Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range in 1959 was economically depressed with the average living wage being about $5,000. This was before the passage of the Taconite Amendment which helped to bring jobs to the iron range area of Northern Minnesota. People did what they could to support their familes. They hunted fished and trapper to make money.
The trappers in the area trapped on public and private land. There were logging areas and roads that allowed access, but getting back in the woods was accomplished by walking, sometimes on snowshoes. The snowmobiles were just being manufactured, but not too many people owned one. Trap thieves were all over, so trappers kept their trap line locations a secret.
The early and most experienced trappers of the time were of Scandinavian descent. Names like Buck Snyder, Ruben Peterson, Al Erickson and George Hirvela were known throughout the northern half of the state for their ability as all-around woodsmen as well as trappers. This time period was before the existence of Rescue Squads and when anyone became lost in the woods, the wardens would be calling trappers to assist in any searches. This only helped the reputation of the trapper and elevated in the eyes of his neighbors. These men made their living in the forest and knew as much about wilderness as the animals they pursued. So in 1959 when you spoke of a trapper, you spoke with respect.
Most of the trappers subscribed to the popular magazine Fur Fish and Game, and that magazine noted that Pennsylvania had a well-organized trappers’ organization. They published their activities in the Fur, Fish and Game, and they tried to get all trappers to become better organized or take a chance on losing their trapping heritage. This started talk between trapping partners, as everyone had a partner then. Gene Sandberg and Mel Smith trapped together and did Harry Chase and Del Sogard. A well-known father and son team was George Hirvela and his son Willie. Talk led to informal meetings. Pressure began from the anti-trapper faction, and Minnesota threatened to eliminate the bounty system, and the livelihood of trappers was in danger of going away. Mel Smith started to push harder and harder for trappers to organize.
In February of 1959, Mel Smith organized a meeting in Ray and trappers from International Falls, Hibbing and Grand Rapids meet for one specific purpose – to organize. Bob Himes was elected as the first president and Gene Sandberg became the first vice-president, and the group officially adopted the name “Minnesota Trappers Association”. The MTA was born. One of the most immediate tasks for this small organization was to get other trappers to see the need for organization and to join them. The other was to convince the general public of the humaneness of trapping.
As trappers began to trust each other and to work toward a common goal, secrecy and mistrust began to disappear allowing the MTA to prosper.
A logo contest was held and a youngster from Plummer won with a design that has remained the MTA logo for the past 50 years.