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Sparta MN - Birthplace of Eveleth Hockey?

Sparta Spartans Hockey 1935

Is Sparta Minnesota the birthplace of Eveleth hockey? The home of US Hockey is Eveleth. For those who haven’t been there, it is a town on the range that some consider the west end of the Mesabi Range.  I consider it the center of the Mesabi Range.  Some people call the Mesabi Range, the Iron Range or “da Range”.  There is even a song floating around the internet called “I come from da Range”.

The song lists all the towns that people think of as towns, but “da range” is funny in that towns come and go.  They sprout for awhile and prosper, then disappear as the woods and the winters take over the town site.  If you live there, you’re a “Ranger”, if you moved in, you’re a “Packsacker” until you have lived there long enough that one of the locals starts calling you a “Ranger”. That might take a few years.

At least that’s how it used to be.  When I grew up and went to Duluth on a Saturday, I could tell if the person driving a car was a “Ranger”.  There were too many dirt roads and too much natural iron ore dust (not taconite) and all the “Ranger” cars were covered with reddish orange dirt.

One town that has survived as an “original” town for all these years is Sparta, MN.  It is a gem of early history of a railroad town, unchanged by modern conveniences like streets and gutters.  It is located between Eveleth and Gilbert (you know the Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears hockey team).  Towns like Sparta were formed by the railroad creating a reason to stop trains (take on water for a steam engine was always a good reason).  All “da Range” towns were railroad towns as much as they were mining towns.  There location was determined by the railroad need and people built the town around the tracks.  Nearness to the tracks was a key property feature (think of the effort to haul a heavy piece of furniture like a piano on wet muddy roads by horses or “Model T” trucks). 

The people of Sparta never owned the land they built their town on, they leased it from the railroad.  The result is a twisted set of houses and roads set along side railroad tracks between Eveleth and Gilbert, almost untouched in the last century.  That town was home of the Eveleth hockey team in the late 40’s and early 50’s.  They furnished, according to my Dad, a good number of players on that team.  At least that’s how I was told.

My dad used to take my brother and me to the Eveleth Hippodrome to watch the Minneapolis Lakers.  They would play regular season games there against such teams as the Rochester Royals and the Syracuse Nationals (Dolph Shayes?). When the Hippodrome was set up for basketball then, the kids could go sit on the apron of the court at each end under the nets.  I watched Miken, Mickleson, and Pollard from the ankles up as a 10 year old, it was great.

It was on the way home from these games, that my dad would drive the 1950 green Chevy Deluxe he owned down the "Sparta cut-off" as he called it.  We would pass through Sparta on a cold January night and I would see kids out skating on an outdoor rink (there may have been two), with bright lights on, playing hockey.  When I first saw them playing, I asked my father, what are they doing?   His first answer is one that I always remembered.  "They are playing hockey", my dad would say.  He would then go on to talk about playing town hockey when he grew up.  It was the depression.  He would do "widow work" for the township when he could get it.  He would earn 50 cents a day. The widow would get the rest.  That left him a lot of time to play hockey.

He played goalie and more then once talked about Sears Roebuck catalogs for leg pads and modified old baseball mitts for a catcher.  He would talk about playing the Eveleth kids who he said “were as good as boot hockey would allow them to be”.  But he always ended the conversation with “those Sparta kids are “the reason Eveleth has a good high school hockey team”.

I can still remember driving by those rinks in the night watching those kids playing through a frosted window.  Every once in awhile, I make a small effort to find out if what he said was true.  When I went to the Eveleth Peewee A tourney, I enjoyed the history of the old Hippodrome and watched the soon to be Eveleth-Gilbert High School hockey team and then drove on to visit some people I knew.  I took the Sparta cut-off which has been widened and improved, but no longer had any hockey rinks.  I drove through the tangle of Sparta’s streets and still marveled that the old houses were still going. 

When I arrived at my relatives, I mentioned that I had stopped by Sparta.  They told me something sad.  The railroad had finally sold the land the town had leased for the past 120 years.  The new owner was evicting the town next year. Why I wondered?   Without the people living there, it would become like all towns that die on the “da Range”-eaten by the wild woods and the winter and turned back to nature.  That seemed to me to be a poorer use of the land.

Story submitted by: Paul Williams whom is a retired engineer from “da Range” now living in the Twin Cities.

Sparta Spartans Hockey 1935

Sparta Spartans Midget Hockey 1943