Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The sweet life in the first mining town of Soudan

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According to the Almanac of Scarlet, this has been one of the longest winters I have ever known!

I’m glad I was able to hold up in my cozy house on the hillside across from the Post Office in Soudan. Bill and I moved here in July of 2017 from James Street in Ely and have thoroughly enjoyed living here. Some of my first memories were the number of kids playing outside (not seen much these days) and folks waving as we drove past their yards. Many neighbors continued to stop by our yard to welcome us with a big smile, handshake, and well wishes while we moved in and settled. It was very heartwarming. We had moved in a frenzy of packing, dying house cats, and my gut-gripping gallbladder issues. It was a relief to collapse in a chair in this grandma-style house despite being surrounded by mayhem and boxes. Moving to this little town was just what I needed.

I used to drive into Soudan once in a blue moon to stop at the Soudan Store for a hand-scooped ice cream cone served up by a friendly store clerk. It was always pretty easy to get into town but I never figured out how to get out until after I had lived here for awhile. I’m not the first person to say that either. It’s a rambling town with streets that curve and cooperate with the hills and valleys that eventually lead you back out to Hwy. 169.

I could never remember what street would “get me out” but it was always fun sightseeing and trying. I also greatly appreciate the cleanliness of Soudan and the pride folks have in caring for their homes. It is highly picturesque, seated below the pine-covered hillside in the wake of the old underground mine where the main street weaves past the old white-steepled Lutheran church so reminiscent of a scene from The Music Man. I often visualize Marian the Librarian briskly walking down the sidewalk there, passing a barbershop quartet in striped cotton suiting. 

Until living here, I never really paid attention to the significance of Soudan. I recently read former friend, actor and author Mike Hillman’s book, “The Soudan Mine”. Mike’s great-grandparents were some of the first of 350 settlers to arrive in Soudan back in 1884 after a three-day journey up the Vermilion Trail from Duluth. The town was the site of the first iron ore mine on the Iron Range. It got its name when Cornish miner Captain Elisha Morcom commented to his wife: “It is as dusty and cold here in Minnesota as it is dusty and hot in Africa. Why, this place is nothing but Tower’s little Sudan.” When the other miners heard the joke, they enjoyed it so much they decided to add the letter “o” for distinction and claim the name for their town. Soudan was where miners raised families and lived more structured lives, while single men preferred the lifestyle nearby Tower had to offer with its many businesses, boarding houses, taverns, and houses filled with “soiled doves.” 

The Post Office and the historic Soudan Store are two prime visiting places in this little town of 454 people (according to the 2018 census). When I go to get my mail I usually run into somebody friendly I know, except at night when it’s quiet, because in Soudan you can access your postal box 24 hours a day. All the boxes are keyless entry combination-style, heavy brass with exquisite detailing, manufactured in the early part of the century I’d wager. You don’t see these too often. There’s a wheel with letters on it you have to turn. In the beginning I decided to make up a little saying similar to “fat chipmunks jumping trees” to remember the letters of our combination. I also have the Vermilion Park Inn’s mailbox to empty, so I have that memorized as well, and am quite pleased that drilling lines for theater productions over the years tuned my memory for this task. The experience of combinations takes me back to my high school locker days...and that’s always a kick. Our postal person travels from Winton every weekday and for a half-day on Saturday and is always friendly and helpful. In the post office here there is even a recycle bin for undesired mail, which no doubt has kept me from overspending on “cutie patootie” clothes from mail order catalogs.

The Soudan Store, known as S.O.S. (Soudan’s only store) was built in 1892 by the Oliver Mining Co. to house the mining offices. The offices were later relocated to Ely and the building became the Oliver Club, an establishment to offer the miners an alternative to drinking alcohol. “They did serve “near beer”, sodas and candy,” said Andy Larson, lifelong Soudan resident and local historian. “There was a radio to listen to, a reading room, a pool table, plus cards and even a slot machine,” he added. A person had to be sixteen to enter the club and there were monthly membership dues paid. The Oliver Club ran until the mid-1950s, when the end of operations at the Soudan Mine became inevitable. Local residents decided to turn the club into a community store through the selling of shares. Groceries were added, then gas pumps, and the business still offers these luxuries for small town life today....including the ice cream! 

Across Center Street is the Vermilion Park Inn-Bed and Breakfast which was the former Soudan Hospital. It was built in 1862 to care for the miners and their families and had a resident doctor who lived in quarters on site. In 1962, when the mine closed, the hospital became a home for people living with mental illness. Following that, it was a bed and breakfast (with previous owners until 2016 when the current owners purchased it).

Now under the ownership of Mary Batinich, Tom Burns and his wife, Toni Mancina Genalo, the Inn boasts thirteen beautifully-decorated rooms, a Commons or meeting room, and a brand-new classroom on the lower level.  The Inn has hosted cultural events, meetings, and art classes, in addition to offering guests a cozy and comfortable venue. Bill and I have assisted with managing the Inn for about a year-and-a-half and have greatly enjoyed listening to the stories of folks who were either born there, had been hospitalized there, or had mothers who worked there as nurses.

Soudan is near two state parks, hiking/biking/snowmobile trails, and a beautiful beach and picnic area just down the road. One of the most beautiful trails is right across the road from our place. The town also has a skating rink, ballfields, and the best “dump” I’ve ever graced! Clean, with a beautifully-wooded entrance, it is easily accessible off Highway 169 and in my experience with “dump authoritarians” at other locations, is hosted by quite amiable attendants! I joke with my husband that going to Menard’s and the dump are my favorite dates.   

There still are no taverns in Soudan so that’s a boon to my liver, but we do have our “wildlife.” Deer frequently wander through the streets and yards and locals have to bolster their fences to protect gardens. That’s a common occurrence up here in the northwoods. Stray dogs aren’t generally a concern around town. I greet the local canines if I see them strutting up the sidewalk. They were here before I was, and like the other neighbors or kids, seem to know what they are up to. 

For the remainder of snow season it is my intention to visit with some of the older lifelong residents here and write the stories of their memories growing up in Soudan. When this happens it will be good reading, just don’t hold your breath too long...like my weight loss program these days, patience will bring things about in good time.

Sources: The Soudan Mine by Michael “Iron Mike” Hillman;

Oral history by Andy Larson, a life long Soudan resident and historian.

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