We’re in that awkward and dreary “shoulder season” when the snow conditions are too crappy for skiing but it’s still too cold to bicycle or do anything else outside. The trees are bare, what little grass is showing amid the snow piles is brown. It was time to explore somewhere new indoors. So, Russ and I meandered north to the largest museum complex outside of the Twin Cities.
It’s had several names since it opened in 1977 near Chisholm in northern Minnesota. First it was the Iron Range Interpretive Center, then Iron World USA, and now it’s the Minnesota Discovery Center.
Perched near a defunct open pit mine and atop underground mine shafts, the Minnesota Discovery Center tells the story of the Iron Range through exhibits, interpretation, programming, and research materials. It highlights the story of the immigrants who migrated to the Iron Range (or the Iron Ridge, as President George W. Bush once mistakenly said during a campaign speech in Duluth). The immigrants came at the turn of the 20th century to find work in the iron ore industry. Native Americans are also featured.
Apparently, everyone else was holed up in their homes because we had the place almost to ourselves on a Saturday afternoon. We were able to wander through the exhibits totally unimpeded. So unimpeded that when Russ saw a person standing in front of an exhibit, he mistook it for a mannequin until it moved!
The lower level of the center features exhibits about the immigrants’ journey to the United States, examples of what a schoolroom and a saloon were like, and information about conditions of the land farther back in time – geology and fossils.
I must have been feeling lonely because my favorite exhibit was the replica saloon, complete with mannequins who were playing cards and standing at the bar. Back in the day in the nearby town of Hibbing, there were 6 dry goods stores, 12 general stores, and 45 saloons! People had their priorities and it wasn’t churches back then. Saloons were social centers where miners shared the news of the day, had a drink, and spent time with each other.
Both floors of the center offer views of the Glen Mine Pit, but I chose to look from the second floor. The open pit mine was closed in 1957 and trees have started to reclaim its banks. The second floor also features a movie theater. With the push of a button, Russ and I had our own private showing of the documentary, “Iron Range: Minnesota Building America.” This floor also provides access to a research center.
The discovery center’s restaurant is closed for the season, but their gift shop is open. During summer, they offer trolley tours of the grounds, plus there’s a mountain bike park that opens in mid- to late-May and a mini-golf course. I’m sure it must be a busier place in summer.
As we left, the staff at the reception desk were marveling at the “crowds” that were visiting the center. One exclaimed, “There were four people in here already and we just got eight more!”
They were serious.
Russ and I just gave each other a look and chuckled.
If you’re still social distancing due to the pandemic, this is the place for you. But if you get too lonely, you can at least socialize with the saloon mannequins.