Potato City: Nature, History, and Community in the Age of Sprawl


Catbirds and pocket gophers, bur oaks and bull snakes, bluestem grass and leopard frogs have populated the gently rolling prairies around Sue Leaf's midwestern farming community for centuries. A hundred years ago her town, located forty-five miles from the nearest city, shipped thousands of tons of potato starch across the country, stiffening the collars of working men. Today it has become one of America's fast-growing suburbs. As naturalist and biologist Sue Leaf watched her rural surroundings become a magnet ...

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Catbirds and pocket gophers, bur oaks and bull snakes, bluestem grass and leopard frogs have populated the gently rolling prairies around Sue Leaf's midwestern farming community for centuries. A hundred years ago her town, located forty-five miles from the nearest city, shipped thousands of tons of potato starch across the country, stiffening the collars of working men. Today it has become one of America's fast-growing suburbs. As naturalist and biologist Sue Leaf watched her rural surroundings become a magnet for developers, she became curious about the history of the land. Before the freeway and the housing developments, before the farmers cultivated the fertile soil, what plants and animals called this place home? To her delight, Leaf discovered the oak savanna, a park-like ecosystem that supports abundant wildlife and soothes the human psyche with its quiet, open spaces. As she looked more closely, she found remnants of the savanna in her own yard, in the trees lining her quiet street, and in nearby preserved patches of prairie. In lyrical essays, Leaf traces the natural history of her community, offering rich details about the people who built this area, about its once prosperous farms, and about the oak trees and wildflowers and prairie animals native to this part of the country. By examining remnants of the past still visible in a place deeply affected by sprawl, Leaf reveals how to slow down, look carefully, and untangle the jumble of unnoticed clues that can enrich our daily lives. "Leaf advises us all to discover our own communities' natural treasures before, through ignorance, we lose them." —Boston Sunday Globe "Leaf writes about the pace of sprawl, the loss offarmland and a way of life that seems like a dream or a place buried somewhere in our collective memory." —Los Angeles Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780873515078
  • Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
  • Publication date: 8/2/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 210
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.75 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Sue Leaf has a Ph.D. in zoology and has taught biology and environmental science at Cambridge Community College in Minnesota. A resident of the Anoka Sand Plain for twenty years, she is currently president of the Wild River chapter of the Audubon Society. She was awarded a McKnight Individual Artist Grant in 1998, and her writing has been published in Utne Reader, Minnesota Monthly, Architecture Minnesota, River Magazine, Minnesota Volunteer, and Boundary Waters Journal.

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Read an Excerpt

Potato City
Nature, History and Community in the Age of Sprawl

Copyright © 2004

Minnesota Historical Society
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87351-507-8

Chapter One Into the Garden

I STOOD IN THE GARDEN behind the house at 721 Oak Street in North Branch, Minnesota, and studied the remains of plants that curled, dark and dry, on the soil. It was September, and the garden had been brought up short by the first killing frost. Blackened tomato plants suffering from wilt sprawled haphazardly in one corner. Small, successive mounds of overturned earth indicated that someone had been digging new potatoes. Pale, bloated, over-ripe cucumbers clung to shriveled vines. A thin line of papery cornstalks rustled softly. As I scuffed the toe of my tennis shoe through the light, grayish soil, small puffs of dust rose and drifted away. It did not seem to hold much promise for growing vegetables, though the house's owners assured us they had worked a garden in this spot for thirty years.

I had come to the garden because we were about to buy the house at 721 Oak Street. My husband had signed a contract with the North Branch Clinic, two doors east. We would move to town in two months. While Tom and our young son checked out the wiring and other mechanics of the house, I ambled my heavily pregnant self out back to see what it would reveal. Gardens, like houses, hold clues to the future, and I wondered what this garden would tell me. Would we be happy here? Would we grow and be successful? Would we bear fruit?

The day was sunny and warm. The oaks in the yard were beginning to kindle with the reds and rusts of fall, and the neighborhood was quiet, drowsy. The only sound was the background whine of the dryers on the grain elevators at Peterson's mill, several blocks away. The corn harvest was coming in to the mill, and the grain was being stored and dried before being shipped to market via either truck or rail. The golden light of the air and the continuous, high-pitched drone of the dryers lent an odd tranquility to the scene.

