The Iron Man Memorial in Chisholm stands at eighty-five feet tall as a monument to the miners of Minnesota’s Iron Range. The nearly thirty-year story of its creation reveals northeastern Minnesotans’ commitment to recognizing their history, expanding local heritage tourism, and diversifying their economy beyond the mining industry.
The origin of the Iron Man Memorial can be traced back to conversations between World War II veterans (including Veda Ponikvar, publisher of the Chisholm Free Press) and citizens on the home front of the Mesabi Iron Range. Both groups wanted to honor the contributions of the local mining industry to the Allied victory as well as the broader industrial development of the United States. They also sought to memorialize fathers, uncles, and grandfathers who had worked for generations in the area’s open pit and underground mines.
In 1958, the Minnesota Museum of Mining in Chisholm submitted a proposal to the Centennial Statehood Commission asking for $21,875 dollars to fund the creation of an iron miner statue. The commission rejected the proposal, and limited finances within the mining museum put the project on hold. The idea and determination of its backers, however, remained.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s mining industry evolved with the commercialization of taconite and the passage of the 1964 Taconite Tax Amendment, which funded regional efforts to diversify the economy, including tourism. It wasn’t until the early 1970s, as the nation prepared to celebrate the country’s bicentennial, that efforts to construct an iron miner memorial were revived.
In 1973, Chisholm was the first city in the state to apply for and receive official Bicentennial Community status from the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. This required the city government to assemble a committee representative of a cross-section of its citizens to plan at least three projects related to bicentennial celebration themes. The idea of an iron miner memorial surfaced again as a project with potential to impact the community beyond 1976 (no direct funding was received from either the state or national bicentennial organizing bodies, however, for the effort). Members of the Iron Ore Miner Memorial Committee reached out to artists across the country sharing their vision for a statue depicting iron miners of the early twentieth century. Miners of this era wore oilskin helmets lit by candles and carried pick axes, shovels, and lunchpails to work. Committee members ultimately hired sculptor Jack E. Anderson of Michigan, whose Shrine of the Snowshoe Priest in L’Anse had the realist style they wanted for the iron man.
Anderson titled his prospective work “Emergence of Man Through Steel.” He planned for a monument that would appear to erupt from the ground, with beams of core-ten steel surrounded by six thirty-five-foot diameter circles representing the world. Distinct rocks would represent the Cuyuna, Mesabi, and Vermilion ranges, and visitors would be able to enter the base, which was to resemble the inside of an underground mine drift. Visitors were also to be able to climb a spiral staircase within the statue to a room featuring an Iron Range model train and mining artifacts.
Initial estimates for the work were $300,000, and planners aimed to complete the statue by the summer of 1977. As project chair Peter DelGreco explained, the work was intended both to attract tourists and to honor miners. “We’ve got halls of fame for everything,” he noted, “except the working man.” Donations came in all sizes, including, as committee flyers detailed at the time, “$50 from a miner’s widow, $88 in a cigar box from a group of fourth graders at our Lincoln School in Chisholm, and many $1–$2–$5 from people.”
Rising material costs and conflicts between Anderson and committee members delayed the monument’s completion. In the 1980s, low-priced ore imports from Brazil and inexpensive steel from Japan sent the US steel industry into a recession, which further crippled local fundraising efforts. Although the Iron Man Committee had raised and spent over $100,000 by this point, it needed to raise $250,000 more before the figure could be cast in steel and completed. A letter sent to Gary Lampaa (incoming commissioner of the IRRB) in November of 1982 referred to the statue as sleeping in the basement garage of the Chisholm Senior Citizens’ Center, waiting to be plastered and cast in his iron work clothes.
In 1986, a grant from the IRRRB provided the funding necessary to complete the statue and move it from its original location on the grounds of the mining museum to land across from Ironworld USA (a museum and entertainment complex run by the IRRRB, formerly known as the Iron Range Interpretative [sic] Center). The committee scrapped plans for an elevator, restaurant, information center, and gift shop inside the base of the statue due to lack of funds.
A crowd of around 1,500 people attended the memorial’s dedication on July 4, 1987. Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich spoke of the miners it honored, stating, “through their hard work, they made life better for all of us. They made America what it is today.” The road leading to the statue was also dedicated as Veda Ponikvar Boulevard in recognition of her tireless support of the project.
The statue is widely recognized as a Minnesota roadside attraction and serves as an icon of the region, particularly in tourism promotion. It is broadly advertised as the third-tallest free-standing sculpture in the United States, but as Chisholm City Attorney Lou Cianni explained at the 1987 dedication ceremony, “I can name you 100 guys, honorable men who deserve this recognition. It’s not a tourist attraction. It’s a memorial. And it’s probably too small for the people it’s memorializing.”
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.