At Home On The Iron Range

by Paula Radice


Sorry not to have had a contribution in last month's Freewheelin', but I had a surprise bout of jaundice and abdominal pain that signalled the return of my gallstone problems, and ended up with two weeks in hospital just before the end of term. The worst of it was, of course, the worry as to whether I would be able to get to Hibbing on the long-planned holiday, but I'm delighted to say that I recovered in time, that Monica and I made it to Hibbing, have returned safely and had an absolutely brilliant time. 

Minnesota is beautiful. We drove north from Minneapolis, on Highway 169, through rolling countryside of farms, trees and picturesque small towns. There are lakes everywhere: Minnesota calls itself "The Land of 10,000 Lakes", but everyone tells you that there are actually more like 15,000.  We had a week of beautiful blue-sky weather, so the state's name, which means "Sky-reflecting Water", couldn't have been more apt. As you go north, the traffic - never heavy compared to England's motorways - becomes even more quiet, and the driving is easy. The trees turn from broad-leafed to conifers and white-trunked birches. We passed old Ojibwe Indian trading posts and a town called "Zimmerman", and saw deer bounding away from the road. It was all lovely. 

You know straight away when you reach the Mesabi Iron Range, because huge iron-red spoil heaps appear on the horizon. Our progress was then slowed by my need to stop and take photos every time we saw a roadsign for Hibbing! It seemed almost surreal actually to be there, like arriving, after years of dreaming about it, in a place whose real existence you weren't certain of. "Hibbing" is an iconic name for every Dylan fan. What would it be like in reality? 

We soon discovered that Hibbing is a really great place, far above our expectations. For a start, everywhere we went people were incredibly friendly and generous. Word of our presence in the town seemed to go before us, so that we would get to one shop to be told "Oh, you're the two English gals I heard about" (and we weren't misbehaving too badly!). Everyone wanted to talk, and make sure we were having a good time. They seemed genuinely astonished that we should travel all the way from England just to see where Bob Dylan grew up. The town has a real small-town feel to it: we saw friends meeting for breakfast in The Sportsmen's Café on Howard Street, sharing gossip and pancakes; everyone we spoke to seemed to know the other people in town that we had already met. 

Most welcoming and generous of all the Hibbingites we met were Linda and Bob Hocking, owners of Zimmy's at the bottom end of Howard Street. Zimmy's bar is the only obvious sign on Hibbing's main street that Bob Dylan has anything to do with the town (in fact, if it weren't for Zimmy's, and the Dylan display in the basement at the Library, there would be almost no evidence of him at all) and Bob and Linda are the people most responsible for flying Dylan's flag in the town.  (When Beatty Rutman, Dylan's mother, dropped by in 2000, and was asked if she minded the fact that they had called the bar Zimmy's, she replied "Honey, it's about time this town did something for my son".) 

Bob and Linda are wonderful: despite being very busy, they made time to stop and talk with us, and opened the most incredibly exciting doors for us in Hibbing. After talking to them for just one evening, we had a phone call inviting us to lunch, and discovered when we arrived that also there were Leroy Hoikkala (The Golden Chord's drummer) and Leona and B.J. Rolfzen, the latter being Dylan's High School English teacher (both of the Rolfzens were also neighbours and friends of the Zimmerman family - David Zimmerman had been their babysitter). We had a wonderful time, not only at lunch, but also that evening at the Rolfzens' house where B.J. and I talked for hours about poetry, writing and, of course, the young Robert Zimmerman. Leroy told us some unpublished stories about young Bob, too (he has very kindly promised me a telephone interview, which I'm going to get onto this week).  He is a shy but friendly man, proud of his part in Bob's early musical development, but acutely aware that Hibbing still has yet fully to appreciate the impact that Dylan has had on the wider world. "There's only twenty or so people in this town," he said, "who even know or care I played with Bob." 