Scuffing the soil again, I bent down to get a better look. It was very fine, light soil, almost sandy. Sand? I tried to recall what I knew about east-central Minnesota. A large expanse of sand, the Anoka Sand Plain, stretched over a major portion of the counties just north of the Twin Cities. The sand had been deposited there ten thousand years ago as out wash from the newly formed Mississippi River. The river had drained the receding glacier, carrying its sandy residue into what is now east-central Minnesota.

Years ago, as a young graduate student in zoology at the University of Minnesota, I had live-trapped small mammals in Anoka County, the heart of the sand plain. The soil there had been almost yellow, utterly sandy, devoid of humic content. This soil was different-finer in texture and darker in color-but still sand. Could the Anoka Sand Plain extend this far east? The prospect of living on the sand plain appealed to me. It seemed a feature that could give shape and meaning to a community, like the presence of Lake Superior, or the prairie lands to the west.

It was, indeed, the eastern edge of the Anoka Sand Plain, and in the years that followed my introduction to the garden on Oak Street I came to know a great deal about sand. When the soil was dry-nearly all the time-its fine, powdery texture clung to my skin, insinuating itself into every crease and line of my feet and hands. I learned to reserve a pair of old tennis shoes just for garden work, and the soil ground itself into the canvas until it was gray.

Although our road was paved, fine sand still found its way inside the house and, odder still, into our beds. The plastic covers over the children's mattresses were continuously coated with a thin layer of grime that I periodically sponged off. It took no imagination to see how the sand sifted into the house: every farmer doing fieldwork, whether it was disking or planting, cultivating or harvesting-but especially disking in the spring, when the soil was dry-kicked up clouds of light dust that drifted away on the wind. I did not want to contemplate housekeeping conditions in homes on the many gravel roads that crisscrossed Chisago County.

I learned from my garden that, though droughty, the soil was very fertile. If I could only keep it watered in May and June-and that meant sprinkling every day it did not rain-I would harvest firm, red tomatoes, creamy yellow squash, and potatoes-lots of potatoes.

Potatoes thrive in sandy soil. Sand drains well, so the growing tubers are not constantly surrounded by waterlogged soil that can't warm-a condition promoting slow growth and even rot. I planted whatever varieties I could get at the local mill-Red Norlands or Early Ohios, for early, red-skinned potatoes; Kennebecs, with rough, pale skins, to keep through the winter. The Kennebecs, especially, could grow to enormous size. Frequently I would dig up a potato that was as large as my two fists put together. Such a potato would feed the whole family-Tom, me, and our two small children.

I also discovered that, because it drained well, the soil warmed quickly in the spring. I could work it in March and plant lettuce, radishes, and onions two weeks before gardeners who had heavier soil. Potatoes went into the ground in early April.

Planting potatoes became a family affair. Sometimes Tom helped me, but more often I enlisted one of the kids to carry the bucket of seed potatoes. Our preschoolers enjoyed the garden work. They took seriously the job of planting, following me as I spaded each hole. While I held back the soil, they placed the cut edge of the seed potato down into the earth, so the eyes would grow straight up. We'd serenade the newly planted potatoes with a favorite non-sense poem:

Poor potatoes underground never get to look around, do not have a chance to see butterfly or bumblebee. Poor potatoes never look

at the fishes in the brook, never see the sunny skies-what a waste of all those eyes!

In the fall, the children would follow me again to the garden, this time to pick up the crop of potatoes as I forked open each hill. It was magic! From each small piece of potato they had poked into the sandy earth in the spring there had risen five or six large, full potatoes in September. It never failed to impress the three-year-olds-or me.

In the months between planting and harvest, I watered, cultivated, and fertilized the plants, mounding soil over the swelling tubers when they pushed their way to the surface, creating little hills. Some summers, potato beetles attacked the green, growing plants. Maddeningly attractive, with hard, black-and-white-striped shells, the beetles would fly into my nicely thriving patch, lay their tiny orange eggs inconspicuously on the underside of the plants' leaves, and disappear. When the eggs hatched, the orange and black larvae would begin eating potato leaves, each successive instar larger and more voracious than the last.

