Twenty years after move to the Range, IDEA Drilling is still exploring

Three of IDEA Drilling’s first five employees; from left are Brian McCabe, Beth Dewhurst, human resources manager, and shop foreman Jim Hardy. All three continue to work at the company, which relocated to the Range in 1999.


Brian McCabe was No. 3 when IDEA Drilling was launched more than 20 years ago.

He was on the ground floor as the third employee of the mining exploration company on the Iron Range and the first permanent hire by company founders No. 1 Dick Backstrom and his wife, No. 2 Pam Backstrom.

“Dick is a true visionary … not necessarily that great at operations,” No. 3 said of his good friend with a good-natured chuckle, “but a real visionary in creating and developing this company.”

A relaxed McCabe on a recent early morning called in No. 4 — shop foreman Jim Hardy — to the conference room to help tell the story of IDEA and reminisce about the early days at the company that began with a single drill and has now expanded to a fleet of 25 and a satellite operation in Winnemucca, Nev.

“The most fun we had was getting this business going. I was always so excited to get to work every day,” McCabe said. “We worked a ton and enjoyed it a ton. We all did our share. We were a tight-knit group.”

Hardy, who has been with IDEA for 20 years, agreed.

“We’ve had good times even in hard times,” said the shop foreman, who McCabe hired in 1999.

McCabe said he doesn’t even recall what his official title was when he joined IDEA.

“If we got a call at 3 in the morning about a problem, we would go and fix it … titles didn’t matter,” he said.

And it’s obvious by his current business card that titles really still don’t mean much to McCabe. “Brian McCabe, IDEA Drilling” with only a cell phone and email.

“We all do our share,” McCabe said. “We are workers.”

A big part of McCabe’s “share” now at IDEA is to help rebuild the company back to at least where it was five years ago when he retired.

“Things are not too bad. We’re on track to getting back to the way it was. Our drilling is phenomenal,” McCabe said. “But the vision had eroded a bit. We need to make sure we are an extension of our customers just like Dick has always believed and we are getting there again,” he added.

IDEA Drilling was just that - an idea of Dick and Pam to be able to compete with the internationally-known Longyear drilling on the Range before IDEA relocated to the Iron Range in 1999 from Montana where it was created in 1997. 

IDEA became the new kid on the Range that stayed; Longyear, founded in 1890, had all the advantages of contacts and experience yet scattered soon after IDEA arrived. 

“Longyear controlled drilling on the Iron Range. We thought it was going to be a big competitive battle, which would have been fine. I believe competition makes everyone better. But they pretty much up and left,” McCabe said.

That placed IDEA, headquartered in Virginia, positioned pretty much as singularly the exploratory drilling company squarely in the core Iron Range where mining still rules as the region’s big economic driver.

IDEA benefitted greatly by fulfilling the needs of taconite companies across the entire Iron Range. IDEA is currently doing more work at Hibbing Taconite.

The company also was a vendor doing underwater drilling in the Rouchleau Mine Pit in Virginia for the state-funded new Hwy. 53 high bridge.

Then along came a rush of interest in nonferrous minerals—copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and even silver, gold and cobalt—on the east Iron Range. 

IDEA has taken the lead since 2010 in drilling for deposits that include those mineable metals for the PolyMet project near Aurora and Twin Metals near Ely and Babbitt. The company has flourished at times in the past decade as these projects have moved from speculation to exploration.

PolyMet is now fully permitted, while Twin Metals, which is receiving considerable pushback from environmental groups, expects to have its mine plan done this year in advance of permitting.

Exploratory mining has a substantial economic impact on northeastern Minnesota. IDEA has at least $10 million tied up in capital assets on the Range, McCabe said.

Its employment ebbs and flows with the needs of mining companies and also weather conditions. The best months to be in the field are December through February. 

The company currently has about 80 workers on the payroll in Minnesota. Employment peaked at 160 in 2012.

McCabe said wages for IDEA workers at drill sites range from $16 an hour to $30 an hour. “And there are opportunities for lots of overtime and bonuses,” he said.

“We like to spend back into the communities where we are working,” said McCabe, pointing out that workers on a recent project near Ely who live on the Range stayed in motels rather than driving back and forth to work each day.

IDEA has a far reach for projects — east and west. “We’ve got one now in Pennsylvania,” McCabe noted.

The company’s rigs also work in Wisconsin and Michigan and a lot of western mining sites in Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska. And it also has done a few jobs in California, although McCabe said those were a nightmare because of overt state regulations.

Mining doesn’t just happen. In fact, seeking minerals worth extracting from the ground can at times be unrewarding exploration.

A lot of geological research is done before a site is selected. And even then the odds do not favor a valuable mineral deposit will be found. The Duluth Complex, however, had been previously explored, so success of drilling there has a much higher rate.

Drilling of holes are 24-hour continuous to ensure the site is stable through the entire process. Also, during colder weather, the equipment can freeze and be damaged.

Employees usually work two weeks straight and then one week off, McCabe said.

“Drilling is no guarantee. But when you hit a good hole, it’s a great, great feeling,” he said.

McCabe marvels at how all aspects of the mining profession have advanced. He said it’s now environmentally safe as possible to meet and exceed strict Minnesota standards.

But while he respects critics with whom he disagrees on mining, he was quite upset at the action of some a couple years ago in northern Michigan when workers were threatened and equipment vandalized.

“Hey, we were just doing our jobs,” he said.

McCabe talks about his profession with extreme pride. When he and Hardy recall the early days of IDEA they do so while trading stories and smiles.

Almost gleefully, they recall the story of getting a drilling barge working on Birch Lake.

Ernie Lehman was an old-school prospector and geologist with Franconia Minerals, which was exploring mineral sites in the Babbitt area. He believed a barge could be built to accommodate a drill on Birch Lake.

“I didn’t know how or if we could do it, but we set about trying,” McCabe said.

McCabe, his shop foreman Hardy and other workers jury-rigged a barge from scratch and soon it was floating and drilling on Birch Lake.

A framed photo of the barge on Birch Lake hangs prominently on a wall of the conference room. 

“That was really something,” McCabe said. “Yep, we all did it together. It was amazing stuff,” Hardy said.

McCabe added, “The guys I love best are exploration geologists and drillers. You never know until you drill. I’m really proud of what we’ve done.”

McCabe is now once again where he belongs—back on the job and still No. 3 at IDEA Drilling. 

“When I stepped aside it felt like I was losing one of my kids.”

Business North Contributor Bill Hanna, who has been a writer and editor in the newspaper business for more than 40 years, was a Reporter and Executive Editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range from 1985 to 2016. He has won more than 50 state and national awards. He currently writes Sunday columns for the MDN Op/Ed section.