Tim Olson’s mom was a beautician and his dad was an ironworker. He grew up fishing and hunting and joined the football and track teams. He graduated from Hibbing High School and earned a business degree from Hibbing Community College. He’d work at his uncle’s auto repair shop, before working for FedEx for the next 15 years.

Then in 2007, he took a job at Hibbing Taconite Co. “I’ll tell you right now, because of the money and the benefits,” he said during an interview at the United Steelworkers Local 2705 union hall in Chisholm. “I started having a family and it’s like, ‘Well, can you believe the mines are making this much money? I have to get into the mines.’

“Up here, if you’re not a doctor or a lawyer, the next place you’re going to make money and have good benefits is working in one of the mines.”

At the time, Olson, 52, had thought FedEx was a good job but the pay rate wasn’t increasing and he figured he could do something else. He had friends who worked in the mines and so he put in his application. HibTac hired him after a bunch of retirements. He’s since worked various positions as a laborer, equipment operator and maintenance mechanic.

Was he worried about switching jobs given the ups and downs of the taconite industry?

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” he said. “When I got hired, they said we only have 10 years of mine life. But we’re talking a big wage difference and I thought I could bank money. I thought, ‘Heck, I could risk that.’”

Now, after 14 years at HibTac, Olson would like to keep his job until retirement. But the company has been telling him and others they’re done in 2026 unless they come up with leases or discover more ore on their property. “Every square inch of this geography has a hole punched in it,” he said. “They’ve punched holes all across this geography to test for ore and if it isn’t done recently it’s done decades ago across the Iron Range.”

He believes there’s places in the mine to go after but it’s “price-conducive.”

Olson considered the worst case scenario: a HibTac closure could put 750 employees out of work. Shutting down the mine would also affect another 1,000-plus people who rely on the mine to sell belts, lube, oil and pumps.

Is he worried now? “I’m not worried. We go to 2026. That’s five more years. I’ll be 57 years old. I’m at the age now I’ll find something else to do until I’m 62 or so until I could retire.”

He finished his calculations, paused, and went on, “But the younger guy who has five years in here and is 30 years old -- even in their late 20s -- those are the ones this is really going to affect and who might have to leave the area. Mining is a big part of life up here. You take that away, you’re not going to find a job to pay the scale and the benefits that we enjoy.”

****

William L. Fredette Jr., 41, was an Army brat whose family moved from Germany to Minnesota in the early 1990s, a time of recovery for the taconite industry after nearly shutting down in the previous decade.

At the United Steelworkers union hall in Chisholm, Fredette recalled being an outsider to the Iron Range. He wasn't from a mining family. His father worked at a filtration company and his mother found a job at a service station. He characterized miners as the upper class--“the pinnacle of the area.”

Fredette graduated from Nashwauk-Keewatin High School. While most of his friends went into heating and cooling, electrical and plumbing trades, he enrolled at local community colleges to learn how to operate heavy equipment. He entered the workforce in 2001, as the taconite industry hit a heavy downturn. LTV Steel Mining Co. had just closed in Hoyt Lakes, cutting more than 1,000 employees. None of the mines were hiring. He eventually found work at Dom-Ex in Hibbing, in the salvage yard as a forklift operator. But he got laid off and so he ended up taking a job with a friend at a mortgage brokerage firm down in the Twin Cities. Then the housing bubble burst in 2006.

At the same time, his wife, who was from a Range mining family, gave birth to their first of two daughters. Though the housing bubble had popped, his employer sent him up north on retainer, in hopes that the housing industry would turn back around. He stayed home with his daughter and waited.

In 2007, after being laid off, he got a job at Hibbing Taconite Co. “I had been an office, white collar worker for almost six years,” he said. “For me, it was nice to get gloves on and get boots on and be more active which is what I preferred.” He started as a general laborer in the pit. “The responsibility for that job was moving the cables for shovels and the drills,” he explained. “In HibTac’s mine, everything was electric shovels and drills, so we had to move the cables continuously.” The most physically demanding part of his job included handling the cables out there in the cold and wind and in the mud. “But it’s not like mining you see when the guys are grabbing the pickaxes and going under the ground. You still got dirty when you get on the ground, you know.”

The most common injury in the mines? “Strains and sprains,” he said.

Fredette was a laborer for a short while until he started operating production trucks. “You’re driving a two-story house down the road is what it is,” he said. “You’re king of the road. You’re living every kid’s dream when you’re playing in a giant sandbox when you first get there and it’s fresh and it’s new and it's exciting.” He drove the houses for about one year and then he moved into the tractor sequence which included bulldozers, loarders, graders--all utilities.

