that the biggest impact isn’t tourism, it isn’t even the next level where people buy a cabin or home, but the biggest level is when we attract talent to come and be the workforce that competes around the world,” Schauback said. “You’re taking an area that might have been the last place on Earth those 20-and 30-somethings would want to be and making it attractive to them.”
Andrew Hook is an international economist who settled in the small Cuyuna town of Riverton in 2007. He’s worked for the Federal Reserve, the World Bank, and has developed financial systems across most of the populated globe. Most recently he spent nine years teaching economics at the American University of Afghanistan. Looking to give back to his community, Hook worked with local officials and biking enthusiasts to develop an economic impact statement for the region’s recreational industry.
He estimates that in the very early years of Cuyuna’s trails, 2011-2013, the trails generated a conservative $2 million annually for the local economy. But surveys indicated a great amount of interest and return visitors.
In working with Scott Chapin, an economic specialist in bicycle trails from the Cable, Wisconsin, another popular biking destination, Hook estimates that the new expansions to biking in the area will soon generate $21 million annually for the regional economy, which is currently anchored by the large regional hospital in town.
For comparison, Minnesota’s iron mining industry generates $1.9 billion in wages, rents and taxes, according to a 2012 study by the Labovitz School for Business and Economics at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Even so, household income and size on the Mesabi Iron Range remain similar to that on the Cuyuna, suggesting that mining’s benefits aren’t shared evenly across the whole population. For instance, the Mesabi city of Virginia, Minnesota, has a poverty rate of 15.9 percent, roughly similar to Crosby’s 16.9 percent. Both numbers, however, are twice Minnesota’s average, showing the powerful need for economic development.
Even if the results of the recreational rebirth on the Cuyuna aren’t quantitatively clear yet, the small infusion of economic activity in Cuyuna has had a big psychological effect. When faced with a controversy over whether to invite companies to mine areas near trails for new mining exploration last year, Hautala said all the local city councils backed a resolution urging preservation of the trails.
Chapin said day trips have a small impact on the economy, but the significant economic dollars come from second homes and eventual relocations to the community. For instance, his research shows more than $17,000 in annual impact from one second home.
Further, both Hook and Chapin spoke about the recruitment value the recreational areas offer. The Cuyuna Regional Medical Center, the region’s largest employer, has successfully used the trails as recruitment for elite specialists and general practitioners who could work anywhere. The same is true of another local business with international clients, Graphic Packaging, which uses the trails to recruit and as part of team building and fitness programs for employees.
“I’m a big proponent in developing local values,” said Hook, the economist who has helped build communities and systems in African nations, Eastern Europe, and Afghanistan. “People get caught up in the chaos of what’s passing overhead, but you can make your community what you want it to be.”
That’s a sentiment the Cuyuna community has taken to heart.
“We’re not there yet,” Schauback said. “That’s the biggest challenge of economic development, and once that happens it’s sustainable. It drives itself. It’s not only an employment workforce, it’s a job-generating workforce. They create the jobs, the businesses, they invent stuff. It’s going to happen somewhere, but it can’t happen just anywhere. This is one of the places it could happen.”
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).