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Mesaba Co-op Park

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Black and white photograph of a Fourth of July festival at Co-opMesaba Park, 1937.

Fourth of July festival at Mesaba Co-op Park, 1937.

Located near Hibbing, Mesaba Co-op Park is one of the few remaining continuously operated cooperative parks in the country. A gathering place of the Finnish cooperative movement, the park served the ethnic political radicals who energized the Iron Range labor movement and Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor party.

In late 1928, the Mesaba Range Co-operative Federation began securing land for a park to accommodate large Finnish gatherings. One hundred and sixty acres, including a fifty-two-acre lake not shown on lumber company maps, were purchased for $2000. Forty Finnish American organizations purchased membership shares. Volunteers cleared land for a road, grounds, and building sites.

The period of the park’s founding was one of anti-Finnish sentiment. Signs across the Range read, “No Indians or Finns allowed.” The Finns’ prominent role in the 1907 and 1916 Mesaba Range strikes had led to blacklisting. The Finnish cooperative movement was, in part, a response to this discrimination. In June 1929, as work progressed, an article in the Finnish-language newspaper Työmies (The Workman) announced that local Finns would celebrate in Chisholm for the last time without a progressive venue of their own.

The park opened on September 22, 1929. In the spring of 1930, construction began on a caretaker’s residence and a children’s school. The park’s centerpiece, a dance pavilion, was completed in June 1930.

Early festivals featured plays, track and field events, swimming, and dances. In addition to sports, students at the North Star children’s camp were given an introduction to working-class thought.

The park became a gathering place for members of the Farmer-Labor party, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the Communist Party of America. As a boy, Iron Ranger Gus Hall, a four-time Communist Party candidate for president, helped his father and others build the dance pavilion.

Between eight and ten thousand people attended the park’s 1936 summer festival. They heard speeches from Elmer Benson and John T. Bernard, Farmer-Labor candidates for governor and congressman, respectively. A dance that summer, featuring accordionist Viola Turpeinen, packed over one thousand people onto the dance floor in alternating shifts.

In 1938, the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee initiated the era of communist “witch-hunts,” blacklisting, and guilt-by-association persecution. During this period of fear, intimidation, and surveillance, whipped into a near-frenzy by the committees of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, it was difficult to belong to the park.

FBI agents stationed outside the park collected the license plate numbers of those who entered. The park was stigmatized as the “Commie Park” and the “Red Park.” This “red-baiting” atmosphere, combined with the increasing Americanization of Finnish children and post-World War II patriotism, led to a decline in membership that seriously threatened the park’s survival. Opening membership to individuals as well as groups in 1959 was a necessary response.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, young people spurred the park’s revival. Many had no Finnish heritage and came from the anti-war, environmentalist, and feminist movements. Younger members affiliated with the respected Työmies newspaper, like Weikko Jarvi and Timo and Belinda Poropudas, helped bridge the generational, cultural, and trust gaps between the aging Finns and the diverse newcomers.

The original socialist and communist politics of Mesaba Co-op Park have largely faded, replaced by a general spirit of progressivism. Additional land was acquired, bringing the park’s total size to 240 acres. The main annual event remains the Juhannes, or Midsummer, festival. It features folk dancing, guest speakers, music, a Maypole, late-night bonfire, Finnish American mojakka stew, and an arts camp for children.

The park also stands as a reminder of the many small Finn halls once dotting the Iron Range. As those halls closed, their contents, including lumber, chairs, a barrel stove, and stage drops and scenery, often found a new home at Mesaba Park.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

Alanen, Arnold. “A Remarkable Place, An Eventful Year: Politics and Recreation at Minnesota’s Mesaba Co-op Park in 1936.” Journal of Finnish Studies 8, no. 1 (August 2004): 67–86.

——— . A Field Guide to the Architecture and Landscapes of Northeastern Minnesota. [Madison, WI]: Arnold Alanen, 2000.

Hudelson, Richard, and Carl Ross. By the Ore Docks: A Working People’s History of Duluth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Mesaba Co-op Park, John De Graff, James M. Shields, et al. Tribute to John T. Bernard. United States: N.p., 1977.

Mesaba Co-op Park Collection
Iron Range Research Center, Chisholm
Description: Materials documenting the founding and development of the Mesaba Co-op Park. See also accession numbers 1995.3518; 2005.0096; 2009.0021; and 2011.0012.

Mesaba Range Co-operative Park Association. 60 Years of Progressive Co-operation, 1929–1989. Superior, WI: Allied Printing, 1989.

——— . Mesaba Co-op Park 75th Anniversary, 1929–2004. Superior, WI: Allied Printing, 2004.

Poropudas, Belinda, ed. Mesaba Range Co-operative Park Association: 50 Years of Progressive Co-operation, 1929–1979. Superior, WI: Työmies Society, 1979.

S6161
Mesaba Co-op Park oral history interviews
Northeast Minnesota Historical Center Collections, Archives and Special Collections, Kathryn A. Martin Library, University of Minnesota Duluth
Description: Oral history interviews with key figures in the recent history of Mesaba Park Co-op Park.

Related Video

Related Images

Black and white photograph of a Fourth of July festival at Co-opMesaba Park, 1937.
Black and white photograph of a Fourth of July festival at Co-opMesaba Park, 1937.
Color scan of a flyer advertising a Farmer-Labor Party rally held at Mesaba Park on July 5, 1936.
Color scan of a flyer advertising a Farmer-Labor Party rally held at Mesaba Park on July 5, 1936.
Black and white photograph of Mesaba Co-op Park's dance pavilion, 1937.
Black and white photograph of Mesaba Co-op Park's dance pavilion, 1937.
Black and white photograph of a sauna on the shore of North Star Lake, 1937.
Black and white photograph of a sauna on the shore of North Star Lake, 1937.
Black and white photograph of a crowd of Mesaba Co-op Park visitors on lawn, 1938.
Black and white photograph of a crowd of Mesaba Co-op Park visitors on lawn, 1938.
Black and white photograph of Elmer Benson and John T. Bernard at Mesaba Co-op Park, 1940.
Black and white photograph of Elmer Benson and John T. Bernard at Mesaba Co-op Park, 1940.

Turning Point

In 1938, the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee initiates an era of communist “witch hunts,” blacklisting, and guilt-by-association persecution. This climate of fear, intimidation, and surveillance triggers a decrease in membership that threatens Mesaba Co-op Park’s survival.

Chronology

1928

A subcommittee of the Mesaba Range Co-operative Federation begins securing land for a park site.

1929

Mesaba Co-op Park officially opens on September 22.

1930

The park’s first buildings—a caretaker’s residence, a children’s camp, and a centerpiece dance pavilion—are completed.

1936

A high point for both Mesaba Park and the Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor party is reached when between eight and ten thousand people come to a summer festival featuring speeches by Farmer-Labor candidates Elmer Benson and John T. Bernard.

1938

The House Committee on Un-American Activities is established and creates a climate of communist fear and intimidation.

1939

The Hitler-Stalin Pact and the Russian invasion of Finland deeply fracture Minnesota’s communist community.

1959

The park’s bylaws are expanded to allow individual membership.

1977

A “Tribute to John T. Bernard” event reinvigorates the park, bringing in hundreds of people and connecting surviving progressives to a younger generation of activists.

2012

The park opens its doors to non-members, playing host to workshops, festivals, family gatherings, retreats, rallies, conferences, and wedding receptions.

2014

Mesaba Park celebrates its eighty-fifth anniversary as a continuously operating cooperative park.