University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
From Investing in Cooperation, Summer 1996
Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund

A HISTORY OF ACTIVISM: Mesaba Co-op Park

By Pamela Burrows

One of NCDF's newest members, Mesaba co-op park was founded by Finnish immigrants onMinnesota's iron range, over sixty-five years ago, in 1929. The Finns who first moved tonorthern Minnesota and worked in the mines had a strong tradition of speaking out about laborconditions. They were soon ostracized from the mines and by many of the other local people. They turned to farming and formed a number of co-ops to lend each other support. As thesepassionate activists often got into fights at local festivals, they soon decided to draw on thestrength of their community and form their own cooperative festival grounds.

The park has a long and proud history with the labor movement. In the early part of the century, members were very involved in the formation of the United Steelworkers' Union. Political candidates from the communist party have given speeches there. This activism continued into the 1980s, when the park provided a forum and support for striking women linen workers.

Up until the 1950s, the park was in its heyday. However, the conservatism of the post-war years led to hard times for the park. "There was a lot of fear, only a few people were here to keep it going," says board president Jim Larson.

In the thirties and forties, there had been youth camps in the summer and a number of festivals during the year. Currently, there is only one big annual festival, in midsommar (late-June), complete with maypole and a variety of music. Larson sees additional programming as a goal for the short-term future and hopes to receive a grant to create a summer art camp. The biggest difference between then and now is that the membership is much more scattered. In its early days, the park was truly the center of a community, people lived close by and lived much of their lives at the park.

Mesaba currently boasts 250-300 equity members, who come from all over Minnesota and from many walks of life.

Until 1959 the shareholders were all Finnish Workers Federation Clubs, Women's Clubs, and local cooperative stores, but by the end of the 1950s, most of these organizations and businesses had ceased to exist. So the Park Association opted to change the by-laws to enable individuals to buy shares in the park. Members are of many different national backgrounds now, and not as tied to the labor movement, though most are members of their local food co-op. A different community is forming.

Members buy into the park with a small equity investment, and then continue to contribute through regular fees or through participating in one of the "workbees" which take place five or six a year, and accomplish much of the maintenance of the park, a tradition dating back to its very beginning.

Gail Graham, manager of the Seward Co-op and Deli in Minneapolis is an enthusiastic member. "I like the park because it's quiet and has a lot of history, and connection to the co-op movement." she says.

The park consists of 160 acres, including a 52 acre lake. The first 120 acres were purchased at a cost of $12 per acre, the remaining 40 were purchased later to insure complete ownership of the lake.

The co-op is in the process of attempting to purchase eighty acres of land adjoining the park to provide a buffer against the commercial encroachment of the outside world (Northwest Airlines is building a new ticketing facility only nine miles away), to guarantee access to all parts of the lake. According to the Park's newsletter from the autumn of 1995, "The serenity of the Park is being affected even now due to the loss of timber on this property from harvesting and storm damage, and increased trespassing. For long-term benefit to the Park, we need this land to establish legal access to the Southwest portion of the lake, provide a permanent buffer and rehabilitate the timber."

The members of the park have a commitment to environmental awareness. "The lake is the cleanest one in the area," according to Graham. That's because it's spring-fed and hasn't had a motorboat on it since 1952.

This environmental awareness comes into play in planning as well. A stand of white pine trees in the park is currently in need of thinning. It has been decided that this will be done with draft horses which is "the gentlest way" says Larson, who works as a forester. A local draft horse club, the Northstar Draft Horse Association, has agreed to help with the project, but their attempts last winter failed due to record snowfall.

In February, according to Larson, there were three to four feet of snow on the ground, which the horses and equipment could not get through. In March there was a thick crust atop the snow and the temperature remained well below freezing. By the end of March the sap is running in the trees and the project is no longer feasible. So they will try again next year. They hope to build one new cabin in the park with the native pine, and sell what is left to help finance the additional land purchase.

Mesaba has recently received word that they have been nominated, along with twenty other sites nationwide, as a National Labor History Landmark. The sites will probably receive their designation this fall. As the park has long stood as a haven for progressive thought and action, there was some concern at the most recent annual meeting that this designation would infringe upon certain activities. "We don't want to lose the freedom we have here"' says Larson, "Our history is that of an activist center, a place where people can come to talk about the issues." The board has been assured, however, that the legislation that set-up the project stipulated that property owners will not be restricted in any way. The nomination is still awaiting the approval of both the park's board and the U.S. Congress.

The members of Mesaba Park are trying to preserve some Finnish traditions in the park, through music and food (a fish stew called "Moyukka" that has traditionally been served at festivals). "Even ten years ago, there was a living history here, there were members who remembered the early days, told stories at gatherings." Says Larson, "We are hopeful that this designation will help us preserve that history."

For further information about membership or general information about the park, call: (218) 262-1350, or write: Mesaba Co-op Park, 3827 Mesaba Park Road, Hibbing, MN 55746.


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