Iron Range, a photographic essay, is a testament to my grandparents life in the northern woods of Minnesota, located forty minutes away from the nearest grocery store, on property that was originally homesteaded by my great great grandparents in the 1920s. This is a memoir about a dedicated couple who lived a simple, yet complicated life enriched by a journey of faith and love.
I grew up visiting my grandparents in Little Swan, a neighborhood of the city of Hibbing, Minnesota, but it wasn’t until I entered adulthood that I realized just how greatly their life differs from most other people.
My grandfather, Francis Robertson, was born and raised on the 120 acres where he still resides. Born into this world by two parents of hardworking Finnish descent, my grandfather grew up in an environment where it was all work and no play - often assisting his father in the logging industry throughout Northern Minnesota. Eventually, my grandfather left home to join the United States Naval Construction Battalions, better known as the Seabees. In the time following his military duties, my grandfather worked at Ziegler CAT in the Twin Cities, often living out of his car. He eventually founded Robertson Enterprises - providing excavating, forestry, demolition, and real-estate development services.
My grandmother, born Velga Eglite, is a World War II refugee from Latvia, where her parents ran a large dairy farm and lived a fairly wealthy lifestyle. My great grandfather was separated from his family by war and forced to join the military when my grandmother was only four years old. My grandmother, her mother, and her older sister fled from Latvia to Poland and then Germany, before immigrating to the United States in 1952 by way of sponsorship from the Lutheran World Federation - never to see her father again. It wasn’t until many years after the war had settled and these three women adjusted to their new lives in America, that they attempted to contact my great grandfather by writing to various Lutheran Churches in Latvia. To their astonishment, they found that he was alive and that he had survived as a prisoner in a Siberian Concentration Camp until the war ended. He had befriended a man in the concentration camp who was of poor health and knew his chance of survival was very slim. The man had asked my great grandfather to promise him that should he come out of this alive, that he would find his wife and take care of her. Under the impression that he would never see his family again, my great grandfather honored his request, and after becoming a free man, he found his friend’s wife and married her. Due to financial strain, my great grandparents could never afford to visit one another, and instead they exchanged love letters that my grandmother still has in her possession.
My grandparents met in Richfield, Minnesota where my grandfather was renting one of the efficiency apartments within the home that my grandmother lived in. They eventually fell in love, got married, and moved back to the house that my grandfather grew up in on the Iron Range. My grandparents are now the third generation of the Robertson family to take over the property and live in the original home.
My grandfather was in the construction industry for his entire career and owned heavy duty equipment and machinery capable of altering the land. Over the years, he excavated three of his own ponds and extended the swamp system on his property. With the help of his two sons, he built his own attached workshop equipped with a wood burning furnace, horse stable, bunker, and airplane hanger out of salvaged materials and wood cut from his own property. Being a Flight Instructor since 1981 and an active member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, my grandfather maintains a grass landing strip, officially named Robertson Field, which is recognized by the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association.
It is my privilege as a grandson to document my grandparents history through photography to preserve the stories of their life and encourage other people to reflect on their own family legacy.
Brandon Lepasti is currently the Operations Manager at Clear Channel Airports where he manages the installation and maintenance of advertising displays throughout Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. Brandon lives in Bloomington, Minnesota with his wife and two cats. He is very passionate about his photography and pursues it as a creative outlet on the side.
Brandon was an avid snowboarder throughout his teenage years and early twenties. He obtained a few company sponsorships and was heavily involved in the local snowboard scene. Due to the creativity and inclusion of the media arts within the snowboarding industry, Brandon became interested in photography, which led him to attend The Art Institutes International Minnesota to study the medium more in depth.
While attending The Art Institutes International Minnesota, Brandon discovered his interest in photographing people within their environment. Being more of an introvert by nature, Brandon felt that a camera gave him a means to dig deeper into the lives of those he encountered in his daily life. Brandon’s inspiration to make a portrait of someone is based on their unique physical environment, human characteristics, and the role they play in our society. In search for the people and environments that inspire him most, he often starts with those whom he is closest to - his family and friends. This led Brandon to begin documenting his grandparents life on the Iron Range through means of literal and interpretive photography.
Brandon Lepasti was a fiscal year 2013 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. Iron Range was funded, in part, by this grant.
To see more of Brandon’s photography, go to www.brandonlepasti.com