His Historic Novel About Life on the Iron Range is Now a Reality
(The Iron Range, Minnesota) – When he was alive, Russell Hill’s favorite pastime was telling stories. “Dad knew everything there was to know about Minnesota’s Iron Range,” remembers Cheryl Gordon, the Northern Minnesota man’s daughter.
Gordon grew up hearing stories about life on The Range and the area’s history. Her father was so passionate about his hometown, in fact, that back in 1968 he started to research and write a novel about the people who discovered the riches the area had to offer. “Dad wanted to tell the story of the men who not only dug the iron out of the ground, but also the men and women who built the Range culture and community,” she says.
Hill got about five chapters into writing his novel, but shelved it as other projects in his life took precedence. More than 40 years passed before he resumed work on the manuscript.
Unfortunately, Russell Hill passed away before seeing the story on bookstore shelves, but thanks to his daughter’s dedication, Mesabi Pioneers (Lempi Publishing, Oct. 2014, $17.95), has now been published. “Before he died I promised Dad I would finish his story," Gordon says.
The first thing she did was hire Maryland based author Jeffrey Smith to finish the writing. He got involved in the project in May 2013. “When I met Jeffrey, I knew I'd found my father's voice reborn."
A year later, with the manuscript almost complete, Smith and Gordon teamed up for a Kickstarter project to raise the money needed to bring the book to market. “The support we received was tremendous,” says Smith.
Mesabi Pioneers is the story of Arthur Maki, a Finnish immigrant hired in 1891 by the ambitious Merritt brothers to help build a new mining venture in the dense pine woods of northern Minnesota. Leonidas and Alfred Merritt had discovered rich, marketable ore on what would become known as the Mesabi Range.
The story begins shortly after the discovery is made. When Arthur arrives on The Range, he faces one challenge after another, including conflict between members of the crew, the harshness of the environment, and an outside world that refuses to believe the ore on the Mesabi is worth anything at all. Despite the challenges, he perseveres.
Throughout the novel, readers are treated to an accurate accounting of the life of the pioneers who lived in Northern Minnesota in the late 1800s. A lot has been written about the powerful men of those times, like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, but very little about the immigrants who came from all over Europe and Scandinavia to work in the mines. “Dad wanted them to get the recognition they so greatly deserve,” said Gordon.
Mesabi Pioneers is fiction, but Gordon and Smith say there are a lot of stories in the book based on fact. “The story about a tree trunk going through a house is a well known anecdote,” Smith says. “And Wilbur Merritt waking up the crew to go digging at Biwabik.”
While the characters are fictitious, Smith and Hill remained true to the history of the Merritts, their meteoric rise in the mining world, and their just as dramatic fall barely three years after they made their first discovery in Mountain Iron.
“Cheryl and I wanted to make the book as historically accurate as we could,” adds Smith. “This book is a celebration of the early history of the Mesabi Range, and the Merritt story has universal appeal,” adds Smith. “It’s David versus Goliath, only Goliath wins.”
“Dad always felt the rest of the world needed to know how important the Iron Range has been to the history of this country—iron from the Mesabi Range built ships and planes during two world wars, providing the iron for the Interstate Highway system, and went into stoves and frying pans in every kitchen in America. He really wanted this book to be published and I know he’d be proud,” says Gordon.
Now that the book is out, Gordon and Smith are hoping all Minnesotans who have an interest in their state’s history will enjoy it. “It would be great to see it in school libraries, particularly in the Range,” says Smith. “People who live in this area are proud of their history.”
Mesabi Pioneers has already generated a lot of interest on the Range. In addition to assisting with research, The Virginia Area Historical Society will host the book’s launch party. It is scheduled to take place on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, at 7:00 p.m. at B'nai Abraham Museum and Cultural Center in Virginia, Minn. The Center is located at 328 5th Street South, Virginia, MN 55792. Smith will read from the book, answer questions and sign copies at the event.
Mesabi Pioneers is intended to be the first in a series of books about life on the Iron Range. The authors hope to get the second book finished by the end of 2015 or early 2016.
Mesabi Pioneers is currently available for preorder at www.mesabiproject.com/store/mesabi-pioneers.
About the Authors
Dr. Russell Hill was born and raised on Minnesota's Iron Range. After graduating from Eveleth High School he joined the Navy, and during World War II he served in Naval Intelligence, receiving several prestigious medals for his service.
After the War he received his Bachelor of Arts at St. Cloud State Teacher’s College and began a long and successful teaching career. Hill passed away peacefully in 2011, surrounded by his beloved family. He was 85-years-old.
After his passing, Hill’s daughter, Cheryl Gordon, spearheaded the effort to get her father’s book published as a tribute to his memory.
Jeffrey Smith, who finished the manuscript, has been writing for as long as he can remember. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Texas in 1995, and worked various jobs in both managerial and secretarial roles until 2010, when he became a full-time homemaker, stay-at-home parent and writer.
In addition to writing and parenting, Smith is an accomplished distance runner, completing 16 marathons, seven 24-hour relay races, and half-a-dozen ultra-runs, including two 100-mile races.
His short fiction has appeared in The Cynic Online Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Halfway Down the Stairs and in eFiction Magazine. He blogs about running, writing and parenting at www.rustlingreed.com/blog.
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