Minnesota, Real and Imagined: Essays on the State and Its Culture

Minnesota, Real and Imagined: Essays on the State and Its Culture

by Graubard, Nina Marchetti Archabal

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What is it about Minnesota? It is the land of Ventura and of Keillor, a state with both the most visited wilderness area in the country and the largest shopping mall in the U.S., and with a population equally divided between the metropolitan and the rural. Why has the state emerged as a cultural symbol of a distinct and perhaps lost America?


What is it about Minnesota? It is the land of Ventura and of Keillor, a state with both the most visited wilderness area in the country and the largest shopping mall in the U.S., and with a population equally divided between the metropolitan and the rural. Why has the state emerged as a cultural symbol of a distinct and perhaps lost America?

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Minnesota Historical Society Press
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MINNESOTA, Real & Imagined
Essays on the State and Its Culture

Minnesota Historical Society Press
Copyright © 2000

the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87351-397-5


The History and Peopling of Minnesota: Its Culture

THE STATE OF MINNESOTA has been described as being "at the top of the North American hill." Its waters flow south to the Gulf of Mexico, east to the Atlantic Ocean, and north to Hudson Bay. Its environment mirrors this three-way division. If it were a milking stool, Minnesota would have one leg in the northern pine forests, one leg in the corn belt, and one on the Great Plains. It is a transition zone, and its human history reflects the diversity of its geography.

Just as the story of the southwestern states cannot be told without reference to Mexico, so Minnesota's history is interwoven with that of Canada. First described by French traders and missionaries in the 1600s, the region was for practical purposes a part of British territory until well into the nineteenth century. Today it shares with the Province of Ontario a coastline on Lake Superior and a vast wilderness canoe country. With Manitoba it shares the agricultural wealth and the flood problems of the Red River Valley, and it depends on the prairie provinces for vital energy resources-oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan, and hydroelectricity from northern Manitoba. In human terms it shares the Ojibwe people, whose language and culture were a seamless whole for generations before they were divided into Canadians and Americans.

Ahead of the first Frenchmen to reach the area came an inrush of Indians from the St. Lawrence Valley and what is now southern Ontario. In the mid-1600s bands of Huron, Ottawa, and Ojibwe, fleeing the onslaught of the Iroquois, sought refuge west of Lakes Michigan and Superior. The Huron and Ottawa eventually returned eastward, but the Ojibwe stayed. This migration forced the Cheyenne, the Dakota, and the Assiniboine westward from the forests onto the open prairies.

For the next century and a half the land now comprising Minnesota was included in the Canadian fur-trade system-a continent-spanning network that linked American Indian cultures and resources with the commercial world of Europe. Indian people handled production on their own terms, while transportation and marketing were dominated first by licensees of the French crown and later by large British-managed monopolies.

The culture that developed in Minnesota and other Great Lakes states during that era has been called "the middle ground"-a mutual accommodation of Indian and European lifestyles, technologies, and attitudes. Its common language was French, and it included an influential population of mixed-blood families that served as go-betweens and local traders. Among other things, it left a legacy of French place-names scattered across the land and French surnames among Indian tribes.

Minnesota Becomes an American State

After the War of 1812 the United States asserted control over its territory by establishing forts along the northwestern frontier. One of them stood high on a bluff at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. Named for its builder, Colonel Josiah Snelling, the fort was located at the head of steamboat navigation on the Mississippi and close to the Falls of St. Anthony, where the army immediately built a sawmill. Fort Snelling radiated U.S. power and Anglo-American influence throughout the region, and was the cradle of what became the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area.

As the tide of European migration surged westward, the middle ground was erased and Indians were expropriated through a series of treaties. North of the international boundary people of mixed blood-the Métis-resisted; in Canada they still maintain a distinct identity, but in Minnesota as elsewhere in the United States they faced a stark choice between the white and Indian worlds. Minnesota became an organized territory in 1849, and only nine years later it was admitted to statehood. Those nine years saw its European-American population soar from less than 5,000 to more than 150,000. Prairies were surveyed into acres and forests were estimated in board feet of lumber; a natural habitat of animals and humans was transformed into commodities, subject to ownership and exchange.

Statehood came on the eve of the American Civil War, and within four years Minnesota received two baptisms of blood-one on southern battlefields, and one on its own frontier. In what nineteenth-century writers called "the great Minnesota massacre," the Dakota tribe, starving and cheated, made a desperate effort to reclaim their homeland. Vengeance was swift and ruthless. The Dakota were driven from the state and hunted across the plains, initiating a generation of sporadic warfare that ended only with the slaughter at Wounded Knee in 1890. The Ojibwe, confined to reservations across the northern part of the state, remained Minnesota's largest racial and cultural minority until the second half of the twentieth century.