In 2009, HibTac cut employees when it dropped a line to become a two-line operation. Fredette kept his job but he was bounced around and would learn the concentrator and pellet plant sequences. He then moved from the equipment side of the industry to the plants.

Now, Fredette, who loads pellets onto the trains and represents his colleagues as the USW Local 2705 safety chair, said he’s “done the entire damn process from start to finish.”

Given his experience, he offered a brief explanation HibTac’s operation: “From the mining sector, it’s extracting the ore. It starts with stripping. You go down so many layers of surface. Then you get into rock. Once you’re into rock, you have to drill and blast that rock. That rock is then dug up and moved to another stockpile. Then you get down to the ore body. And that is drilled and blasted. And that ore is brought to the crusher where it’s crushed into smaller pieces. From there, it goes to our surge pile. That is where the transition from mining to the plant begins. The crusher is operated by concentrator employees. That department is in charge of turning the ore into concentrate. It’ll take that ore and process that ore through the mills and roughers and magnetic separators and finished screeners. And what’s waste goes out to the pond. What’s concentrate is then pumped to the pellet plant. From there, the concentrate goes into filters, where it sucks the moisture out and turns it into cake. It’s no longer a concentrate. It’s no longer a liquid slurry which we can pump. It’s a powder. It’s now put into mixers and mixed with bentonite. From there it goes into our balling drums, where it becomes the marble. The purpose for the marble is how the pellet processes in the next process at the steel mills. That pellet’s size and quality is determined by the customer. From there it goes into the ovens. We have a rolling grate system, so they cook in the furnace. The pellets are put into our pellet load out bins and loaded onto the trains.”

Fredette spoke enthusiastically about his job. He enjoys the work and the mining culture itself. It’s not wildcatting. It was and remains, for him, more family-oriented. The majority of the miners are outdoorsmen, heavy fishing, heavy hunting. Vacations are blocked up solid for the openers. Youth sports are huge. Hockey tournaments are a constant conversation. “It’s a very active group of people,” he said. “They socialize at the local bars and restaurants and go to the area casinos and resorts. People are fortunate enough to make the wages to travel whether it be their annual trips or family vacations.”

When asked whether his views of mining as being the “pinnacle of the area” has changed since his childhood, he said “it’s a job that you can support a family on.”

Fredette credited his parents with a good upbringing. But he noted how they struggled to make the money they made. “My first year in the mines I made more than my mom and dad combined in salary,” he said. “I had better healthcare than they had.” The extra money allows him to provide his family with a comfortable lifestyle in a region where housing prices are modest and the outdoor events plentiful.

But the life he’s built is in jeopardy. A HibTac closure would bring on “drastic lifestyle changes'' for himself and others. He’s concerned about the young workers. “We have a lot of people living to that bottom dollar,” he said. “They aren’t prepared for the tough times.” He considered his colleagues blessed to work at HibTac, which hasn’t suffered heavy layoffs due to an industry downtown since 2009. “We’re facing that again,” he said. “Right now it’s about to be taken away from us and I don’t know what these people are going to do.”

Fredette has been budgeting. “I’m hoping for the best. I have wish lists. I want to build a new garage. But that’s not the right thing to do right now. I might not even be living in my house in six years.” For now, he’s keeping one thing on his wish list. “To get me through my daughters graduating, so I don’t disrupt their life. To them, it would be the end of the world.”

****

At the union hall, Chris Johnson talks about the LTV Steel Co. shut down like a bad dream. The east Iron Range in ruins. “That can happen here,” he said, referring to the potential closure of Hibbing Taconite Co.

As the president of United Steelworkers Local 2705, Johnson believes it’s his responsibility to tell members to plan as if HibTac will close.

“Nothing is in writing that’s extending our mine life,” he said. “So, for us, we’re done. When 2025 comes. And if it is that way you’re going to see cutbacks before that, because they’re not going to run every line.”

Johnson, who is 44 years old, described himself and colleague Tim Olson as non-traditional miners. Meaning, they came into HibTac after spending their time working stints elsewhere. They learned from miners who struggled financially during the strikes of the 1970s, and have made an effort to save money along the way. “When I started, I was warned by the older guys that don't live on what you earn for overtime and when you get close to negotiation time don’t buy anything in case there’s a strike or anything like that,” Johnson said.

