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Babbitt Minnesota History

Old Babbitt - The Plant and Community 1920 - 1957

From Old Babbitt: The Plant and the Community 1920 - 1957
By Milt Stenlund and Althea Hocking Stenlund
Published by Heritage North, Grand Rapids Minnesota, 1996

Babbitt Plant - circa 1920
The Plant

The community of "Old Babbitt" had its actual beginnings in 1865 with prospecting for gold, not iron ore. In that year pioneer and prospector Christian Weiland guided State Geologist Henry Eames through the woods from Beaver Bay on Lake Superior to Lake Vermilion to check on rumors of gold being found near the lake. Weiland pointed out iron ore outcropping when they crossed the eastern end of what is now the Mesabi Range near Birch Lake and the present site of Babbitt.

In 1869, the Ontonagon Syndicate of northern Michigan was formed to explore mineral prospects in northern Minnesota. A year later they sent prospector Peter Mitchell and Weiland to the area to check on Weiland's findings. Although no written account of their trip is available, they probably followed the route from Beaver Bay on Lake Superior to Greenwood Lake in Lake County then along an old Indian trial along the Stoney River to Birch Lake. Mitchell's party dug several test pits by hand, one of which in Section 20, Township 60 North, Range 12 West near Babbitt was probably one of the first pits dug on Mesabi Range.

The Mesaba Iron Company was formed in 1882 to develop iron properties. However investors began to show more interest in the Vermilion Range and the western end of the Mesabi and the holdings were sold to George St. Clair in 1905 for $100,000.

A year later two companies were formed to develop the properties by St. Clair, Samuel Mitchell, and John G. Williams. They were the Dunka River Iron Company and the East Mesaba Iron Company. Two years later, in 1908, Mitchell died and activities came to an end.

The first car, a Franklin, arrived in Babbitt by road on August 28, 1920. An old stage road was followed from Mesabi Junction. From left to right: T.B. Counselman, Walter G. Swart, George Wilkinson, F.D. Fabian

However, a new age was beginning with interest being shown in how to separate iron from the taconite ore of the Babbitt area. E.W. Davis of the University of Minnesota School of mines played the major role in developing the process of crushing and separation. The Mesabi Syndicate was formed in 1915 to finance the development. In 1919 Walter G. Swart was placed in charge of all field operations, was instructed to construct a concentrating plant at Sulphur Camp, and a new company, the Mesabi Iron Company was formed. When results proved favorable at the experimental plants in Duluth and Sulphur, Daniel Jackling and engineers searched for a suitable site for the main plant and decided on the site where the abandoned plant now stands. The search was aided by the fact that a fire in 1917 had burned all the standing and downed timber leaving a landscape covered with ashes and boulders. Early in 1920 construction began on the plant, railroad, and townsite. All work was done by horses and wagons, scrapers, shovels, and wheelbarrows. There were no trucks or bulldozers or other heavy equipment.

Office Staff, Babbitt Plant, April 1921
Office staff, April 1921. From left to right: Frank Emanuelson, Raleigh Gottschald, Miss Neubauer, Trayer, Miss Oberg -  telephone operator, Phillips, McCall, Anderson, Pettyjohn, Hall, Mattson

Late in 1921, just before the plant was to become operational it was found that the 60 to 61 percent iron sinter product was not good enough for steel producers who were interested in 64 to 65 percent iron. The plant, however, went into operation on June 21, 1922, and the first shipment was made October 1, 1922. Quality of the sinter product remained an insurmountable problem and although production costs were reduced and the product was improved, mining in the pit ceased in May, 1924, and all operations ended on June 10, 1924. All the investments, dreams, development, and construction came to an untimely end in a short two years. The Babbitt plant was abandoned, 245 employees left for other jobs, and the mining town became a ghost town by the fall of 1924.

The Remaining Community 1924 - 1955

With the closing of the plant in June of 1924, an abrupt and major change took place in Babbitt. By fall most employees had left and a crew of about ten men and their families totaling 30 to 40 people was all that was left.
Frank A. Emanuelson, Babbitt Minnesota Frank A. Emanuelson, who had worked in the office during construction and operation of the plant, was named superintendent and placed in charge of the crew, maintenance and security for the plant and the town. He was born in Marinette, Wisconsin, and moved to Duluth with the family. After brief employment with the First National Bank in Duluth he settled in Babbitt in 1921 and worked for Mesabi Iron Co., Oglebay Norton, and Reserve Mining for a period of 44 years. He was well known in the area and the state for his interest in education and was on the first Board of Education. He died in February 11, 1965, after working for 30 years in the development of the Babbitt Schools. A new elementary school in Babbitt was given his name.