Canadian and New England lumbermen, following the stands of white and red pine, were the vanguard of the state's new inhabitants. Lumber replaced hides and furs as the leading export. Anglo-Americans built mill towns along the rivers and took charge of business and government. They were soon outnumbered by farmers and laborers, many fresh from across the Atlantic. Within thirty years, three out of every four white Minnesotans came from northern Europe or had parents who were immigrants.

Most immigrant farmers were drawn by the dream of owning land-land in which they could root their own lives and those of their descendants. But roots often proved shallow in the new soil. Subsistence farming and local market gardening never became important in Minnesota. High wartime prices and a booming wheat market in the 1860s immediately tied Minnesota's agriculture to world markets and a cash-crop system. With luck, a new settler could pay for his acres in one or two seasons, but on the heels of the oxen that broke the prairie sod came expensive horse-drawn mowers, reapers, and cultivators. Single-crop farming also exhausted the soil, and diversification demanded capital for buildings, fences, and stock. Those who had it or could borrow it stayed; those without it sold out and moved on.

Until late in the nineteenth century, rivers provided not only power for mills but transportation for marketing lumber. The spread of agriculture throughout Minnesota had to await the expansion of railroads; by 1879 they reached north and west to the wheat fields of Manitoba, and by 1883 they linked Lake Superior with Puget Sound. Minnesota was shaped by the railroad era. The steel rails dictated the value of land and the location-and survival or failure-of towns. The power of railroad corporations created fortunes and government subsidies along with waves of agrarian revolt, which produced the state's volatile politics.

As the turn of the century approached, Minnesotans could look back on forty years of statehood. A generation of grinding toil had turned the oak savannas and tall-grass prairies into a land of farm fields and small towns. Distant horizons were constricted by barns and wood lots, silos and grain elevators. To the never-ending work had been added grasshopper plagues, prairie and forest fires, and killing blizzards, but a community had been forged that could (and did) boast of its free public schools, its influential churches, its numerous small colleges, and a land-grant university. An overflowing supply of local newspapers in English and other languages testified to its literacy, and the great clusters of Scandinavian and German people were beginning to assert civic leadership.

The Minnesota economy was still rooted in raw materials and processing. Agricultural products and the shrinking stands of timber were already being supplemented by iron ore from a line of hills in the northeast known to Ojibwe as the Mesabi, or "sleeping giant." The state capital and commercial hub of St. Paul and the flour and sawmill center of Minneapolis had both seen dramatic growth in the 1880s. Jobs in the expanding cities were drawing unmarried women from the region's farms and a wave of new immigrants, including many from southern and eastern Europe. Unions were reaching out from their narrow base of skilled craftsmen to take in workers in transportation and industry. Joining with hard-pressed farmers in the grim 1890s, the new labor movement brought a surge of populism that threatened to end thirty years of unbroken Republican rule.

The Early Twentieth Century and World War I

The first quarter of the twentieth century saw the cresting of small-town culture and the reforms of the Progressive Era, which reshaped government and politics in response to rapid urbanization. To this scene were added the turbulent bonanza years of iron and steel on the Mesabi Range, and the profoundly alienating impact of World War I in Minnesota.

The years before the war established a long-remembered norm for farmers, when the prices they received reached parity with those they paid for manufactured goods. Stimulated by agricultural prosperity, rural centers continued to grow in number and size, and nearly all were served by a network of rail lines that reached into every corner of the state. By the 1920s, however, farm depression along with automobiles and improved roads brought changing patterns of rural life. Smaller towns were withering under the competition of larger shopping centers, and the attractions of urban culture were beckoning to the young. A bitter blow to small-town self-esteem was dealt in 1920 by the novel Main Street, in which Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis satirized the smug shallowness of Gopher Prairie, a thinly disguised version of his native Sauk Centre.

Meanwhile, in northeastern Minnesota three mining districts collectively known as the Iron Range produced a unique industrial frontier. On the Mesabi, by far the largest of the three, strip mining turned the remote forest and swampland into a sixty-mile swath of yawning pits and hills of red mine waste. Mining camps, or "locations," and a chain of small towns housed thousands of unskilled laborers. By 1900 the population of Mesabi communities was more than fifteen thousand; in 1910 it had reached sixty-eight thousand. Early arrivals included Canadians and Cornishmen from older mines in Michigan, but most of the newcomers were immigrants from eastern Europe. The largest single group was the Finns.

