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A 'Rocky' history: Builder tells story behind Silver Bay landmark

Rocky Taconite stands proudly on the outer edge of Silver Bay. The statue has had a few coats of paint over the years. (Teri Cadeau/News-Chronicle)1 / 2
Neil Forsberg shares stories about the formation of "Rocky Taconite" at a meeting of the Bay Area Historical Society in Silver Bay on Friday, Oct. 19. (Teri Cadeau/News-Chronicle)2 / 2

The "Rocky Taconite" statue is a Silver Bay landmark and familiar gateway to the city. Yet until this year, few details were known about the statue's origins. A speaker at a recent meeting of the Bay Area Historical Society shed more light on how Rocky came to be.

Rocky Taconite (right) and Neil Forsberg's uncle, Erick Green. (Left) Rocky on a Silver Bay postcard. Teri Cadeau/News-ChronicleNeil Forsberg, now an octogenarian, was about 26 years old when he started working for his uncle's ornamental iron company in South Minneapolis.

He was in charge of the shop when the order for Rocky came in 1961. He can't quite remember how Star Iron Works acquired the bid for the iron man statue for Reserve Mining Co., but he does know they bid the project for $500.

"My partner didn't know beans about fabricating, so he didn't know what he was getting us into," Forsberg said. "There were four of us who spent many hours a day working on Rocky for darn near a year. It took us a while to figure out how to build the darn thing."

The company received a drawing from a a sign painter at Reserve Mining named John Simrak. However, Forsberg didn't have much for specifications other than that the statue had to be made out of iron.

The first struggle was how to form the round head and body. At first, they planned on spinning thin balls of iron, but found the material turned out too thin to weld other parts to it. Forsberg remembers consulting the shop foreman, who had acted as a mentor through the years and knew how to build the spheres.

Using a hollowed-out tree stump as a frame, Forsberg and his co-workers formed separate pieces, then beat them together with hammers while still hot to form a half-sphere.

"If you take an orange and you cut it in half, then you've got two halves. Then if you make boats out of them, you can put them together to make a whole," Forsberg said. "Our craftsman gave us cardboard templates of these boats and we cut them out with acetylene torches, heat them up, run them to the stump where we had heavy-duty hammers with cast iron heads on them and heavy, heavy leather. They'd lay down this boat and then we'd beat the living daylights of the pieces... If you look at Rocky, you'll notice he's got a texture to him. That's from beating him."

Next came the pipes for arms, which had to be estimated.

"No one said what size pipe, so we had to cut various diameters of pipe then hold them and go, 'Yeah, that looks good," Forsberg said.

Once the arms and legs were welded on, a new challenge arose: hands.

"Nobody knew how to make hands. I was like, 'Man, you guys are too old,'" Forsberg said. "In kindergarten, we used to take our hands, set them down, then take a color crayon and go around the fingers to make a hand. So my hand went down on the big plates and drew around my hands to make them bigger."

One hand was left open to wave at passersby and the other was molded around the handle of a pickaxe. Forsberg also including a bit of his family to the statue by adding his grandfather's old pick from Sweden to the top of the handle.

Forsberg also remembers each of the workers trying their best to form Rocky's face by drawing faces out of soapstone. After crafting Rocky's gauntlets, boots, facial features, a helmet and a belt and buckle to hide the seam at Rocky's waist, the project was complete and ready to be shipped up to Silver Bay.

But not before Forsberg had a little more fun with the iron man.

Forsberg's oldest son Erick was 2 years old when Rocky was complete. Forsberg took Erick in to see the statue.

Neil Forsberg stands beside the "Rocky Taconite" statue near the entryway into Silver Bay. (Teri Cadeau/News-Chronicle)"We walked through the alley, which was kind of spooky anyway, then through the back door. There weren't any shop lights in there, except right over Rocky, there was a 4-foot fluorescent tube that should have been replaced 10 years ago because it was black at both ends and sat there and flickered," Forsberg said. "So we took this kid through the back door, where about 50 feet ahead of us, hung Rocky with this flickering light overhead.

"You never heard a kid scream so loud," Forsberg recalled. "He hung on to me. He didn't want to look at Rocky. But he was the first kid to see Rocky. And at that particular time, he never wanted to see him again."

Erick Forsberg was at the program and said he didn't think he remembered the statue, but he'd heard his father tell the story so many times over the years that he remembers the story.

Forsberg wasn't the only person with a connection to Rocky at the luncheon. Joan Burke, the niece of John Simrack, the Reserve sign painter who drew up Rocky, was there, as well as Muffy Stefanich, the daughter of the man who gave Rocky his name.

After the statue was installed, the company ran a naming contest and whittled down the entries to two options: "Petey Pellet" or "Rocky Taconite."

"My mother still remembers Dad getting the phone call about the name contest. When the phone rang, he immediately said, 'I won.' And sure enough, it was about the name and he had won," Stefanich said.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. 

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