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Inventorying, Managing and Preserving Agricultural Historic Landscapes in Minnesota

Contents: Chapter 2

2.  How to Identify, Evaluate and Manage Historic Landscapes

    Recognizing Rural Historic Landscapes

    1. Develop Context
    2. Identify, Record and Map Landscape Components
    3. Evaluate the Landscape for Historic Significance
    4. Determine Interpretation, Conservation and Management Options

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Recognizing Rural Historic Landscapes

Few landscapes are frozen in time. The rural historic landscape which we see today not only represents the integration of human and natural forces but is a collage of landscape elements from a number of historical periods, including contemporary features. While any rural historic landscape derives its significance from a particular historical period, changes and additions since that time may have achieved a significance of their own. Recognizing that places represent more than one historical period is critically important in understanding what they are, and in being able to articulate the importance of maintaining them.

To understand the meaning of rural historic landscapes, it is helpful to define some additional related terms.

A cultural landscape, is a natural landscape shaped and modified by human activity. Cultural landscapes, both urban and rural, form the physical framework of Minnesota's heritage. They are a link with our past and reflect a sense of time and place. They are also living records of our response to natural forces and elements in the landscape, and our diverse cultural attitudes toward land and community. Examples of cultural landscapes in Minnesota include the mining landscapes of the Iron Range, the hunting and fishing camps and resorts of the north woods, and agricultural landscapes throughout the state settled by various ethnic groups.

A rural historic landscape is a type of cultural landscape that contains, within a geographic area, both natural and manmade features that typify connected activities, past events or patterns of physical development. Features such as the size, shapes and arrangements of fields, road systems, building groups, orchards, hedgerows, and ornamental plantings, fences and drainage ditches together illustrate responses to topography, climate and vegetation within a given historic period.

A rural historic district is a specifically defined and recognized geographic area possessing the above characteristics. Usually a rural historic district is visually, topographically or historically distinct from its surroundings.

A portion of the Sogn Valley in Goodhue County, has been proposed for designation on the National Register of Historic Places as the Nansen Agricultural Historic District; if designated it would be Minnesota's first agricultural historic district. The character of the district was systematically inventoried and evaluated during the summer of 1998, according to the steps outlined below. It is significant in Minnesota because it vividly illustrates historic patterns of agricultural settlement in southeastern Minnesota in the 1850s, and the continuity of the Sogn Valley Norwegian farm community over the next century.

Landscape assessments offer a number of benefits. They can:

  • Define the character of a place, providing a structure for planning;
  • Identify resources that contribute to community or regional character;
  • Establish priorities for conservation, interpretation and management;
  • Provide planners, governments, landowners and citizens with baseline data with which to monitor landscape change;
  • Increase citizens' awareness of their environment and its history.
The purpose of a landscape evaluation is to gather the information needed to make decisions about the conservation, interpretation or management of the landscape under study or smaller areas within it. The process entails the following basic steps:
  1. Develop an historic context for understanding the landscape;
  2. Identify, record and map landscape components;
  3. Evaluate the landscape's integrity and significance;
  4. Define the underlying physical, social and economic components critical to the landscape's longevity, i.e. transportation routes, topography, community, land use.
Assessments prepared as part of a general or specific resource inventory may focus on issues of historic significance and integrity. Studies undertaken in preparation for a management, planning or design project may direct attention to such things as the condition of existing elements, views, or to key features that could form the basis for the development of design guidelines. Regardless of the purpose, all landscape assessments should include the steps outlined above. Ultimately, the study should assist in determining what actions need to be taken to ensure the landscape's continued historic viability.

The practice of landscape assessment is not new. It is an analytical approach built upon established principles, policies and practices among a variety of professions -- cultural geography, landscape architecture, history, anthropology. The approach described here was developed by the National Park Service for use within federal park units, and is used by state historic preservation offices, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and other historic preservation and landscape protection interests throughout the country. Detailed assistance in using the methodology can be found in National Register Bulletins 16, 18, 24, 30 and Preservation Brief No. 36 (see References).

Undertaking landscape assessments is a complex process, requiring a knowledgeable, multidisciplinary group of local volunteers and professionals skilled in landscape planning and analysis, history, historical research methods, community process and many other specialties depending on the area being studied.

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Step One: Develop context

Task One: Establish Physical Context

Every rural landscape exists within a larger, surrounding physiographic region or ecological context defined by topography, predominant vegetation, soil and water resources. Cultural forces interacted with and often changed these features over time. An understanding of the ecological context allows for a general recognition of the landscape type and conditions faced by former and current inhabitants. Photographs, maps and drawings can be used to describe this context.