It took one season for me to learn that potato beetles could not be ignored. I became watchful for adult beetles as July approached. I was not alone in my vigilance. I could pick up information about the advent of beetles any time I walked up town: in the post office, in the grocery store, over coffee in the bakery. North Branch gardeners were alert for potato beetles, and it was a topic of considerable interest.

If I saw even one in my garden, I popped it into a discarded glass jar, where it would die a deserved, lingering death. Then I'd search anxiously for the hidden eggs. I'd rub out the egg masses by hand, my fingers staining yellow in the process. But I didn't care. I was ruthless. A week or two later, I would begin destroying larvae. At first I was squeamish about squishing them-they made a much bigger squish than the eggs and, besides, larvae wiggled-but soon I became inured to even that, a hard-nosed gardener protecting the potato crop.

Although I did not know it, I was recapitulating history in my little garden on Oak Street. North Branch had once been the hub of a thriving potato industry, around which the town and the surrounding farms revolved.

The snug downtown area showed no evidence that North Branch had once been Pot-8-O City (as early local newspapers referred to it). The potato starch factories, which had kicked out tons of product each year, had vanished without a trace. The Splittstoser Company, manufacturing farm implements and shipping them all over the Upper Midwest, had likewise disappeared. The square, brown brick building that had been Splittstoser property remained on the edge of town, looking seedy and decayed and housing a small automotive shop. The trainstation, the scales that weighed potatoes, the "pit" in which prices were established and deals struck, the warehouses that stored millions of bushels of spuds-everything connected to potatoes was gone by 1984, when we moved to town.

In conversation, our new friends and neighbors, eager to acquaint us with the town, mentioned the potatoes in passing. "Potatoes were once really big around here," they'd say. "Shipped them out on the railroad." But these were people our age, raised in the latter half of the century. Potato stories had assumed in their minds the stature of myth-significant but nebulous, lacking in detail.

My first few years in North Branch were the longest stretch of time I'd spent as an adult in any one place. It was the first time I'd ever had enough experience with a home to wonder how it had changed over time. How had it gotten from wild oak savanna to its tame cultivated state? How did people think about the natural world in which they had settled? And where did the potatoes fit in?

I devoured the brief accounts of North Branch's history that were compiled in church anniversary booklets and family collections, but these were patchy, serving only to tantalize me. Nothing of broad scope had been written about the small, modest community of North Branch. So, inspired by friends who had perused the microfilm copies of old newspapers to research their family's history, one day I sat down at the microfilm reader in our local library to recover North Branch's past.

Potato City

THE BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTO I hold in my hand enchants me. It depicts the construction of a railway across the oak savanna of the Anoka Sand Plain. The photographer centered his focus on the massive draft horses that carved out the roadbed, but I am captivated by what appears in the background: an open, airy landscape of tall, scraggly prairie grass dotted by wispy, evenly spaced oak trees. It looks inviting, like an untamed park. I imagine running unencumbered through the oaks, barefoot, hair flying, feeling both the freedom and expanse of a prairie and the cool shade of trees. I can't take my eyes o the photo.

This appealing landscape was what early settlers saw when they arrived at North Branch Station in the 1870s. The community had sprung up at the point where the newly constructed Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad crossed the north branch of the Sunrise River. Named after the pretty little river that gurgled and sparkled over a sandy bed through the parklike savanna, the town was platted in 1870, attracting settlers from nearby communities who originally had come to Minnesota from New England and up-state New York. Later, in the fall of 1870, the U.S. government established a post office at North Branch Station, further promoting its development as a thriving town.

The early residents must have been as entranced by the oaks as I was, because they deliberately preserved as many as they could. The effect was charming. In between the clapboard houses and false-fronted downtown businesses grew the dark, gnarled oaks, their tough, leathery leaves creating lacy patterns of shade on the ground. Visitors noted the town's "very pleasant appearance."