Sketch of residential area of Babbitt Minnesota, 1920

Three residential areas had been constructed in 1920 composed of the main townsite of 25 dwellings up the hill from the plant and two additions. One addition, Pleasant View was located across the road from the plant. It consisted of 16 separate houses for eight men each, a cookhouse, and mess hall. The houses cost about $4000 each. Larger houses were built for the mine superintendent and the plant supervisor. West Babbitt of 28 homes was located on the railroad southeast of the plant. All the homes in West Babbitt were built by the employees with materials supplied by the company at cost. Both Pleasant View and West Babbitt were abandoned at the closing of the plant and the remaining workers lived in or moved to the Babbitt townsite on top of the hill. Company homes were all one story with no basements. A standard home consisted of two bedrooms, kitchen, living room and bath with tub and no shower. Water for the bath was heated by the wood burning kitchen stove, stored in a tank, and then piped to the bathroom. A glazed porch finished off the front of the house. When larger buildings were needed, two homes were joined and for the office, farthest up the hill, five homes were joined by a vestibule. The main townsite, (referred to as Babbitt from now on), had a two story dormitory for single men.

Beginning of the main street. Homes from right to left:
Enz then McNeil, Hocking, Doan, Emanuelson. Last building on left was office.

It had 24 rooms with 48 beds, two baths, a clubroom with pool table, basement, and a heating plant. There was a two story general store with a basement and living quarters upstairs for the storekeeper, I.B. Marshall. A community hall nearby had a small stage, dance floor, barber shop and movie screen.

Water was first pumped from Argo Lake which had been created by damming the
outlet. The lake produced a bumper crop of minnows which began to show up in
bathtubs and sinks. A well was then drilled, a 50,000 gallon water tank constructed and a generator produced electricity for power and lights. Because of bedrock near the surface, water lines could not be buried below the frost line so a unique system of heating and circulating the water was devised and worked satisfactorily.

Circa 1946 "Pleasant view" rooming houses near plant. Note plant in upper left.

With the closing of the plant in 1924, the remaining workers and their families made up a close knit small community which settled into a routine living that would last 25 years.
Time card, Babbitt plant, 1926

The duties of the remaining workmen consisted of watchmen's duties over the remaining plant and outbuildings and daily maintenance over the plant, the generator, water system, and the homes.. Although the pay was small, they were assured of work and a monthly check during the trying times, of the 1930s depression.

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In the 1920s groceries arrived by a weekly train after Marshall's grocery store had closed and then were purchased in Embarrass or Ely after train delivery stopped. Milk, cream, eggs and vegetables were readily available from Finnish farmers in the Waasa and Embarrass areas. Families also had their own vegetable and berry plots. Ice was cut during the winter at Birch Lake by the maintenance and delivered to the home ice boxes all summer. Coal was delivered in the winter and homes had coal or wood burning heating stoves in the living room since there were no basements. Electricity was produced by a diesel generator in the plant below the town and was shutoff for the night at eleven o'clock. From then on light was furnished by kerosene or gas lamps. Later as an economy move the power was not turned on until 4:00 pm in the winter and 7:00 pm in the summer. However, on Mondays power was on from 8:00 am until noon so the women could wash clothes.

View of Babbitt Minnesota, 1920s
#11 Looking down on the residences from the office. Office garage on right. General store next.

Church services were held in the community building until the plant closed in 1924. Sunday school classes were then conducted by Mrs. Swart, Mrs. Clark, and Mrs. McNeil in the school. Children dressed in their Sunday best to attend classes.

Dr. Paul J. McCarty was hired as company doctor but left Babbitt for Ely in the 1920s with his wife and children, Paul, Winifred, and Eugene.

Winter sports in Babbitt Minnesota, 1930s
Winter sports: from left to right: Vera Doan, Dorothy Hocking, Edith McNeil, Althea Hocking, Etta Mae Palmer, Bill Hocking, John Clark,

The only street was not paved so conventional activities such as roller skating and hopscotch were not possible. Many of the children's activities were centered on the woods in their backyards, the school, the abandoned empty buildings, and the long hill down to the plant which lent itself to bike riding in the summer and sleds in the winter. Boys played in the empty plant buildings until they were locked in 1939 when Reserve Mining took over. They often walked on top of the wood enclosed water line to Birch Lake and swam on the beach. Picnics were held for all at "Oscar's Place" which had a small store and picnic tables at the lake. In the winter, snow was shoveled from Argo Lake for skating and the usual snow forts, snowmen, and igloos were common.