Task Two: Establish Historic Context

Before a more detailed field identification of the landscape, it is necessary to understand its origins and historical development. This step should include research about broad settlement patterns in the region, historic and contemporary demography, important social forces, political events, economic trends, significant historic themes and periods of change and stabilization. This information is organized into historic contexts to help focus the survey.

Context development should continue throughout the identification process. The SHPO has established two statewide contexts that encompass agricultural history: Early Agriculture and River Settlement, 1840-1870 and Railroads and Agricultural Development, 1870-1940. The concurrent regional farmstead studies are developing historical contexts and defining property types and evaluation criteria for agricultural properties within three broad geographical areas: the cut-over region where agriculture is largely the by-product of late 19th century lumber extraction; the focal/cash crop region of the Red River Valley and southwestern counties of the state; and the early settlement and mixed truck, dairy, and diversified farm region of southeastern and central Minnesota. Each of these regions is expected to have a different historic landscape comprised of landforms, soil qualities, water sources and transportation networks, as well as buildings unique to the region's agricultural base. Each will reflect a different pattern of human interaction with the environment.

A wealth of sources is available for landscape research: historic maps and plats, historic photos and aerial photographs, census records, local and country histories, federal land grant records, homestead papers, deeds and wills, diaries, commercial records, newspapers, farm accounts and receipts, soil surveys, vegetation surveys, oral histories, local stories and folklore, and family records. Repositories of information include local historical societies, the Minnesota Historical Society, the University of Minnesota library system and the Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service.

Product: Written synthesis of historic data.

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Step Two: Identify, Record and Map Landscape Components

In 1950, W. G. Hoskins, the British historian, wrote that the landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess. In order to begin protecting historic agricultural landscapes we need to know what they are and what they are made of. In other words, it is necessary to "read" them in order to understand the forces responsible for their development. Reading and understanding the landscape can be difficult because a landscape is composed of a series of constantly changing relationships between natural and cultural forces. These interrelationships among landscape components create a meaningful whole. A landscape inventory will reflect a given time period, which can then be used to establish the landscape's period of "significance."

Task One: Mapping

Begin to determine the boundaries of the study area. Define each boundary (cultural, political, natural) separately and then superimpose them upon each other using overlay maps. Indicate the relative importance of each boundary. This will begin to give you a rough idea of what is and what is not historic. Further analysis during the landscape survey and evaluation will help define the final boundary.

Product: Overlay maps

Task Two: Identifying and recording historic landscape characteristics

To determine the "scope" of a landscape study, you need to know how much to inventory and whether to record all existing conditions or to establish a cutoff date based on the historic context. Other decisions include whether to document the most valuable or most threatened resources versus the need to compile a comprehensive record or representation of the existing physical fabric. The breadth and depth of information collected will depend on the funding and resources available, and on the need to address particular management or project issues. Once you've decided what to include, make sure the criteria for inclusion are clearly spelled out in all reports and products.

An onsite survey is essential in gathering information about an area's characteristics and condition. Your field study should identify specific landscape characteristics and determine the extent to which the historic properties and features have remained intact.

National Register Bulletin 30, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes, identifies eleven characteristics (listed below) that may be used to identify and describe rural historic landscapes. They can be divided between processes and physical components. This is a checklist to ensure that no single landscape feature is overlooked during field investigations. Many landscape features may embody more than one of these characteristics.

To obtain a thorough understanding of a landscape, National Register Bulletin 30 recommends studying it from a variety of perspectives: travel all roadways, walk, drive or bike through as much acreage as possible; inventory fields, orchards, forests, mines, waterways, pastures, farmsteads, and so on; examine abandoned roadways, waterways, rail lines, land use areas and homesites.

In addition, National Register Bulletin 30 recommends using many techniques to record and understand the relationships among characteristics. Take black and white or color photos of all components. Use maps and photos from various time periods up to the present. Make field sketches, drawings, section drawings, or diagrams explaining critical relationships. Date features as accurately as possible. Record the condition of each characteristic. Note visible changes in the landscape, and any characteristics or processes requiring further research. Finally, record everything in a consistent, understandable format that can be easily translated into other planning documents.

The characteristics include four landscape processes and seven landscape features which can be documented in a variety of ways. These characteristics are:

Landscape Processes

1. Land use and activities -- the major human forces and processes that shape and organize rural landscapes. Representative activities such as farming, mining, ranching, commerce or industry all leave their imprint upon the landscape. Understanding the roles of these activities within an area helps build a broader understanding of human interaction with the landscape. Changes in land use may also reflect changes in technology, climate or economic trends.

Documentation: Aerial photographs, schematic maps, photographs and drawings from accessible viewpoints -- roads, paths, etc.

