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Battle for the Hills
A deep vein of iron ore that runs through the wooded hills of Northern Wisconsin has divided public opinion in a state already mired in partisanship. But the deepest divisions of all run through the hearts of the men and women who live, work and play in the bucolic Penokee region. This is their story.

Photo by Azael Meza

The way Mike Wiggins Jr. remembers it, the man who strode into his office without an appointment that day in fall 2010 didn’t wear a suit.

There was a guy with him – maybe two. Wiggins isn’t sure anymore. But the first guy – “He seemed personable enough,” Wiggins says – did all the talking.

His name was Matt Fifield, an officer with the Cline Group, a coal-mining company based in Florida. On this day, he was a long way from home, at the tribal headquarters of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, along Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shoreline.

Fifield’s business card carried the name of the Cline Group subsidiary Gogebic Taconite – G-Tac for short. He was there to tell Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band’s tribal council, about his company’s plans to dig iron ore out of the Penokee Hills just south of the Bad River reservation.

 “He seemed curious as to what I thought and how our community would view that,” Wiggins says. The tribal chairman had some questions of his own.

“I said, ‘So you’re from Florida? You ever watch that show “Swamp People” on satellite TV?’ He smiled and said, ‘Yes! Yes, I do.’”

“Good,” Wiggins told him. “Because up here in Bad River, up north, that’s what you’re dealing with. People just like that. Swamp people. We’re intricately connected to our waterways and our resources. So I’m going to have a hard time being supportive of anything you’re going to be doing. In fact, I have to say I’m going to be fairly oppositional.”

Wiggins takes a breath, reliving the conversation. “I go, ‘But at the same time, I consider myself kind of liberal up here. Folks get really anti-mining after me.’”

The meeting was over. Not more than 15 minutes had elapsed.

“I asked him to leave my office.”

It was so short, Wiggins says, that there wasn’t any real sales pitch.

“There wouldn’t have been much of a sales pitch to give. I don’t know what it would consist of – maybe notions of money? But that ain’t going to get no play in our rez.”

Bob Walesewicz was born in and grew up in Oconomowoc, but starting as far back as he can remember, he and his two brothers spent summers up north, in and around Iron County. They stayed with Walesewicz’s grandfather, John Sola Sr., a dairy farmer in the town of Kimball, just outside of Hurley. There, he and his brothers would help with chores – milking cows, guiding them from barn to pasture, pitching hay, cleaning the barn. “I learned to drive a tractor at a pretty young age,” he says.

But Bob was just 5 when he first made the trip. Too young then for farm work, he lived those first several summers with his great-grandfather, just over the state line in Ironwood, Mich., in a house built by the mining company that had employed his great-grandfather for 40 years.

Joseph Waliesewicz – the spelling of the last name was changed when Bob’s father was born – had come over from Poland in 1908 at the age of 21, with his wife and 14-month-old son in tow. He found work in local iron mines. Now, more than half a century later, young Bob would take long walks with his great-grandfather in the countryside around Ironwood, in a district called The Caves.

The Caves were not natural caverns but what remained after Joe and his co-workers had dug out the iron ore. The men would burrow deep into the side of a hill and affix explosives into the dirt and rock ceiling ahead of and above them. The fuse was set, and with a deafening roar, a rubble of rich ore would shower to the floor. It was called “stope mining,” and it could bring peril or prosperity. Often both.

“It was very dangerous,” Walesewicz says. “That style of mining claimed many lives. It was not easy work.

“But it was good work,” he continues. “For that era, it was some of the best-paying work for men that were not trained in other areas.”

Joe Waliesewicz liked working underground, where the weather was the same every day. The 55-degree temperature was a welcome respite from winter cold and summer heat – and a comfortable climate in which to swing a heavy pick for eight hours at a time. It was always busy, running three shifts around the clock. Through the older man’s tales, the boy shared his great-grandfather’s sense of awe.

“Iron ore is a raw material,” Walesewicz says. “He would often wonder what the end product of his handiwork would end up being.” Did that ’57 Chevy or that stretch of railroad track or the shiny steel of an ice skate’s blade carry in it some of the iron that Joe Waliesewicz had blasted and hacked out from underground? During World War II, he would assure himself that the iron ore they produced was going into the guns and bombs that the Allies used to liberate Europe and his own homeland of Poland.

By the time man and boy were roaming the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of the area’s mines had been closed for a decade. The land above the caves had fallen in, but the vegetation kept growing. Many of the sunken hollows had filled with water – water, Bob Walesewicz insists, that’s as clean as any around.

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Jay_Warner Posted: 6/5/2013 10:53:25 PM
 1   1    

Yes, the people in the area could well use more jobs. At what price? In the Mesabi Range area today (after 60+ years of open pit taconite (iron) mining), 10% of the babies contain excess mercury at birth. (Mercury: think Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland.) "Welcome to your new job. It will pay well, but it will cost one of your children. You don't get to pick which one." In _3 Among the Wolves_, Helen Thayer shows that wolf pups are the most precious things the adults have. How good is a job that poisons your children? Taconite mining is not the same as "the old days" when grandpa built a good life and family by pit mining high grade iron ore. Is there no way to recover the lower grade ore without destroying our environment - our woodlands, our water and towns where we live? The debate in Madison never raised this question, much less ask it of mining and taconite production experts who might answer it.
Jay_Warner Posted: 5/22/2013 11:20:37 PM
 1   1    

Excellent piece. The public hearings & other places gave links to vast amounts of technical data, which could be used to skewer whichever 'side' one is opposed to. But it's our countryside, and we've all got to live in it. Together. In this article I see people whose histories are directly from the 'nation' of the Empty Quarter - develop resources, it's what we do - and those directly from the 'nation' of the Breadbasket - treat the land well, it's what we have [Garreau's _Nine Nations of North America_]. If we do not consider the effects (outcomes, consequences) of both viewpoints, we will wind up with neither.
Periscope Posted: 5/6/2013 4:28:19 PM
 0   1    

Jobs? All an open pit mine needs are a couple of huge steam shovel and many dump truck drivers.
JustAGuy Posted: 5/7/2013 10:13:13 AM
 2   38    

Replying to: Periscope
poor uneducated comment. There would be many office jobs, people like receptionists, secretaries, hr, supervisors, not to mention restaurants, county and city workers, potentially additional school staff and on and on. I own property in the area up there which I would prefer to remain as is, but the people up there have nothing and a large chunk of the population is certain towns is on gov assistance and I assure you they do not want to be. The D side of this needs to realize there will be some risks and that companies are not evil and the R side needs to realistically address concerns within reason looking at profit margins for similar product extracted and it is as simple as that... the area needs protection and the people need jobs but our society is so polarized it is hard to address anything at all anymore.
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