One Day for Democracy - Fall 2007 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Fall 2007

One Day for Democracy

By Mary Lou Nemanic

This excerpt focuses on the town of Merritt, the first town on the Mesabi Iron Range of Northern Minnesota. The Mesabi is one of three iron ranges, known collectively as the Minnesota Iron Range, a mining region populated in the late nineteenth-century by more than thirty immigrant groups, mostly from southern and eastern Europe.

These new Americans began their celebration early—on the night of July third—with festivities in the rowdy style of the European working classes that expressed their patriotism with noise and enthusiasm. The town's newspaper, the Mesaba Range, described the start of the celebration: "Early in the evening of the third the firing of blasts and firecrackers put the people in mind that the coming day would be the Glorious Fourth of July. Some of the blasts fired off were so heavy as to make the buildings tremble while the reports echoed and reechoed around the shores of the lake. The cannonading was continued in a lively manner on the morning of the Fourth, and certainly there was noise enough to satisfy the most exacting."

Despite "considerable drinking" in this young town of three hundred men and thirteen saloons—or a saloon for every twenty-three men—the newspaper noted that few problems occurred. In fact, the sole arrest of the day involved a naked man, identified only as "Shorty," who was booked for both drunkenness and indecent behavior. Merritt's first celebration was planned by a small group of mining managers, who were the town's elite. It featured demanding physical games that were well suited to the environment and sure to appeal to the tough, unskilled laborers who made up the majority of the town's population.

Representing more than ten different ethnic groups from countries such as England, Ireland, Italy, and Slovenia, most of these young men had recently arrived from the mining region of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where dynamite that was stolen from the mines had rocked towns on both the evening of July 3 and the day of July 4. Unlike most American towns with Independence Day celebrations at this time, Merritt did not have a parade down its main street, a formal program of speeches and orations, or the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, there were sporting events, which included a Cornish wrestling tournament and a tug-of-war match between the Irish and the Canadians. And despite being the opening event, the Cornish wrestling tournament was reported in the town newspaper as having had "some difficulty" attracting participants until athletes were enticed by the healthy sums of $15 and $10 for the first- and second-place prizes. The tug-of-war match was also disappointing, described by the newspaper as "rather uninteresting owing to the fact that the teams had no other appliance than a one-inch rope."

Other events included a boat race on Lake Embarrass and foot races, which proved difficult because of numerous stumps and roots along the course. The Mesaba Range reported that the climax of the day was a splendid "pyrotechnic display" from an island on the lake just outside town. The evening was capped with a "ball" attended by numerous men and at least eighteen women. These women were described as "ladies who in appearance, dress, and manners would do credit to a much older community." In highlighting their sophistication, the newspaper was carefully distinguishing them from the "women of the evening" who frequented the frontier towns across the Iron Range.

Excerpt from One Day for Democracy: Independence Day and the Americanization of Iron Range Immigrants by Mary Lou Nemanic, Ph.D. Nemanic is a communications professor at Penn State Altoona. Reprinted by permission of Ohio University Press.

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