At Mineview in the Sky, a tourist attraction in Virginia, Minnesota, you can see, with binoculars that cost a quarter to operate, white smoke rising from the top of hills laden with iron ore that are still being mined, while the towns around them sit nestled in the valley below.

Three decades ago, no one would have thought that people from Minneapolis would want to travel all the way up to Virginia, about an hour and a half from the Canadian border, to browse a gift shop with a full-scale model of U.S. Steel’s mining operation in Mt. Iron, buy ethnic Iron Range quilts, look at a landscape that resembles the surface of the Moon, or take group pictures in one of the large shovels used to scoop up the low-grade iron ore that is processed into the steel pellets known as taconite before being transported via the Messabi Railroad to the ore docks of Duluth, Superior, and Two Harbors and shipped by Great Lakes freighter to the steel mills of Gary, Hammond, and Cleveland.

And certainly, nobody would have thought that an aged couple from the Twin Cities would want to buy a cheap retirement home in an Iron Range town or on an Iron Range lake, to live out the rest of their lives in bleak little mining towns with boarded-up storefronts, towns the young and ambitious—such as Boston Celtics star and Minnesota Timberwolves vice president and head coach Kevin McHale or one Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, who both hail from Hibbing—leave and where those left behind deal with unemployment, harsh winters, alcoholism, and violence.  And yet such seniors make the trek up north.

What exactly did “Iron Range” mean 20 or 30 years ago?  It meant mining—three ranges worth of iron-ore deposits known separately as Cuyuna, Vermillion, and Mesabi.  It meant immigrants, who came to work the mines from such European lands as Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Poland, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, and all the other countries that have their colors along Gilbert’s Avenue of the Flags, which goes right through its downtown.  It meant the unique cultures that these miners and their families created together.  It meant labor strife and union politics.  It meant the harshness of a Northern winter, the mining camps, the frontier-like towns that sprang up beside the mines and the rough-and-tumble life that they spawned.  It meant occasional deprivation, when the mines closed periodically because of the ups and downs of the commodities markets.  It meant a passion for hockey and other sports.

It certainly did not mean tourism or retirement homes.

The Cuyuna and Vermillion ranges had been dug out by the early 1980’s.  Yet, in the Mesabi, the mines are still important, because of their connection to the many small businesses that serve them.  And thanks to strong Chinese demand and the steel tariffs once imposed by the Bush administration, those mines are humming at near full capacity again.

Mining is also important as tourist kitsch.  Just as Flint, Michigan, built Auto-World to lure tourists to the city, the Iron Range has IronWorld in Chisholm.  A tourist from the Twin Cities may stop by to discover what taconite really is (former Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura couldn’t even begin to describe it when asked by Jay Leno during an appearance on The Tonight Show) and to learn about the many cultures of the immigrant groups that live there.  Yet what most tourists really want to do is to bike or to ride ATV’s and snowmobiles on paths strewn with iron ore rock, go camping, golf or ski at the Giant’s Ridge resort, boat and fish on the lakes carved out of reclaimed mine pits, or visit the shops and restaurants of the faux-Alpine town of Biwabik.

The Iron Range’s other economic pillar is the service economy.  Many healthcare companies have opened up claim-processing centers and record-keeping offices.  Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines has a reservation center in Chisholm.

Of course, having the healthcare facilities is nice for the retirees who move here.  If you had bought a simple but comfortable and efficient miner’s home in Babbitt during the recession of the early 1980’s, when they were being unloaded for three or four thousand dollars after the closing of the Reserve mining facility, you could sell it for $30,000 today.  And that is the medium-to-high end of the housing market up here, excluding lake homes.  You don’t have to dip too far into your life savings to live comfortably on the Iron Range.  In fact, housing prices are so affordable that even young folk who leave after high school looking for work in the Twin Cities, where even medium-sized apartments can run $800 per month, often come back.  As a friend who lives on the Range pointed out to me, if you don’t mind the one- to one-and-a-half-hour drive (depending on how fast you travel the four-lane Highway 53 and whether you can avoid the state police), you can commute to work in the Duluth area, which makes the Iron Range one big, distant bedroom community.

My wife is an iron miner’s daughter, born and bred on the Range.  She is both practical and frugal, searching for the best prices and deals and making do with nothing or with little.  She tells stories about not being able to afford a new pair of shoes when needed and of eating government cheese while growing up.

With mining no longer the be-all and end-all of the region, and with newcomers moving in and service jobs taking up much of the slack, where does that leave the Iron Range as a culture, as a distinct part of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest—and America, for that matter?  In today’s economy, there are some place names that are tied to particular businesses and industries, such as Silicon Valley; the Research Triangle; and Redmond, Washington (home of Microsoft).  But has anyone ever written a Silicon Valley cookbook or sewn a Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex quilt?  It may be a coincidence, but industrial-era places not only served as job markets but anchored cultures.  They were real places, with churches, halls, schools, and homes that taught dances, songs, languages, and crafts, handed down from one generation to the next.

Returning from Mineview, I sit at my desk at home, looking at a program from a dance recital (ages kindergarten through high school) that my wife’s stepsister took part in at the Mesabi Community College Theater in Virginia.  I read the names of those involved with the show: Wercinski, Plesha, Kamunen, Baudek.  I also see Vovk, Moe, Jofs, and Ribich.  There’s Licari, Lakoskey, Kilpela, and Moisio.  Gullingsrud, Croteau, Bozicevich, Shackelton, and Nortivich are there, too.  So long as the names remain the same, the Iron Range will survive.