Callithumpian on the Iron Range

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An interview with Mary Lou Nemanic, author of One Day for Democracy: Independence Day and the Americanization of Iron Range Immigrants (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2007)

Cover of One Day for Democracy
Courtesy of Ohio University Press

The rugged Mesabi, Vermilion and Cuyuna iron ranges in northern Minnesota comprise a distinctive region, peopled by a rich mixture of immigrants from various countries who were brought in by mining companies, beginning in the 19th century, to work in this challenging environment.

Mary Lou Nemanic and her husband Doug, who grew up on the Range, began their research on the Iron Range back in 1977. By the time the first phase of their research was completed in 1987, they had produced a large amount of negatives, prints, slides, audio and film tapes. But the collecting didn’t stop there. Over the years, they have been offered family photos and albums from many people on the Range, and have continued with their own interviews, photographing and filming. Their collection now has more than 40,000 negatives, prints and slides; over 30 hours of oral histories; and countless film footage.

Nemanic was struck by how complex and festive 4th of July celebrations were on the Iron Range, especially when compared to quieter celebrations in more urban environments to the south. She noticed that on the Range, towns used the 4th of July as a reason to get together, to hold reunions, to sponsor games and parades and to create elaborate floats and other public performances.

Nemanic discovered that on the Iron Range, a unique blend of Old World and New World festive traditions combined with regional elements to create the traditional Iron Range 4th of July celebrations. Through her study of the history of the United States’ earliest celebrations of Independence Day, and her ethnographic documentation of the Iron Range, Nemanic shows how public displays can undercut authority, and help in differing constructions of American identities.

I recently talked with Nemanic about her research and her writing:

How did the Iron Range develop as a region?

Because the iron ore was not discovered until the late 19th century, and these turned out to be the richest and largest ore deposits in the world, mining companies needed to recruit unskilled European workers, and so they did, from more than 30 different countries. And a typical labor recruitment strategy, to undercut unionization, would be to recruit from different countries where they didn’t speak the same language and particularly cultures that clashed and didn’t get along, like Serbia and Croatia. That often times was a good way to make sure that the people didn’t try to organize. This was common across America, this kind of corporate strategy.

More than 30 different countries, you can imagine, with no one real majority group, they really had to pool their different traditions and customs, and that became kind of a sub-culture for them. So, even though potica is a Slovak delicacy, and porketta is an Italian spiced pork, these are typical foods that became traditional on the 4th, Iron Range food, along with hot dogs and American-type things. There was this blending of the Old World and the New World, into what became the Iron Range sub-culture.

It carried across all three ranges, which I think is really interesting. And also what I found fascinating was that these people—who especially in the early days of the frontier, when people would get into fights and there’d be different conflicts between groups—they’d always put aside their differences on Independence Day and try to celebrate the nation’s birthday and be cordial to people that they didn’t necessarily get along with on an everyday basis, whether it was their noisy neighbor or some other ethnic group.

Having to work in those unsafe conditions in the mines, they created what they called “mine English” to communicate. They knew that in order to survive in this really harsh environment, they had to cooperate with each other and be interdependent. But there were still conflicts and antagonisms. And yet on the 4th, that was the day that any of that conflict was supposed to be put aside, people were supposed to show their unity in deference to America, and their own sense of American nationalism.

I think about the work that Robert Lavenda has done on Minnesota festivals, and the elements they share, such as food, the Queen contest, the parades. As you talk about such elements and how they developed over time, were there particular things that struck you?

The callithumpian parade. That is a really interesting tradition that comes out of the Old World carnival tradition, brought over by people from Europe. It’s a silly costumed parade. And in America it was brought over by some of the first settlers to America, and in the 19th century, even before the Range was settled, callithumpian parades would be common in different towns across America. Sometimes they would also be used to socially enforce things, and make fun of people—for example, if politicians became despots, or were tyrannical in any way. It was a way for people to make fun of authority and put them in their place. But in terms of the holidays, it was people dressing up and being humorous, being able to use satire and parody to express things that were on their minds, sometimes political and sometimes social. And the callithumpian is most well-known in the town of Biwabik. They still have quite a turn-out for their callithumpian parade. It really is the centerpiece of their 4th of July program.

Cross-dressing and making fun of the fact that women have to wear a certain type of clothes and men have to wear another—that really gets into the carnival aspect, turning the rules of everyday life upside down, inverting things and making fun of all the restrictions of everyday life, and getting into a whole different mindset, at least once a year or at least whenever your public celebrations take place.

