75 Years of Making History
By David Bednarczuk & Susanna Frenkel
On June 26-27, 2004 Mesaba Co-op Park celebrated its 75th anniversary, reflecting a remarkable history of political, cultural and social events. Founded in 1929 on Minnesota’s Iron Range, Mesaba Park is probably the best remaining example of the community halls and culture of the Finnish socialist and cooperative movements of the 1920’s and 30’s.
Finnish lumberjacks, who had logged the area, remembered a quarter section of land in Cherry Township with a beautiful, self-contained, spring-fed lake. A network of consumer and producer cooperatives, which had 40 member organizations in 1930, acquired the land for the purpose of a “common festival and camping grounds.”
Over the next several years a road and cabins were built and a huge pavilion and dancehall were constructed. Those accomplishments reflected the strength and power of the working-class movements of the time and their vision of the future. An army of highly organized and motivated workers was a common feature of early Park history, accounting for the rapid progress.
The heyday of Mesaba Park coincides with the rise of the Farmer-Labor and Communist movements in Minnesota and nation-wide. During the 1930’s, Mesaba Park hosted annual summerfestivals, which were major political and cultural events for the region. These festivals combined a mix of leftist politics, recreation, music and dancing.
One of the most significant festivals at Mesaba Park was in 1936. That festival, which attracted 8-10,000 people, is believed to be one of the largest gatherings ever held on the Iron Range. Speaking to the huge crowd were Farmer-Labor candidates for Minnesota governor, U.S. Senator Elmer Benson, and John T. Bernard, nominee for the U.S. House. Benson and Bernard were swept into office that fall as the upstart Farmer-Labor Party reached unprecedented heights of electoral power.
Mesaba Park played a significant role, both in the rise of the Farmer-Labor Party and the organization of the CIO on the Iron Range in the late 1930’s. Many of the early CIO organizers were Communists, including Gus Hall, an Iron Range native, who went on to help found the United Steelworkers of America and play a prominent role in the Communist Party. Those union organizers had close ties to the Park, which provided a base for the organization of thousands of Iron Range miners into the CIO.
Although the 1930’s did represent a high-water mark in unionizing and politicizing workers, the dream of the greater advancement of the working class lived on at Mesaba Park. Because of this, the Park came under attack during the hysteria of the anti-Communist McCarthy period of the 1950’s. People who came to the Park were harassed by FBI agents who parked outside the gates and recorded license #’s from cars that drove in. During that period the co-op movement lost strength and some co-ops disbanded, further weakening support for the Park. Despite the climate of fear and intimidation, the Park persisted through this dark period.
In the 1970’s the Park experienced a growth phase as anti-war, feminist, environmental, and co-op activists found the Park and new generations retraced their populist roots. The mix of older radicals and a history of support for progressive change provided the catalyst for the regeneration of the Park with new leadership and involvement. A summer festival in 1977 to honor Benson and Bernard drew 3-400 Farmer-Labor activists, Spanish Civil War veterans, Communists and other progressives.
By the 1980’s many park founders and supporters died or could no longer be active in the Park, but a core set of progressive beliefs provided sustenance to new visions. Mesaba Park is inspired by the values of the labor, peace and environmental movements, progressive politics and a rich history of populist activism.
As Mesaba Co-op Park celebrates its 75th anniversary, it continues to provide a base and support for those with an inter-generational vision of hope, peace, respect for the environment, cooperation and equality.