Mesaba Park is one of several cooperative park organizations begun in the United States. Other parks associated with the Finnish cooperative movement were located in Middle River and Brule, Wisconsin, Worchester, Massachusetts and Northern California.
The creation of Mesaba Park was the result of a vibrant Finnish cooperative movement that reached its fullest expression on the Iron Range. The Työmies Eteenpäin, an influential Finnish language newspaper, had advocated the development of cooperatives as a way to empower the working class. Cooperative enterprises were directly tied to the labor struggles of the region and groups such as the Western Federation of Miners and the Socialist Party of America (1907 Miner’s Strike), Industrial Workers of the World (1917 Miner’s Strike), the Communist Party and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
During the 1920’s the time seemed right to acquire a “Common Festival and Camping Grounds.” Early anti-Finnish campaigns by local newspapers that stereotyped Finns as “Reds”, “Anarchists”, “Drunks” or “Jackpine Savages” were not easily forgotten. One survey in the early 1920’s found only 36% of the respondents were willing to live next door to a Finn. Signs [in taverns] could be found declaring “No Indians or Finns allowed.”
From 1920 to 1940 Minnesota was home to more Finns than any other state except Michigan. Since 1905 Finns constituted the largest of six major foreign-born immigrant groups on the Mesabi Range and they made up some 40% or more of the foreign population in twelve of the towns and villages. By 1920 the Finnish population of St. Louis County peaked at 17,342. Between 1922 and 1929 the sales of the cooperatives on the Iron Range doubled. The Mesabi Range Co-op Federation was made up of 17 societies, including creameries, a regional oil association and co-op stores.
In June of 1929 the Midsummer Festival was held in Chishom. The Työmies eagerly stated, “we celebrate heartily! For the last time at the mercy of others!” During that summer there was a search for a name for the “nameless park.” For fifty cents anyone could submit names. One suggestion was “Red Star Park.” The road to the park and grounds were cleared by workbees. Volunteer work crews were organized by the different Finnish Workers Federation groups on the Range. They also held dances and other fundraisers at the Park. The first building constructed served as the living quarters for the caretaker and the children’s summer camp staff. The main structure, the pavilion, was constructed on the lake shore and the opening dance was held June 29, 1930.
Until rural electrification, the Park had its own gasoline driven power plant, plus gasoline lamps and lanterns. Ice from the lake kept perishable foods cool. Ice was taken every winter by volunteers at an “ice lifting bee,” and stored in sawdust within a frame building close to the lakeshore. Dances were held twice a week drawing crowds from all the Range towns. Regular Saturday night dances during the summer continued into the 1980’s.
The history of Mesaba Park illuminates a distinct Finnish working-class culture in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan that was oriented towards ties of kinship and ethnicity rather than toward individualism. In a landscape where distant people, corporations, bosses and politicians had control of their lives, working people sought security and survival through a network of family ties and community relationships. In their efforts to make ends meet, raising families and building community, they also included protests, strikes and attempts to organize their ranks. It was the generation that matured just before the Great Depression who worked to achieve a higher standard of living and security for their members. It was in halls and places like Mesaba Park that immigrant communities could sustain and pass on to the next generation their culture while participating in the larger “progressive” culture.
Since 1929, Mesaba Park has continued to carry out its mission as a place to gather and enjoy the natural beauty of northern Minnesota in a spirit of cooperation. The sounds of the Finnish language once heard at the Park are mostly gone, yet the traditions are carried on in the spirit of those who built and sustained the Park over all these years.