Two years before it was officially platted on November 14, 1908, the village of Cuyuna1 was begun a mile west of the Kennedy mine. Extensive drilling nearby and the fact that a Duluth investor, George H. Crosby, had been buying land in the area convinced a number of business men to build the first village on the Cuyuna Iron Range. At first the group considered calling it Rabbit after the nearby lake which had been named for the Rabbit (Waboose) tribe of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe who at one time had lived on the west end. However, the name Cuyuna was finally agreed upon.
More than a year before the official platting date, wide dirt streets, a few board walks, a waterworks and well, and a sewer system were laid out to plan. In 1908, a small school was built between the Kennedy mine and Rabbit Lake. Flora Tuck was the first teacher. In 1909, a brick bank building (The First State Bank of Cuyuna) was constructed. In later years it was to become the local fire hall.
The village of Cuyuna was growing rapidly. George Crosby was laying out a new town four miles south to be named after him, 50 drilling rigs were at work exploring, two steam shovels were grading the line for a new railroad (the Soo Line) west of Aitkin toward the Kennedy and prospectors and land speculators were everywhere.
By the end of 1910, Cuyuna had a hospital, a doctor, a veterinary, a barber shop, a theater-meeting hall, two restaurants, two hotels, two boarding houses, a church, a Good Temperance Hall, a post-office, a funeral parlor, two saloons, a jail, two grocery stores, and a hardware store. That year a new school, The Cuyuna High School, housing grades 1 through 8 to begin with, was built.
By 1912, The Cuyuna Miner, the first newspaper on the Range, printed local, national and international news weekly. The village rapidly grew to more than 700 residents. A baseball team was organized and played on a field dubbed Gopher Stadium (after the varmints that dug holes all over the place). The famed Cuyuna team of 1908-1909 made a commendable record throughout north-central Minnesota.
To attract married men with families (who would be steady employees), The Rogers, Brown Mining Company built a number of two story, three and four bedroom houses in Cuyuna, each with a fair sized yard, city water, and quite often enough space to raise a cow, a few pigs, a flock of chickens and a small garden. Before long, electricity was added.
Besides providing good housing at reasonable rents (from $12 to $25 a month) for its miners, the Rogers, Brown Company provided free entertainment every week -- lyceum programs and silent films -- at the Cuyuna Theater for everyone in the area. Dagny Aulie remembers, "When I was very small, we had a theater, and the mining company brought in movies and the whole town could attend for no charge. Boy, did we look forward to those nights! I remember "The Perils of Pauline". We couldn't wait from one week to the next to see that serial. I remember a lyceum program one evening when my teacher, Miss Thompson -- she was a beautiful person -- got up and spoke. Her boy friend was going to the war [WW I], and everybody was crying when she broke down. I don't remember too much about that evening - it had something to do with the war."
In "the good old days" before radio, television, air travel, and computers made the world a global village, Cuyuna was a village secluded in a world of its own. It was a family and a community-centered home for some 50 families, a large number of bachelor miners, a dozen or so professional and business people with their families, and a handful of nearby farmers. Most families actively took part in school programs, the PTA and in church activities. Whenever a lyceum program was scheduled at the theater -- musical entertainment, a stage drama, a special speaker -- the entire family would attend. Saturday nights were mainly family affairs: cleaning up for church on Sunday, and frequently gathering around the piano to sing.
Rabbit Lake, just a mile or so from the village, furnished two places for community gatherings in the summer: the narrows connecting the east and west bodies where the men had brushed out a small area for a park; and the east end, not too far from the Kennedy, where there was a beautiful sandy beach affectionately called "Finlanders' Hollywood". Almost every Sunday or holiday from May to September, families would walk to one place or the other with picnic lunches and spend the day relaxing: visiting, swimming, boating, fishing or watching their children play. Many special occasions such as Midsummer's Day and Syttende Mai (May 17th, Norwegian Independence Day), were celebrated to preserve ethnic traditions.
On such occasions, beer was the favorite drink among most men. And among the beers, the Cuyuna favorite was a Duluth product, Fitgers, a full-bodied blend of hops and barley brewed with Lake Superior's cold, pure waters. To those who had emigrated from Northern Europe, it had a flavor (bouquet) that brought back memories of "the old country". It was savored slowly in fellowship. A bottle or two was "adequate". To over imbibe or "go pa fuilla" (get too "full") as the Scandinavians said, was considered disgraceful. Their heritage taught that "Today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness ..."