2. Patterns of spatial organization -- the large-scale relationships among major landscape features, predominant landforms and natural features. These relationships are key to the structure of an historic landscape, as they are reflected in road systems, field patterns, distance between farmsteads, proximity to water sources and orientation of structures to the sun and wind. The distribution of towns at regular intervals along a railroad corridor and the section line roads are good examples of spatial ordering of the landscape.

While the details of the large scale patterns may change over time, the patterns themselves may remain constant. Plowing practices may for example change, but the location and scale of the field may be the same as before.

Documentation: USGS maps, historic maps, remote sensing data, especially black and white and infrared photography. Panoramic photographs of the landscape, photographs of details such as waterway locations and clusters.

3. Response to the natural environment -- major natural features in a region such as prairies, rivers, lakes, forests, and grasslands influence the location and organization of rural landscape features. The physiographic and ecological relationships among natural and cultural features may reveal traditions of land use and lifestyle. Major natural features frequently influence the orientation of structures and building complexes. Settlement patterns are often directly related to available natural resources such as water, minerals and building materials.

Documentation: aerial photographs, maps, topographic cross-sections to help explain relationships.

4. Cultural traditions -- affect the way that land was used, occupied and shaped. Religious beliefs, social customs and ethnic identity, and trades and skills may be evident today in both physical features and uses of the land. Cultural traditions include land use practices, buildings and structures, ethnic or religious institutions, use of plants, patterns of land division, construction methods and craftsmanship. For example, in the Sogn Valley landscape, Norwegian settlers may have continued their religious practices from the old country while adapting the housing, farming techniques and land divisions of their new homeland.

Documentation: oral histories, select written subject matter

Landscape Components

5. Circulation networks -- systems that facilitate movement from one point to another within a general area. They range in scale from livestock tracks and footpaths to roads, major highways, railways, streams, rivers, canals, and even airstrips. They may be internal to a landscape or connect it to the surrounding region.

Documentation: aerial photographs, field survey, maps

6. Boundary demarcations -- distinguish and define areas of control and use within a rural landscape as well as internal divisions within smaller segments of the landscape. They may be fences, walls, planted tree lines, hedgerows, drainage ditches, or even natural features such as the use of a river or hill to form a property line. They can be traced through historic records to understand land ownership patterns, land use changes and the impact of developing technologies such as fencing materials, dry-land farming or irrigation techniques.

Documentation: aerial photographs, field survey, maps

7. Vegetation -- bears a direct relationship to long-established patterns of land use. While many features of the landscape change over time, vegetation is perhaps the most dynamic. It grows whether people intercede on its behalf or not, and certain ornamental and functional plantings will only be in evidence during selected seasons. Vegetation related to land use includes functional and ornamental trees, shrubs, crops in fields, treelines along walls and roads, orchards, groves, woodlots, pastures, gardens, allees, shelterbelts and grasslands. It includes vegetation that has been intentionally or unintentionally planted, controlled, influenced or otherwise modified.

Documentation: field surveys, aerial photographs, use of historic maps where available

8. Buildings, structures, and other objects -- various types of structures should be identified and recorded according to their function, materials and construction techniques. Structures other than buildings may include cemeteries, canals, bridges, dams, earthworks, tunnels, silos, and monuments. Close study of prevalent types of buildings, their architectural style and the materials used in their construction may, for example, suggest much about family size, economic fluctuations and ethnic characteristics.

Documentation: field surveys, oral histories and county records, local histories, comparisons with comparable structures in area; photographs

9. Clusters -- are the groupings of elements within a discrete landscape setting, such as a farmstead, ranch, hamlet, harbor or mining complex. The arrangement of these elements may reveal much about the historical and continuing use of the cluster as well as the impact of varying technologies and generational preferences.

Documentation: same as above; aerial photographs, maps

10. Archeological sites -- may include road traces, reforested fields, ruins of farmsteads, mills, mines, irrigation systems, piers, wharves and quarries. The sites of prehistoric or historic activities or occupation may be marked by foundations, ruins, changes in vegetation and surface remains. They can provide valuable information about the ways the land was used, patterns of social history, the methods and extent of activities such as farming, milling and lumbering.

Documentation: aerial photographs, historical photographs, county records, field surveys, old and current maps

11. Small scale elements -- include foot bridges, road markers, gravestones, isolated vegetation, fence posts, curbstones, trail ruts, culverts, foundations and minor ruins. They may be unique to an area or region but also commonly found throughout a specific rural landscape. While these elements are often long-lasting, they may also be temporal or seasonal (such as bales of hay) or occur in isolated settings. The isolated remains of a larger landscape may now be a small scale element such as canal stones, individual fruit trees, abandoned farm machinery or relic foundations.

