Last week’s excellent letter to the editor from Lake Vermilion resident Elaine McGillivray reminded us of how the derogatory term “packsacker” is so regularly misused in our area by those of limited imagination.
The origin of the term, at least in northeastern Minnesota, dates back to the late 1950s and 1960s, during the height of the taconite boom. The peak of employment during that era was mostly in construction, as massive plants and even entire towns were being built. Many of those construction workers were temporary and had no intention of setting down roots in our area communities. They were making a lot of money during the week, and often getting in trouble on evenings and weekends, creating friction in the communities located near the man-camps that housed these workers.
They were called “packsackers” because everyone knew they would be here a short time and didn’t really care about their impact on area communities since they would soon be moving on.
Contrast that with the more recent generation of in-migrants to our area— folks who have come from a wide range of backgrounds, not looking for a quick buck, but for the high-quality lifestyle available here in the North Country for those who actually appreciate the uniqueness of our region. These are people who, at some point in their lives, were introduced to Lake Vermilion or the Boundary Waters, and fell in love with the natural amenities that our area has to offer. If money were their objective, they would have settled elsewhere. Instead, they have resorted to a variety of creative means to make a living, or enjoy retirement, adding their incomes and talents to the area. They’ve brought their expertise and their entrepreneurial skills to open new businesses, adding a diverse range of new employment opportunities to the area. They’ve purchased property and built homes, maintaining vitality in professional sectors ranging from real estate sales to construction, to finance and insurance. They keep our local grocery stores and service stations in business, keep our marinas overflowing with activity, and sustain local jobs in the process.
And as our letter writer noted last week, they have become the lifeblood of so many community organizations in our area. While her letter focused on Tower-Soudan, the same is equally true all around our area, particularly in Ely. Virtually every event that happens in our area includes the invaluable contributions of those who a few blowhards would prefer to simply write off as packsackers or some other epithet intended to demean. Our new residents today are the exact opposite of packsackers— they are community builders in every sense of the word.
When we hear that term used to describe our new generation of residents, we know that the speaker not only doesn’t know their history, but is hopelessly out of touch with their own community as it is today.
The influx of active and engaged newcomers is what keeps our communities vibrant and interesting. These are the people, in many cases, who devote their time to advancing projects like expanding broadband access so more people can call our area home, by working remotely. In many cases, they are the activists advancing new trail projects, or working to protect our area lakes from various forms of pollution or aquatic invasive species.
When we hear people complain that new residents bring new ideas or different values, we can’t help but believe that a new idea and a new perspective now and then is pretty important to the success of communities. There’s enough ossified thinking in our area as it is, and most of it comes from those who use terms like “packsackers.”
No one can control where they came from. But they can decide where they want to be. And for communities that are in desperate need of new workers in our businesses and new families for our schools, we should be welcoming anyone who has the gumption and the interest to make a life for themselves and their family here in the North Country. Here’s a better term for our new residents: “neighbor.”