At such special days, and at most community gatherings, the miners generally dressed in their best, or second best, clothes -- white shirt, tie, suit, hat -- a relief from the grimy, red, sweat-soaked clothes, rain gear and boots they wore underground ten hours a day all week. "On those special occasions," Dagny Aulie remembers, "the men would smoke the finest cigars they could buy. I enjoyed the smell of cigars, and while the other kids would play games or walk the bridge rails, I would go from tree to tree near the clearing where the men were visiting and try to decide which cigar smelled the best. Kids do strange things!"
But the biggest celebration was always the Fourth of July. To become a United States citizen was the paramount desire of most of the immigrant "boat people" of the early 1900's. On the Fourth, the bridge at the narrows was often festooned with evergreen boughs, banners and flags. Ethnic backgrounds were laid aside as people bonded in the common desire for and pride in citizenship.
Most of the miners were immigrants who had come from Southeastern Europe and the Scandinavian countries early in the century to work in the underground mines of the Mesabi Range in northeastern Minnesota or in the mines of the upper peninsula of Michigan. With very little education, they came mostly to fulfill dreams of a better life and were willing to work hard and long to achieve that -- if not for themselves, at least for their children. Among the miners there developed a closeness and camaraderie that transcended their differences in language, ethnic background and religion. And by example, that extended to their women and children. That closeness resulted in a feeling of community -- almost of extended family -- that lasted for the two generations mining was almost the sole industry on the Cuyuna Range. Starting in the village of Cuyuna, that communal spirit infused every mining village that sprang up on the new iron range. The Cuyuna became a microcosm of what our Founding Fathers had intended and hoped the United States would become.
In the best of times, the people rejoiced for and with one another; in the worst of times, they grew in compassion and love. The world-wide Spanish Influenza epidemic hit the Cuyuna Range in October, November and December 1918. It was estimated that out of every ten persons, eight came down with the "flu." A majority of cases lasted only a week or two and were treated at home. If complications arose -- pneumonia, meningitis, ear infection -- the cases lasted longer, and quite often resulted in death. During the three month epidemic, 12 deaths were reported in Cuyuna from the more than 100 in the Cuyuna Range area.
Upon the closing of the Kennedy mine, many of the miners moved to Crosby or Ironton -- four miles distant -- to work in the Meacham mine and other underground mines belonging to the Rogers, Brown Company. Poor roads and undependable automobiles made it almost essential to live near one's place of employment. As the miners and their families left Cuyuna, the stores, shops, hotels and most business places also moved out.
And so, the village of Cuyuna, dependent upon a one-industry economy, in less than a generation (1907-1925) set a "boom and bust" scenario from buoyant optimism to shattered dreams that was to be often repeated on the Cuyuna Range in another decade or two when either the demand for Cuyuna ore markedly lessened or when deposits became depleted or unprofitable to mine. Oreland, Woodrow, Wolford, Manganese, Trommald, Riverton, born of "iron fever" became either "ghost towns" or "bedroom communities" for those employed in other occupations in nearby Aitkin, Brainerd, Crosby, Deerwood and Ironton.
Transcript and images provided courtesy the Cuyuna Country Heritage Preservation Society, 1997 - Volume 2, Number 2 and may not be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the Society. Please support the Society by becoming a member and purchasing one of their fascinating publications. Additional historical information may be found at Cuyuna Country Park Information (Minnesota DNR), Cuyuna History - A Trip Back in Time (Cuyuna Lake State Trail).
1 - First coined by the wife of Cuyler Adams, the name Cuy-una is a derivative honoring the now-legendary surveyor who in 1895 together with his Saint Bernard Una, first discovered ore in the area now known as the Cuyuna Range. The unusual behavior of his compass provided Cuyler with a clue that magnetic ore lay somewhere beneath the surface. In 1903 Adams formed the Oreland Mining Company. Although ore was not shipped for widespread commercial use until 1911, WW I generated extreme demand for the mineral manganese -- bringing an unprecedented boom to the City of Cuyuna. Manganese was a critical component in steel manufacturing for the war effort and its rich abundance on the Cuyuna Range insured that the City of Cuyuna would play a central role in the war’s eventual outcome.