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Co-ops and Finns on the Iron Range: A history lesson with Pam Brunfelt

Wherever there were Finns there were co-ops…Fins got settled here and they realized that the economic conditions didn’t work in their favor.  They began to go back to what they had learned in Finland about the economic commonwealth…They turned to the co-ops as a means of providing for themselves. Profit was never a motive, it was always about helping each other… What set the Finnish cooperatives apart from everybody else was the fact that they were retail. So they began to form small stores and credit unions and even funeral homes. 

– Pam Brunfelt

Pam Brunfelt is a historian and instructor at Vermillion Community College in Ely.  She’s passionate about the journey of Finnish people to the Iron Range and the realities that unfolded once they arrived. 

“There was prejudice against them.  There were some parks in the area that had signs that said “No Finns or Indians allowed.”… They were viewed with suspicion, mostly because they wouldn’t comply.  They were more willing to fight the system, so the mining companies didn’t like them.  They were feistier. They were not church people as a rule…and that of course increased the suspicion of them because they were not conforming to society… they often weren’t welcome, unless there was a strike and then they led those strikes because the other groups knew the Fins knew how to do it…They kind of were on the outside, on the fringes of Iron Range society and they didn’t mind that.” – Pam Brunfelt

Pam spoke with Maggie Montgomery about the Finnish community on the Iron Range, their contributions to the Range, the struggles they overcame throughout the years and the co-ops they started that still impact the economy and culture of the area.

Maggie is a rural public radio guru; someone who can get you through both minor jams and near catastrophes and still come out ahead of the game. She pens our grants, reports to the Board of Directors and helps guide our station into the dawn of a new era. Maggie is a locavore to the max (as evidenced on Wednesday mornings), brings in months’ worth of kale each fall, has heat on in her office 12 months a year, and drinks coffee out of a plastic 1987 KAXE mug every day. Doting parents and grandparents, she and her husband Dennis live in the asphalt jungle of East Nary.
Katie Carter started at Northern Community Radio in 2008 as Managing Editor of the station's grant-funded, online news experiment Northern Community Internet. She returned for a second stint in 2016-23. She produced Area Voices showcasing the arts, culture, and history stories of northern Minnesota.