Snow house at Emanuelson home, Babbitt Minnesota, 1930s
Snow house at Emanuelson home

Card and board games such as Monopoly and Chinese Checkers were popular in the evenings. Battery powered radios provided programs such as Orphan Annie, Jack Armstrong, Amos and Andy, and later Jack Benny and Burns and Allen. The popular soap opera "Stella Dallas" was a favorite daytime program.

Mail came to Babbitt by rail from Duluth to Embarrass where it was picked up by a rural carrier who then delivered it to a Babbitt rural carrier. Post office boxes were
located in the office building with Frank Emanuelson as postmaster among all his other duties.

A major tragedy stunned the community on June 1, 1930, when 15 year old Raymond Hocking and 16 year old Joe Doan drowned in Birch Lake. Heavy waves capsized their boat when they were returning to the mainland after picking up an Ely party. Sixteen year old Peter Hutar and Steve Golobich of Ely also died in the accident.

The Families

Nellie Doan Bubash's family moved to Babbitt in 1921 during the construction period for the plant. She was in the fourth grade in the new school and recalls the rowdy crowd of workers who lived in the dormitories and ate in the large mess hall. Heavy drinking and fighting were common with the men. It finally reached the point where the company hired a policeman to reduce the problems. In one incident a man was shot near the mess hall. It was the same day that cooks usually made apple pie and homemade ice cream for all the children. The children came for their treat and ignored the body at the end of the table that was awaiting the undertaker from Ely.

She took part in plays that were staged in the community building selling tickets for one cent each. Dances were held once a week with the kids looking in through the windows.

When the plant closed in 1924 buses came in from the Iron Range to take out the workers who did not have cars.

A core of about ten families remained after the plant closed in 1924 and constituted the population of Babbitt for the next 25 years. They became a closely knit group and only broke up after the new mining operation began and the new town was built on the flat ground below the hill. These families and the dates they began working for the company were: 1920 Frank and Grace Emanuelson and children Bob and Jim. William and Daisy Hocking and children, Raymond. Dorothy, Althea, George and William. In a note Hocking wrote that he "struck Babbitt" on May 23, 1923 from Aurora and moved his family on September 9. 1923. Frank and Etta Doan and children, Alice, Etta Mae Palmer, Belle, Fern, Nellie, Vera, and Joe, 1921. Jack and Lee Clark and son John 1921. Walter and Cora McNeil and daughter Edith, 1929.

Hocking Family in Babbitt Minnesota, 1935
Hocking  Family 1935. Left to right: Bill, Dorothy, George, William J., Daisy, Althea - seated

The McNeil family moved to Babbitt from the Scott-Lenont potato farm which was located on the flat ground at the present site of the city of Babbitt. Dr. C.B. Lenont had purchased the land in 1920. The farm produced cobbler seed potatoes for many years which were shipped to the south in the winter for early crops there. During the 1940s the production was changed from potatoes to wheat and oats.

Leonard and LaVerne Schley, 1922. Leo and Fern DuCharme and children Mary and Leora. Walter G. and Clara Swart and children Jack and Mary Ellen, 1918. Swart was involved as an engineer in the original Mesabi Iron Company plant construction and remained in overall charge.. They did not live full time in Babbitt but had a house on the upper end of the street, the only house with a fireplace.

The original maintenance crew, 1946, and the year they began work: Left to right: John Clark 1921, Leo duCharme 1926, Walt McNeil 1929, Frank Emanuelson - supervisor 1920, Leonard Schley 1922, and Frank Doan 1921. Inset - William Hocking 1923.

Some families lived for a short time only. They included William Mudge, mine supervisor during active mining. Einard and Tillie Mackie and children Joyce, Duane
and Gary. Einard worked for the Forest Service on the fire tower on top of me water tank from 1935 to 1937. Harry Billger and his wife moved into the job and a home when Mackies left. At that time the wages for a fire guard were $15.00 per month of which $5.00 went for rent of the home. Frank and Mrs. Enz and children Murray, Marion, Frank Jr. and Donna. Harlof and Hilda Haglund and children Dennis, Irene, Joyce, and Peter. Other families who lived for short periods of time included the Cannons Salines, Grabers and Mattilas.

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School Days

During the plant and town construction, a three-room schoolhouse was also built. Eventually one room was used as a classroom, however, the second was a play-gym, and the third was for storage and wood working shop for the boys. A playground located across the road from the school contained three swings, a trapeze bar, two sets of rings and a sliding board.