They have the outdoor toys — the ATVs and small fishing boats, but they’ve been able to sock money away for retirement. They’re not living paycheck-to-paycheck like some of the younger miners. “They’re buying houses and vehicles and they’re not prioritizing saving,” he said.

In an effort to keep HibTac open, Johnson has been trying to bend the ear of company officials, Gov. Tim Walz and state legislators, Democrats, Republican and Independents from rural and metro areas.

He tells them he believes mining can be done safely.

“We’re the sins of our past and these people don’t know how technology has changed what we do,” he said. “Some people think that we still do things with a pickaxe and shovel and dump oil on the ground. We don’t do that. We have a huge group of environmental administration people to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

He tells them he’s supportive of economic diversification, though there’s not many other options on the Range.

“They were telling us about diversifying after LTV closed,” he said. “It hasn’t come. What makes you think it’s going to happen now.” He added, “Until that’s presented to us, this is what we have and we have to preserve it. And education is the key to that in the cities and the government.”

And while many people have left the aging population of the Range to seek out changes in jobs and culture, he tells them he hopes to stay and preserve a place long considered home.

“It was good enough for my parents and myself to grow up in. I want my kids to be able to experience it.” Like Olson, he enjoys the Twin Cities for the baseball games and occasional visits. But he prefers the quiet of the north and outdoors lifestyle he’s cultivated. “I love coming home,” he said

****

Rich Jacklen, 53, was born into the bust and boom cycle of the Iron Range. The last big downturn, he remembered, began in 1979 and lasted until 1989. There was some mining going on, but there was a decade-long lag in full production. Still his parents--his father was a diesel mechanic and his mother was a nurse--braced off the tough times by living well within their means. He played hockey in an area known for the sport, in a blue collar region.

In 1986, he graduated from high school and the majority of his 229 classmates left the area because “the mining industry was down and nobody was hiring.” He took a job with his father at a diesel shop in Hibbing, which did the majority of the fuel injectors for LTV, MinnTac and NorthShore mining companies that haul the ore to the plant on rail. Meantime, he played hockey at Hibbing Community College, before coaching youth. Three years later, he became a machine operator at Loram which sent him to western Montana for contract work on the BN Railway. “I already gone to college, the mining industry was done, the mining companies weren’t hiring, so there wasn’t much here to keep me here workwise,” he said. He would travel to 28 states over the next six years to Washington to Texas to New York and everything in that triangle. “And everywhere that I went, if they found out you were from northern Minnesota, they were offering you a job because of our work ethic,” he said. “And that’s still true today. People find out you’re from northern Minnesota and they want to hire you on the spot, just because of our reputation as hard-working and hardy.”

Then in 1995 Jacklen met his future wife on the Range and he was looking to get a job back home. He started working for H&L Mesabi industrial shop, but the long hours got him searching for a job to let him spend more time with his family. In 2000, he became a production truck driver at U.S. Steel MinnTac in Mountain Iron. He finished his mechanic millwright testing and 13 months there he took a job in the pellet plant as a maintenance side of things. He worked there until 2007. He would leave MinnTac for HibTac that year to work in the pellet plant to save 20 miles a day driving.

His career choices were lateral but motivated by family and he began a “straight day” schedule around 2012. “It’s what we call a normal life up here and not working nights and weekends,” he said. “Pretty much everyone in operations are working shift work and they’re working nights and weekends,” he said. “People strive to get to the day shift job in mining. That’s the crème de la crème. Monday through Friday.”

Two years ago, Jacklen, post divorce and with three adult children, went back to shift work. “I’ve been a mechanic for 40 plus years,” he said. “Professionally, my restless soul said it’s time to do something different.” For Jacklen, his seniority allowed him to switch to a job as a mining shovel operator. The company was flexible, he said, and gave him the opportunity. “It was a change that I personally needed,” he said.

Union leaders and elected officials have long touted mining jobs as being blue collar, working class gigs. That’s culturally and socially correct yet a job at HibTac pays more than most in the region, making it fiscally upper class on the Range. “There’s a lot of old mining money here, but you wouldn’t know it,” he said during a meeting at BoomTown in Hibbing. “Very down to earth people who worked hard for what they had.” He added, “We fought hard for wages. Probably, we are some of the highest in the country. Absolutely, but we worked hard for that.”

Today Jacklen wants to finish out his career at HibTac. “I don't’ want to start over again. I don’t want to nor can I afford to do that anymore. Not by choice. If I get forced to have to do something if we do close down that’s a different story, because I don’t have a choice.”

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