Looking at the image of Toivo’s airbus makes me wonder if each ethnic group has such ethnic characters.

The airbus group assembled

The Toivo’s Airbus group in Aurora, Minnesota.
(Photograph by Mary Lou Nemanic, Tamarack Iron Range Collection.)
Courtesy of Ohio University Press.

Yes, there are people from different ethnic groups, like Italians, on Italian floats, making fun of some of the stereotypes, the organ grinder or something like that. If you really dug around in people’s albums you could get all types of examples, but the ones that I was able to get to were more of the Finnish, because the Toivo’s people were so well-traveled across the range and they put a lot of emphasis and time into planning. In fact, they were one of the groups that planned way ahead of time, and so I wanted to focus on them because they were such a big tradition in the Biwabik callithumpian parade and also in Aurora’s evening parade.

Do certain groups make appearances across the three ranges?

They stagger the times for the parades—and they even do that with the marching bands. The Virginia marching band is a really fine marching band; you’ll see it in the Aurora parade, which is held on the 3rd, and then on the 4th, it’s in the Virginia parade, where they sometimes have a morning parade. Then in the late evening is the Biwabik parade. In the early days—late 19th, early 20th century—they actually had trains between the towns, so that they could participate in the different celebrations. And some towns even had co-sponsors, so one town would have it in their town one year and another town another year. It really shows that there is regional connection between the towns. Even though the towns did have their rivalries—they would have baseball and hockey games, all kinds of physical matches—but at the same time they were all Iron Rangers. And if they had any outside criticism, they’d all band together. It wasn’t important that you were a Slovenian miner as much as that you were a Slovenian miner from the Iron Range. In that way, the ethnicity and the place were very tied together.

As you continued to study the 4th of July over a number of years, were there certain themes that you saw emerging, and insights you had? Are there certain portrayals of life that are particular to the region, such as hard drinking?

People in fatigues around a patriotic float

Toivo’s Homeland Security float for Aurora’s Centennial and Independence Day parade, July 3, 2003 (Photograph by Mary Lou Nemanic, Tamarack Iron Range Collection.) Courtesy of Ohio University Press.

There certainly is self-parody; they make fun of themselves and the drinking culture. And I think you’ll find that with most occupations involving hard work like mining, there is a tendency toward drinking, especially in the small towns. And then of course, drinking is associated with festive culture in Old World tradition, in the carnival tradition. But that’s the interesting part of this egalitarian humor, they poke fun at themselves as well as authority figures and corporations like Northwest Airlines and Homeland Security and so on.

And not just self-parody, but parody of other things. The Homeland Security float is a good example. Those guys crack me up. That’s one of the reasons I found them so interesting and I wanted to focus on them. They had a particularly good sense of humor, and they were able to get such a nice large group for their different floats. They just have done stuff over the years that’s pretty funny. And they really go to a lot of effort. You can tell from the costuming in the Homeland Security float, they go to a lot of work and spend a lot of time doing this.

I didn’t emphasize some of the more “ethnic pride” kinds of things that you see on the 4th. I could have probably done a 600-page book. So many pictures I have, so many parades I’ve seen emphasize a sense of ethnic pride. I don’t mean to say that all the parades and so on are totally humorous. There are those that feel that they should just affirm their ethnicity, and show off ethnic costuming, music, and icons from their countries of origin. But the humor is unusual when you compare it to public celebrations in bigger cities or places where there’s not a mixed ethnicity like the Range. It’s more or less marching bands, and maybe Shriners going around on their little go-carts, but a lot of it is military units, and very dignified kinds of presentations, and not a lot of humor and parody and satire. That’s a big important thing, comparing parades there to the Range, but I don’t want people to only think that it’s all silly and there aren’t any serious kinds of presentations.

So much of this really is about being an American. Have you had some conclusions about what you see as the individual impulse to define what being an American is?

I think people that are native born and don’t have current or fairly recent immigration in their families don’t have as much of a sense of affirming and displaying their sense of pride in being an American. I think immigrants and families of immigrants really feel that’s an important part of showing that they are Americans, and participating in things like the 4th of July. But I think we all have a certain need to affirm our identity, and in terms of festive culture, that can be in a really public situation or it could be very private, if you’re talking about smaller gatherings. But I think that affirmation is an important part of understanding who we are. And also, in times of transformation, when there’s economic hardship, like the Depression, or war, like World War II, these important traditions of celebrating the 4th and affirming national identity in public are important stabilizers and ways that people feel a sense of continuity. That’s an important part of what festive culture can do for people.