The savanna land was cheap-$2.50 to $4.00 per acre-and, because of the sparsely scattered oaks, more easily cleared than heavily forested areas. At least that's what an 1893 letter printed on the front page of the North Branch Review claimed. But wresting the sturdy bur oaks, with their deep taproots, from the soil was grueling work for men and horses. Every cleared acre transformed from natural savanna to agricultural field-"improved," they called it-was a monument to single-minded determination.

As in most other early agricultural communities in Minnesota, the first farmers planted wheat, which had been the great cash crop since the state's territorial days. Farmers could get rich on wheat, but more often than not they reaped disappointment, not wealth. Grasshoppers, drought, bad seed, and fungal disease caused wheat crops to fail, and the grain easily exhausted the sand plain's sandy soil. By the 1880s, as the rest of Minnesota grew disenchanted with wheat, North Branch farmers, too, were looking for other crops to grow on the sand plain.

It took an outsider to recognize the sand's potential for growing potatoes. In the mid-1880s, a young speculator, Reuel L. Hall, arrived in east-central Minnesota to assess the region for potato farming. Acquainted with the industry in Aroostook County, Maine, Mr. Hall had big plans for Minnesota's sand lands. In 1886 he opened a potato starch factory in Anoka, Minnesota, a burgeoning community on the western edge of the Anoka Sand Plain, and convinced farmers that potatoes would be a profitable cash crop. Three years later, he erected two starch factories on the eastern edge of the sand plain-one in North Branch and another six miles up the railroad line at Harris.

Eighteen years after the coming of the railroad, North Branch residents became accustomed to the industrial whine of the starch factory's massive graters grinding potatoes day and night. The savanna was less quiet, but the discordance was the hum of Progress. Each year, the potato crop steadily increased as farmers forsook wheat for the brown, earthy tubers. Up and down the railroad line, stations shipped more and more carloads south to consumers. In October 1887-a full two years before the starch factories opened in North Branch and Harris-the Rush City Post reported farmers selling seven bushels of potatoes to every one of wheat.

The light, sandy soil gave birth to a million-dollar industry by 1892. Two years later, North Branch alone shipped out over a million bushels of spuds. The sister sand plain communities of Harris, Stacy, and Wyoming exported similar quantities. Businessmen predicted yields of five million bushels in five years. Rosy piles of red-skinned potatoes heaped in the fields or spilling over farm wagons were a common sight. They promised a life of abundance for the settlers of North Branch.

The first farms producing these vast quantities of potatoes were modest. Although a few speculators hired workers to tend large operations of one hundred or more acres, the majority of potato growers worked subsistence farms. A survey of farmers taken by the editor of the North Branch Review in 1893 claimed, "the experiences of the farmer in the potato belt sound like fairy tales when compared to that of the wheat raiser." Most cultivated no more than twenty acres of land and many worked only ten or fewer acres. One, John Shoberg, farming three miles west of town, stated he had earned one thousand dollars on his ten acres. "Can't complain," he commented with customary Swedish reserve.

Farmers kept much of their land in original vegetation and termed it "wild land." They cut the prairie grass as hay for livestock. They grubbed out the oaks and broke the prairie sod acre by acre if potato prices for the upcoming season looked encouraging. Bit by bit, the oak savanna disappeared.

The rise of the potato industry in North Branch occurred at a time when no one kept good records of the community's activities. Trying to piece together information is akin to peering through a glass darkly. What I glean of those early years is from newspapers of neighboring Taylors Falls and Rush City. North Branch news items were mere tidbits for these older, established communities.


Excerpted from Potato City by SUE LEAF
Copyright © 2004 by Minnesota Historical Society. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Into the garden 5
Potato city 11
Reconstructing the past 21
Pete Swanson's potatoes 33
The end of an era 45
Oak hill cemetery 57
Oak savanna 69
Bull oak 81
Bull snake! 89
Pocket gophers 93
For the birds 99
A legacy of water 107
Earth day lessons 115
Righting the right of way 123
Destruction 133
Warmer 143
The king of North Branch 153
Growing houses 167
Flooding, forgetting, and remembering 177
The sunrise river 185
One seed at a time 193
Bringing it back 201
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