Talking to Leroy and the Rolfzens, I got a new understanding of the sort of place Hibbing was for Dylan to grow up in, and a far more sensitive idea of what Zimmerman family life was like. Everyone we met had nothing but praise and admiration for both of Bob's parents, but especially Beatty, who was described as "a wonderful, wonderful woman", a warm, extremely caring and vibrant person who would go out of her way to help others. When she had come into Zimmy's a year or two before she died, she had gone to practically every table greeting people she knew and chatting, like an energetic royal progress. Leroy was adamant, too, that descriptions of an antagonistic relationship between Bob and his father had been distorted out of all  recognition. He told us that when the Harry Belafonte album came out with Bob playing harmonica, Abe had rung him at work and insisted he come over to the store straight away to hear it: "Come on, Leroy, you gotta hear it!  I just got it!" His pride in his son was very obvious, according to Leroy.  Years earlier, when Bob was asking for a motorbike from his father, Abe rang Leroy, who already had one, and asked him to oversee the purchase, to ensure that a safe one was bought: Leroy still boasts that he rode Bob's bike before he himself did. He was also there when Bob famously almost went under the wheels of a train on the railroad crossing. 

I'm hoping to write up in more detail what I learned from both Leroy and B.J. B.J. is an incredible man, and was evidently a committed and brilliant teacher. Still delighting in poetry, he makes for an inspirational conversationalist, and the time I spent with him was very precious. I couldn't help feeling that he must have had a discernible impact on Bob's writing, and certainly on his understanding and knowledge of poetry. B.J. still has a very clear picture in his mind of young "Robert" (as he was always called) sitting in the front row, three chairs from the door, sitting quietly ready for each lesson to start, never chatting as the others students did until B.J. started talking. He would love to meet Bob again - they haven't spoken since Abe Zimmerman's funeral, although B.J. and Leona have attended Dylan concerts with tickets donated by David Zimmerman - and with B.J. not in the best of health and now 82 it would be a good time for them to see each other.  I really hope that it happens. 

But even those events weren't the full extent of the great time that we had in Hibbing. When we got to 2425 7th Avenue East to see the Zimmerman house, we were met by Donna who lives there now (she knew we were coming because her sister works in the Sunrise Deli, which used to the Lybba Theater owned by Dylan's grandfather, where we had called in earlier!). After chatting for a while, she went back into the house and re-emerged with a bathroom floor tile for each of us: she and her husband Greg are doing some remodelling in the house, and were taking up the original bathroom floor, as laid by Abe Zimmerman! The photo you can see below, of us sitting on the lawn clutching said floor tiles, was taken by Larry Ryan, photographer for the local paper, but also the photographer and poster designer for the annual Dylan Days event - another really great person we met in Hibbing. 

We also saw the High School, which is just as incredible a building as everyone says it is.  (Just as incredible was the way we were happily allowed to wander at will through the building - I even sat in the library for an hour writing notes about the school). The quality of the decoration inside is just beautiful; plaster and gilt ceilings, huge landscape paintings in the entrance hall; statuary in the school library.  B.J.'s English classroom was Room 204. The auditorium is, of course, the high point. It's massive, and very, very lovely.  We sat on the stage where Robert Zimmerman had so upset the teachers and his peers by pounding out rock and roll in the Convocation concert, and saw the piano which is alleged to be the one he broke the pedal from on that occasion (it certainly looked old enough). Even the fire extinguishers are behind beautiful stained glass doors. The chandeliers in the auditorium are said to be worth half a million dollars each, and are irreplaceable. 

What else did we do in Hibbing?  Up and down Howard Street, I took photos of all the sights with a Dylan connection, or where something with a Dylan connection used to be. The Micka Electric/Zimmerman Appliance store on 5th Avenue East was pulled down, and has been replaced by an ugly modern building with a photocopier business in it. The Androy Hotel, where Bob had his Bar Mitzvah party in 1954, has, after many years of lying derelict, been renovated into apartments for "seniors": it is still a very imposing building, and dominates the lower end of Howard Street. Bob Hocking ate there with his mother on the last evening that The Crystal Lounge was open for business, and he gave me an old matchbook.  Crippa Music is another music store, Rupar Music.  Braman Music, where Bob took guitar lessons from Raymond Blake, is now Walken's Jewelry.  Collier's BBQ is now a Chinese restaurant, Hong Kong Kitchen. The Moose Lodge is still there, but the L& B Café in the same building, where Bob used to eat cherry pie after school, has gone. Many of the old businesses we located using a 1967 Hibbing phone directory that Bob Hocking generously gave me. On 1st Avenue, we found the synagogue, now a private house and with the stained glass windows removed, but with the signs that it was once a place of worship still clear. 