Local mine owners had been forced out in the depression of the 1890s, and in 1901 the formation of the United States Steel Company established monolithic control over most of the Mesabi. The steel trust did little to improve the conditions of labor or to reduce the danger of the work, which claimed the lives of five in every one thousand men between 1905 and 1910. A bitter strike in 1907, organized by the Western Federation of Miners and led largely by Finnish workers, was defeated through mass importation of strike breakers from the Balkan countries and Italy. By 1916 the new labor force itself had been radicalized, and a second strike, led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was crushed. After that an uneasy industrial peace was enforced with labor spies and blacklisting, supplemented by gradual improvement in working and living conditions. This situation prevailed until passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.

Taxation on the wealth of iron ore being extracted was a long-disputed issue in Minnesota, but while the legislature temporized local governments moved ahead, assessing and taxing mining land at its real value. This resulted in schools and public services for the Range towns that were unmatched elsewhere in the state. Along with churches and a variety of fraternal organizations, these educational and social benefits slowly drew the polyglot ethnic population into the mainstream of American life. Nevertheless, the Range, with its onion-shaped steeples, ravaged landscape, and submerged streak of radicalism, remained for most of the century a world apart within Minnesota.

The outlet for iron was through the Great Lakes, and the ever-hopeful town of Duluth, which had been through an earlier cycle of boom and bust in the 1870s, emerged as Minnesota's third major city. Shipbuilding brought prosperity in the 1890s, and railroad yards and ore docks continued to multiply after the turn of the century. In 1916 a massive steel mill was built in West Duluth, and by 1920 the port city and its environs had a population of more than 150,000.

Urban growth in the Twin Cities kept pace. By the turn of the century Minneapolis had pulled well ahead of St. Paul in wealth, industry, and population. Its financial sway over the region was symbolized after 1912 when it became the seat of the Ninth Federal Reserve District, extending from Upper Michigan to Montana. Its daily papers served readers across roughly the same area, and beginning in the 1920s its radio stations dominated the airwaves. St. Paul's earlier start and its role as the center of state government helped it to retain a separate identity. The first quarter of the twentieth century, however, saw the spread of suburbs that would eventually merge the cities into a single metropolis.

Yet the two communities continued to have distinct characters, both visually and socially. St. Paul, built on terraces and bluffs that look onto the majestic valley of the Upper Mississippi, was clearly a river town. In Minneapolis the Mississippi's narrow, rocky gorge was scarcely visible from the flat prairies that spread away from it, and the chains of small lakes that dotted those prairies gave the town its image as a "City of Lakes."

Catholicism, established in St. Paul by its French Canadian founders, remained firmly rooted in a large German population and a vocal Irish minority. Except among the Swedes and Norwegians clustered on the city's East Side, St. Paul was a place where neighborhoods were defined by parish and parochial school. Minorities-Jewish, black, and later Mexican-remained small and found easy (although far from complete) acceptance. In Minneapolis, where the population was heavily Scandinavian and Protestant, the expanding mills and factories attracted a large influx of eastern European immigrants, including many Polish and Russian Jews. Cultural contrasts raised social barriers, and by the 1920s Minneapolis was becoming widely known for its anti-Semitism.

Through the first third of the century Minneapolis also maintained a reputation as one of the country's most strongly antiunion towns. A semisecret association of businessmen, called the Citizens Alliance, enforced nonunion contracts among employers and enlisted the support of city authorities when trouble erupted. Wages remained below the national average, and as labor became more militant, conflict became bitter.

In St. Paul, craft unions had gained an early start. Catholic influence played a moderating role among both workers and employers, and the long-established business community was open to compromise. With a few exceptions, the labor movement remained essentially conservative, and the city boasted of a peaceable partnership in the workplace.

In state politics the Progressive movement succeeded the strident wave of populism. Earnest attempts by Progressive reformers to rein in the power of corporations and the corruption of political parties were supported by the Minnesota business community, which was still locally controlled and suspicious of eastern domination. The Progressive Era reshaped municipal governments and extended nonpartisan elections to the judiciary, to local offices, and even to the state legislature-a dubious experiment that was finally reversed in 1973. Suffrage for women, associated with the temperance movement, was blocked by the state's strong German vote and its brewing lobby. Ironically, however, Minnesota became a symbol of prohibition through the name of Congressman Andrew Volstead, author of the bill that implemented the Eighteenth Amendment.

Meanwhile, Norwegian and Swedish voters, reinforced by a fresh wave of urban immigration in the 1890s, sent candidates to the statehouse, Congress, and the Senate. Men such as Knute Nelson, John Lind, John A. Johnson, Charles A. Lindbergh Sr., Henrik Shipstead, and Magnus Johnson drew national attention. Along with novelist Ole Rølvaag and social theorist Thorstein Veblen, they established the state's image as a Scandinavian stronghold.


Excerpted from MINNESOTA, Real & Imagined
Copyright © 2000 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Excerpted by permission.
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