I’m sure that you saw that emerging after 2001.

In fact, if you go back to the ‘60s when it became kind of passé to show patriotism in a solemn way, we didn’t see a lot of overt patriotic expressions. But then, when you’re attacked in your own homeland, that really rallies people and it certainly isn’t in any way inappropriate to express patriotism and show that we’re united as Americans.

The first 4th of July that we had after 9/11, Doug and I felt that one of the important places for us to be would be in Philadelphia. We brought our cameras, and we got press credentials, and we got to photograph Colin Powell getting the Medal of Liberty. It was very emotional, it was very moving to be there during that time period. We couldn’t get back to the Range, otherwise we would have. Philly is only 3 ½ hours from where we live. It was really important; we felt we wanted to document that. It was sad to see all the security, go through all the security clearances and have our camera bags searched constantly. It was also interesting to see people in turbans who were obviously Arab-Americans, waving the flag, standing and walking as spectators, holding up signs saying “We’re Americans too.”

It was a very interesting time period, when I think patriotism was considered a very popular thing. I think it has kind of languished now. Patriotism displays are cyclical, so that during wars and times of transition people feel more comfortable displaying patriotism publicly than at other times. Or they don’t even feel a need to as much, unless there is some kind of threat or some kind of major changes in lifestyles.

I suppose, in times of crisis, the important thing is to emphasize patriotism and not so much to examine it, and then examination comes later. We’re in that stage now, I think.

Obviously, with cultural change, the pendulum swings to extremes, so you see these super patriots who say, “If you aren’t buying the administration’s viewpoint then you’re not patriotic.” I had somebody say to me, “Oh, you’ve written this book, you must be patriotic. I’m going to send you this…” and they sent me this really ultra right-wing kind of thing that said only these people were patriots. Obviously my book isn’t about that at all.

I think the idea that right-wing and ultra right-wing people are the only ones who can lay claim to being patriots has moved into the popular culture so much, we have forgotten the roots of popular radicalism that really is the reason for this country and the reason for the 4th of July. It’s just been purged and disconnected from its roots that these guys that led the Revolution were really radical dudes, and they were not what people today would call conservative in any way, shape or form. They were throwing off the shackles of aristocracy and the mother country, and what they did was considered pretty radical. That term became so tainted with 9/11—in the sense that radicals are people that are suicide bombers or associated with al-Qaida or one of the other groups that’s into terrorist strategies. And that’s very sad because the term “radical” has had less politically charged definitions, but today it’s often associated with that context.

To think about these founding members of America, it was such a radical thing for them to break with England, and so treasonous. Another thing that really surprised me in studying early American 4th of Julys was how treasonous it was for them to publicly celebrate independence. But they had to affirm the Declaration. There wasn’t a lot of literacy, there was no mass media, so the Declaration was actually written to be orated, and was read in town after town after town, and then the people would spontaneously celebrate and that was their affirmation that, yes, we accept this independence and we want to fight for independence. To do that was a very treasonous, dangerous activity, and yet people felt the need to do that in order to affirm independence.

Hearing about this collection, all the footage you have, years and years of photographs, I wonder if you have future publications, exhibits or productions in mind?

We have had some exhibits in the past, at the Iron Range Research Center and in different towns.

But what our big project has been all along is to do a feature-length documentary. And for a long time it was hard to get funding. We decided that now it’s to the point where we can fund it ourselves, and we’re not going to spend our time fund-raising, but we want to do the producing. We would like to do a history of Iron Range development, but also through the perspective of our project and how we developed that over the years, and journeys that we went on in order to create this. So that’s really what we’re working on. We hope to have that done in maybe two years. That’s going to be a big centerpiece of the collection.

Eventually, we will be leaving the collection to a depository. Obviously, we want the collection to be in Minnesota and on the Range if possible. But right now it’s a little early and it’s hard to know what plans depositories are going to have for their collections and whether or not they’d be equipped to take something as big as the collection that we’ve amassed over the years. We’re not regularly documenting now as much as we’re regularly organizing that collection and thinking about the ways that we want to put this together in a feature documentary format. It’s a great project to be working on.

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