First School in Babbitt Minnesota, October, 1920
First School in Babbitt, October, 1920. From left to right: Front row: Sylvia Aimes, Winifred McCarty, Eva Johnson, Mae Johnsen Hansen, Martha Palo, Dorothy Mudge. Back row: Bev Burnell in boots, Charles Pettyjohn, Paul McCarty, Herbert Ritter, Eve Palo, Mrs. Giddings, teacher.

During the construction period 245 employees were working and they and their families totaled about 400 persons. School District 83 was organized in 1921 and in 1923, 66 students were enrolled. The first school class was held in 1920 with 11 students and Clare Eckrem as teacher. Early records are not clear but Clydene Rice (Gottschald) followed for two years in 1927-28, as did Marthea Holder in 1929 and 1930. She lived in her own apartment in the converted office building and paid a dollar a day for room and board. Clydene later married Raleigh Gottschald who was on the early office staff in the early 1920s.

Students in 1930. Front Row L to R: John Clark, Bill Hocking, George Hocking, Etta Mae Palmer, Althea Hocking, Dorothy Hocking. Back Row L to R: Edith McNeil, Vera Doan, Raymond Hocking, Joe Doan.

One teacher handled all grades from first through eighth although at times there were no students in some grades. After the plant closed the biggest classes numbered up to about a dozen students but in 1937 there were only two Bob Emanuelson and Joyce Mackie. Bob in the fourth grade and Joyce in first.

Schoolhouse in Babbitt Minnesota 1938
Schoolhouse in Babbitt Minnesota 1938

The school was a center of activity for the children. Holidays were celebrated with programs and graduation from eighth grade marked the end of schooling in Babbitt. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, graduation ceremonies and picnics were held to mark the occasion. Students then had to choose the High School they wanted to attend. Some went to Virginia but most chose Ely as it was 20 miles closer. The pupils boarded out in Ely family homes and all costs were born by the Babbitt School district. Whenever possible they were picked up by parents on Friday to return home and then brought back again on Sunday.

The parents combined the taxi service with an opportunity to shop, buy groceries, and attend movies at the Opera House (now the bowling alley), the Elco and later the State and Ely Theaters.

Because of the isolation of the community, especially during the winter, teachers stays were of short duration. Teachers were as follows:

1920 Clara Ekrem from Tower and Jean Johnson with 11 students
1923 66 students enrolled
1924-25 Miss Helpfel
1926-27 Clydene Rice (Gottschald) 8 students 1927-28 Clydene Rice 10 students
1928-29 Marthea Holder (Nelson) 11 students 1929-30 Marthea Holder
1931-32 Edith Anderson
1932-33 Esther Olson
1934 Madeline Colleti from Aurora
1935-38 Louise Jensen from Virginia, two students
1938-39 Myrtle Fogelberg from Eveleth
1940-41 Evelyn Anderson, enrollment five pupils 1942-44 Laura Pertulla of Ely, enrollment 6 with addition of Jerry Walker from the potato farm
1945-47 Mrs. John Clark
1948 Puma Fletcher from Hibbing

The late 1940s saw the beginning of the end for "Old Babbitt". From 1944 to 1951 Reserve Mining moved slowly toward building a large scale taconite processing plant, the first in the world. In 1951 it was announced by Oglebay Norton Mining that a mine would be opened at Babbitt, a crushing plant constructed, a railroad built to Silver Bay on Lake Superior and a new town on the former Scott-Lenont potato farm below the old plant site.

Equipment remaining in the old plant was removed and new testing equipment installed and was producing acceptable taconite pellets in 1952. On October 25, 1957, the old Babbitt plant was closed for the last time.

By 1952, new homes were ready on the new town site and new employees were moving in. The old town was gradually abandoned, some homes were moved to Birch Lake as summer homes and others to Ely. The remaining employees from the old town moved into the new homes. In a few short years all buildings except the office were gone and brush and trees began occupying the town site.
In July, 1985, a reunion of the former residents and their families was held at the old town site and a tour was made of the area and the shell of the old plant. Clydene Rice Gottschald, teacher in 1926-28 and Mrs. John Clark, teacher from 1945 to 1947, were able to attend and were honored guests. Little remained that was recognizable of the home sites and outbuildings. The water tank still stood at the top of the hill. Residents found the large boulder on which pictures had been taken and the base for the school flag. The office building was being demolished, the last building to go, and time books dating back to 1920, correspondence, and records were scattered over the floor. Before boarding the bus, former residents took one last look at "Old Babbitt", their home for 30 years, now returned to nature. Another era in the mining history of northern Minnesota had come to an end.

From Old Babbitt: The Plant and the Community 1920 - 1957
By Milt Stenlund and Althea Hocking Stenlund
Published by Heritage North, Grand Rapids Minnesota, 1996

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