In Aubin's Photographic store, a wonderful repository of local photographic history run by Paul Aubin, I found old photos of Howard Street, and a picture from a trade fair of a 1940s or 1950s Micka Electric trade display. There was also a copy of the famous photo of the teenage Echo Helstrom looking like a slightly wild Hollywood star. (She had, coincidentally, been back in Hibbing only a few days before we got there, and had signed the Zimmy's guest book "It's great to be Home on the Range": Linda Hocking said that she was still a real "free spirit", despite now having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and that her daughter looks just like the younger Echo). 

The Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine is huge. It is said that the open-cast pit can be seen from space, a dark red gash in the countryside. It's what, of course, paid for the beautiful High School, and the other impressive public buildings in Hibbing. And its topography is ever-changing, as it is still being mined for iron ore. Unusually for such a man-made phenomenon, it seems to sit naturally in the landscape, with pools of bright blue water making lakes in its depths. It seems just another natural wonder of this part of the world.  There is a small visitors' centre (the bigger mining museums are in Chisholm, a few miles to the north) which sells t-shirts and gives out free samples of the iron-bearing taconite. On the drive back into Hibbing, we passed through the remaining streets of the ghost town of North Hibbing, complete with lampposts and road signs, and the concrete bases showing where the houses were uprooted to be rolled down the road to the new Hibbing, "the town that moved". These deserted streets are where the young Beatty Stone grew up. 

I tried to put photos into the body of this piece, but was stumped by the computer, so the photos come separately below. It really was a wonderful holiday, most especially because of the kindness and generosity of those we were lucky enough to meet.  If our experiences are anything to go by, Robert Zimmerman grew up amongst good people. 

After we (very sadly) left Hibbing, we drove north almost to the Canadian border, through a glorious wooded and lake-strewn wilderness, until turning south to drive down the North Shore of Lake Superior, down Highway 61. And yes, we did pull off it, just so that we could shout "Highway 61 Revisited" when we got back on it!  We passed through Duluth, promising to visit it properly the next time we come, which will be as soon as we can both afford it again. 

A few days later, we drove west from Minneapolis and St. Paul (The Twin Cities are very civilized and well worth a visit: I especially recommend the Minnesota Historical Center in St. Paul), up the Crow River because, um, we'd heard there were some nice farms there. And we did find a nice farm, set back from the road, therefore very secluded, and right on the river bank, so that someone,  a famous rock star say, could have a nice summer break there with his family (we knew one particular  rock star wouldn't be there at the time, because rumour had it he'd just started a tour with Willie Nelson). Pausing briefly to eat home-made burgers in the nearby bar where said rock star is reputed to drink, we drove around Lake Minnetonka and back to Minneapolis.           

We'd seen the present and the past of Bob Dylan. It was a great week.

Paula's Pictures

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Bob & Linda Hocking in Zimmy’s  

Two strange English women outside Bob’s family home, with floor tiles.

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The Androy Hotel
  The Lybba- Sunrise Deli.
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The library of Hibbing High School  

Back of the High School, on the road Bob walked (the few blocks) to school

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Ceiling of the auditorium   Back of the Zimmerman’s home,        showing Bob’s route when he sneaked out from his bedroom – via the roof of the garage.
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Hibbing High School
  The deserted streets of North Hibbing
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2425 7th Avenue East

The Moose Lodge, Howard Street

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Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine, North of Hibbing
  Me with Leroy Hoikkala
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Howard Street
  Hull-Rust-Mahoning mine
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The sign outside Zimmy’s: I told you we got ourselves known (or notorious?)!

  The auditorium of the High School