“Inside the Museums” – An Afternoon in Hibbing, Minnesota

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This morning I had toast for breakfast. I wrote for an hour, thought about packing my suitcase, didn’t bother and then Don picked me up and we drove to Hibbing, Minnesota to see where Bob Dylan grew up.

For the longest time Hibbing has been a holy place to me, like Mecca, Lourdes and Disneyland all rolled into one. There are only so many books about Bob Dylan you can read, ( and i’ve read a lot, somewhere between 40 and 50 at last count), before you start obsessing about what it would be like to see the place where he grew up firsthand. This afternoon I had the chance to actually visit some of the places I’ve only ever read about before, and I am still reeling from the experience. I’m very grateful to my tour guide Don, who not only drove me to Hibbing but also guided me round town, gave me a little background on the iron range, (where he himself grew up), and also fuelled me with French Toast for the journey.

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Hibbing is a small town in Minnesota, situated on the iron range around 90 minutes North of Duluth. It has a population of about 16,000 and, though current mining practices may be slowly shifting, the demographic, has traditionally been home to the folks who make a living off iron ore mining. Bob Dylan, (or Bobby Zimmerman as he was back then), moved to Hibbing from Duluth at the age of six. Mr Zimmerman senior had contracted polio and, no longer capable of continuing in his line of work took a job in the family electrical equipment business situated in downtown Hibbing. Long before the Zimmerman exodus Hibbing had made its own difficult journey from one side of the city limits to the other. In 1917, having discovered a rich iron seam beneath the actual town, a local mining company convinced the residents to take up their houses and businesses and shift several miles sideways so the iron might be extracted from beneath their basements. The locals were to be generously compensated for their inconvenience with the construction of a High School to end all High Schools, a palace of learning unlike any other in the whole state.

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Our adventure today began inside Hibbing High the school which Bob attended for much of his teenage life. It’s an imposing building from the outside and from inside is nothing short of magnificent. We checked in with the school office, got our hall passes and were free to explore the building for almost an hour. The auditorium at the heart of the school building is actually a concert hall to rival any turn of the century performance space I’ve seen in my years working at the Ulster Hall. It seats almost 2,000 people, has genuine Austrian-made chandeliers and the most beautiful ceiling art and fittings I’ve ever seen in a school environment.

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The students who were about to take to the stage for a drama rehearsal were extremely welcoming and a very friendly and well-informed young tour guide in training, named Madi gave me a great tour of the space, particularly pointing out the various haunted parts of the auditorium. In the library, (which is also an incredibly impressive space), a lovely librarian was kind enough to get the Dylan year books out and let us flick through and I discovered that Bob had been a somewhat unlikely member of the Latin club.  The best past of visiting Hibbing High, however, was being allowed to stand on the auditorium stage, right in the spot where Bob infamously shocked teachers and pupils alike with a very progressive performance on the school piano during the annual talent show. I hadn’t even expected to get inside the building and to be given such a warm welcome by students and staff members who are clearly just as passionate about their beautiful building as we are about the Ulster Hall, made for an incredibly memorable day.

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After school we took a quick tour around the town of Hibbing, visiting iconic buildings such as the hotel where Bob’s Bar Mitzvah was held, the spot where Bob and his girlfriend, (the fabulously named Echo Helstrom), had their first date and of course, the Zimmerman home where Bob spent most of his formative years. I’m so glad I got to visit Hibbing. Many of the Dylan books wrongly paint it as a bleak and almost depressing place to grow up. It definitely is quite isolated. When you consider just how far you’d need to travel to get to the next big city you can understand why a young Bob, hungry for music, art and culture, might have been frustrated in Hibbing. However, it’s also a beautiful example of small town America. It felt like a friendly kind of place to live with a real sense of community. The neighbourhoods are, for the most part, populated with exactly the kind of green lawn and picket fence houses you’d expect in a small, family-centric town. On the main street, though most have now closed down or changed hands, you can still see the buildings which housed family businesses, small cafes and shops back in the 1950s. It was a beautiful Fall day today and I can only imagine that the town might have looked a little different under several feet of snow but I’m so glad I had the opportunity to visit Hibbing and get a more accurate picture of where Bob Dylan began.

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