Life of the Party

Death in the mines. Hunger marches. An FBI spy on every block. Minnesota's daughters of the revolution can tell you about it all. But first, have some coffee cake.

The dark aqua book sits near the nondescript black phone, by the stack of newspaper clippings with the dates carefully inked on the corners. Toini Mackie has set it out during her latest expedition to "the archives," almost a century's worth of files in her closet. She turns off the TV (Bill Bradley is on CNN), walks a few steps to the kitchen counter, and pulls a steaming carafe of coffee off the stove. On the gingham-covered table she sets out cups, napkins, and the cardamom bread from an Iron Range bakery. Then it's time for the book.

Two heads, one gray, one white, bend over the cloth cover with the faded image of a well-muscled worker set against a line of factories belching black smoke. Mackie opens the volume and her friend Helvi Savola's eyes gleam as she glimpses the text: "It's a Finnish calendar," she says, reaching forward to turn a glossy page. The paper is dog-eared and yellowed in places, but the type is still clearly legible, and so are the illustrations.

"One shows the poor people's situation," Mackie says, pointing to an image a bit smaller than a standard business card. "The other shows the rich. See?" The illustration on the right side of the page depicts a well-appointed bedroom. "Look at this rich, big fat lady, with the maid who's taking care of the baby." The image on the left shows a haggard woman in what looks to be a run-down tenement: "Look at the stove with a pipe going all the way across the ceiling," Mackie says, her wrinkled finger tracing the lines.

Mike Steirnagle

The drawings continue: Poor kid walking to a factory job while rich kid frolics in a school yard. Poor child playing in an alley near a trash can while rich child rides a cart in the park. "Oh, look--there's a poor man being carried out of the mine on a stretcher," Mackie points out. "Half dead, I suppose." The counterpoint to that one is a man in a building labeled BANK. "Reminds me of Wall Street," Mackie scoffs. "Taking it easy, making money."

She closes the book; the cover bears the number 1919. Mackie was nine years old then, and she loved the calendar. "I would look at these pictures," she remembers. "It got me at an early age."

"It" was a credo Mackie and Savola learned while they were still losing baby teeth, one men shouted from street corners and women discussed over laundry in the mining towns where they grew up. It was taken for granted the way weather is, known the way one knows that women may die in childbirth and men may come home missing a limb. It was a fact of life: The rich are rich because the poor are poor.


Mackie and Savola aren't academic Marxists: You won't hear them discussing hegemony. Nor are they Hollywood Bolsheviks--none of that "Good morning, comrade" business. They are, simply, among the very few in Minnesota who saw the Communist Party grow into one of the state's most powerful movements--and who, three-quarters of a century, a Cold War and a fallen Wall later, remain what they used to call card-carrying members.

"No one gets cards anymore," Savola clarifies. "A lot of things have changed over the years." Mackie will barely let her finish before adding: "But the rich are still lining their pockets at the expense of the poor."

Mackie and Savola were born into households that spoke two languages fluently: Finnish and radical politics. The combination was common in the small immigrant towns of the upper Midwest--Mackie is from Minnesota's Iron Range, Savola from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Finns, Slavs, and Italians found plenty of work in the lumber camps, the iron and copper mines. Bone-numbing work. Miners went underground for twelve hours at a time, laboring amid dust so thick they could barely breathe, with no hope of old-age pensions, disability benefits, unemployment compensation.

Savola's dad got out and bought a farm. When Mackie was nine, her father also left the mines--on a stretcher. A falling rock hit his head during his shift at the Commodore Mine in Virginia, leaving him paralyzed. Her parents were lucky to get $72 a month from the company for themselves and three kids.

They took to spending summers in the town of Cherry, where friends built them a house on some family land: "A shack, I would call it," Mackie recalls, "one room with a little upstairs. They built the house in one day. We had a cow, pig, three chickens, a rooster, and a garden. My mother canned. It was a rough life all right."

Cherry was something of a haven for miners, from the job's political dangers as well as its physical hazards. "Anyone who tried to organize workers was fired," Mackie recalls. "And if a fired miner applied to be a clerk in a grocery store, they wouldn't hire him. That's why so many went to work in the country."

Among Mackie's neighbors in Cherry was a blacklisted miner named Matt Halberg. His son, two weeks older than she, was named Arvo Gusta Halberg; he'd later change his name to Gus Hall and become a legend in national politics, running for president four times and serving as general secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. from 1959 on. And because the world of upper Midwest Finns was small, Helvi Savola also knew Hall: He and her husband Matt were shirttail relations and worked together in the Young Communist League.

Next Page »