Mining for My Italian-American Wife’s Minnesota Hometown History

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells about researching his ancestors’ lives and the history of the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota where they lived.

The most significant blessing in my life was when the young woman who is now my wife of 37 years said “yes” to my proposal of marriage. During our courtship I learned that she and her family were living in a part of the country that I was not particularly familiar with. OK, wait, I will rephrase that and be more honest about it. While the blessing part is 100% accurate, the fact of the matter is that when I met my future wife I did not know a plug nickel’s worth about her hometown area, which is located on the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. One of my favorite aspects of genealogy is learning the history of the times that goes along with discovering our ancestors and their information.

Learning the ancestry essentials from my wife was easy. Her family is 100% Italian on both sides, all four of her grandparents emigrated from central Italy to northern Minnesota for economic opportunity, I was going to be the first non-Italian to ever join her family (but that’s a story for a different time), northern Minnesota is far more beautiful than I had ever imagined, and the area owes its prosperity, and future, to the iron ore hiding in the soils of the Mesabi Iron Range.

photo of workers at the Scranton Mine in Minnesota in 1932

Author’s grandfather-in-law, Pasquale, during the Great Depression at the mines of the Mesabi Iron Range. This was the entire annual output of the ore from the Scranton Mine in all of 1932. From the collection of Scott Phillips.

Several years ago, as I was researching deeply into my wife’s Italian ancestry, I realized I had a hankering to learn even more about the history, background, and the life and times of the area in northern Minnesota that her Italian immigrant grandparents chose to call their new home. While I knew a lot from wonderful stories told to me by her grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and especially her parents, I was looking forward to learning even more.

So naturally I found myself clicking over to GenealogyBank.com to delve deeper into her Italian family’s past!

Utilizing the “Advanced Search” feature on the site, I began by looking up such keyword terms as Mesabi Iron Range, Hibbing, Chisholm, Eveleth, Minnesota, while tossing in a surname and a few other terms periodically. My depth of understanding was growing with every old newspaper article I was reading. As the expression goes, “It’s the next best thing to being there.”

For me, one of the most impressive features of GenealogyBank.com is the geographic reach of their more than 6,100 newspapers, which I was having a blast researching. It was thrilling to be reading a full page story from 1890 in the Chicago Herald titled “Mountains of Riches,” all about the early times on the Mesabi Range.

Mountains of Riches, Chicago Herald newspaper article 14 October 1891

Chicago Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 14 October 1890, page 9

Another interesting historical newspaper article was about the challenges of building the first railroad from Duluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior to the towns on the Iron Range, published in the Duluth News-Tribune.

A Road to the Mesabi, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 6 June 1891

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 6 June 1891, page 2

Of course, being an avid American baseball fan it was personally thrilling to find an old newspaper article in the Marietta Journal, in Marietta, Georgia, on a story from the movie Field of Dreams that was relating the true story of Doctor Archibald “Moonlight” Graham. This time the story was being told by our family friend and a newspaper editor herself, Ms. Veda Ponikvar, of Minnesota’s Chisholm Free Press.

Real Character in 'Field of Dreams' Has Point of View, Marietta Journal newspaper article, 1 June 1991

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 1 June 1991, page 2

Then just for what seemed like good measure, I found myself reading an obituary from the Hibbing Daily Tribune for one of my wife’s uncles. It was an obituary that I didn’t have in my family tree.

Mike D'Aquila Newspaper Obituary, Hibbing Daily Tribune newspaper article, 21 September 1999

Hibbing Daily Tribune (Hibbing, Minnesota), 21 September 1999

This obituary brought back wonderful memories of family times gone by—especially since the article was noting that his funeral was held in The Church of the Immaculate Conception, which I was quickly remembering was known all over the Iron Range simply as “the Italian Church” since daily Mass was still said in Latin and Italian. There I was, all over again, sitting in those church pews surrounded by family.

Now here I sit, smiling and teary-eyed all at the same time.