Documentation: field surveys, photographs, diagrams of relationship to other elements

Product: The product of the landscape inventory should be a comprehensive written and graphic narrative which clearly identifies the features that collectively define the character of the study area. The narrative may include maps and sketch maps, site plans; field survey data, identification of gaps in data, and recommendations for further investigation. This kind of summary not only provides a detailed and useful documentation of the study area, but will facilitate the evaluation.

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Step Three: Evaluate the landscape for historic significance and integrity

The information gathered through research and field work establishes the area's historic context and character. Evaluation determines the area's historically significant values using National Register criteria. Establishing a level of historic importance -- whether local, state or national -- provides a basis for decisions about further planning or management. National Register Bulletins 18 and 30 provide specific guidance on conducting evaluations, particularly in relation to preparing National Register nominations. Bulletin 15 is devoted to applying the National Register criteria, while Bulletin 16A provides assistance with completing a National Register nomination form.

In all projects, the State Historic Preservation Office and other professionals should be involved in resource evaluation.

Task One: Define the area and period of significance

The area of significance of an historic landscape is reflected in the historical character or physical attributes of the landscape. Areas of significance for rural landscapes include agriculture, industry, community planning and development and exploration/settlement (see National Register Bulletin 30 for a complete list).

The period of significance begins and ends with the date of the earliest and latest significant activities represented on the landscape. Assemble and analyze the existing information about the history of the study area to determine area and period of significance. Focus on trends, development patterns, events, construction technology, architecture and building styles, and other indicators.

Task Two: Apply the National Register Criteria

A landscape must possess significance under one of four National Register criteria as established by the National Park Service:

  1. that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  2. that are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
  3. that embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
  4. that have yielded or may be likely to yield information pertinent in prehistory or history.
Meeting the criteria is a function of how well the existing landscape represents the historic period and themes. In addition, all properties, unless exceptional, must be 50 years or older and must meet integrity standards. National Register Bulletin 15 provides a detailed description of the National Register criteria and how to apply them.

Task Three: Assess historic integrity

Historic integrity is the capacity of a landscape to represent its significance, that is, the retention of the physical characteristics that make up the historic character of the landscape and which existed during the period of significance. Seven qualities are measured to determine integrity: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association. They are described more fully in National Register Bulletin 15.

The principal test of whether a landscape retains integrity is to ask whether or not it still illustrates the historic period. If it retains the essential features that made up its character or appearance during the period of its significance, it has integrity. If it has changed so much that it would not be recognized by the persons associated with its period of importance, it does not have integrity. All landscapes change over time. The key is "how much" or "how many" of the intrinsic characteristics remain to convey its past identity.

As part of this task, it is important to document noncontributing resources -- buildings, structures and other objects which were not present during the period of significance. The historic landscape analysis should specify which properties add to the significance of the landscape and which do not.

Task Four: Identify changes and threats to historic integrity

Landscapes change, and it is important to understand both the type of change and the degree to which these changes can reduce or destroy the historic integrity of an area. Changes facing rural landscapes typically include changes to land use such as road construction and new housing developments, large scale farming technologies, changes in land management practices, loss of vegetation, loss of historic buildings and traditional boundaries. Documenting these trends using photos, written narrative and maps will help identify the more vulnerable areas within a landscape, and guide decisions about future planning and management.

Task Five: Select final boundaries.

Drawing boundaries for an historic landscape is one of the most difficult and important tasks needed to determine significance. Boundaries must be carefully selected to include but not exceed the extent of the historically significant properties and landscape features. They must be justifiable based on historic, not scenic or other values. Therefore it is critical to establish a connection between the historic importance of a landscape and a concentration of physical landscape components that illustrate this importance.

Some simple guidelines apply. If the boundaries of an historic landscape are relatively intact and the landscape retains its historic character, all of the area should be included. A district's acreage should be contiguous and form a coherent whole. The selection of appropriate boundaries -- quarter section boundaries, legal boundaries, natural features, current ownership, or a combination of approaches -- will exclude incompatible land uses and help reinforce the visual integrity of the area.

Product: A typical format for a landscape assessment is a National Register Nomination form, completed in anticipation of consideration for National Register designation. National Register Bulletin 16A offers specific guidance for nomination preparation. Other formats for documentation should include written and graphic (maps, drawings, photographs) descriptions of the landscape, including the process undertaken to study it, findings of existing conditions, an evaluation of significance and threats, proposed boundaries, and follow-up steps related to planning, interpretation and management.

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Step Four: Determine interpretation, conservation and management options

Many historic resource surveys and landscape assessments stop with the National Register nomination, or simply with the written record of research. A base of knowledge, however, does little to protect key resources against the typical threats of development pressure or economic decline. Nor does it interpret these resources to a broader audience or foster better management. To achieve these goals, it is necessary to begin a planning process, which is the subject of the following chapter.

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