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Collecting pieces of Minnesota's past for the future


The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.

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Preserving Death: Funerary Objects

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | October 19, 2009
We get into the Halloween spirit with a podcast on death-related objects in the Society’s collection. Curator Matt Anderson provides an overview of changing funeral customs, and then shares a look at a casket, a hearse, tombstones, and more.

Contemporary Minnesota Voices

By: admin | What's New | October 19, 2009

DusterStoneware bowl

Currently on display in our Library Lobby are selected objects collected by the Society and whenever possible labels include a quote from the artists–revealing in their own words their thoughts about the materials, the finished pieces, and the passions that inspire them. This exhibit will be up until early December.

For millennia artists have been bringing the joy of art to everyday life through the application of their creative force to our material culture. Minnesota has a rich fine craft heritage and Minnesotans have long found pleasure in the use of functional & beautiful objects that provide sensory experiences which add vigor to everyday life.

For nearly 30 years the Minnesota Historical Society has proactively compiled a fine collection of well-documented objects made by Minnesota artists to illustrate the role of crafts in the life of Minnesotans and the work of specific individuals. The Society chose to document the work of contemporary Minnesota craftspeople and to focus the collecting on examples by established artists that exhibit a mastery of the medium and combine function with beauty in a manifestation of the craftsman work ethic. Over 200 pieces represent the diverse influences and inspirations of Minnesota’s 20th – 21st century period.

While most mediums are well represented in the Society’s fine craft collections, the Minnesota and Wisconsin region is best known nationally for the work of its significant and influential ceramics community. Evidence of that powerhouse role includes the existence of the Northern Clay Center and Fired Up Studios, a forthcoming collections gallery in the new wing of the Weisman Art Museum to highlight ceramics, and the Minnesota Potters of the Upper St. Croix River Annual Pottery Studio Tour & Sale that draws guest artists and pottery collectors from across the globe.

Marcia Anderson, Senior Curator

Jack Pine SavageStoneware teapot

Good Government through Digital Infrastructure and Preservation

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | October 8, 2009
Through the Library of Congress' National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) the Minnesota Historical Society and its partners are developing a way to preserve and provide access to the digital records of state legislatures. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, and Robert Horton, Minnesota Historical Society's Director of Library, Publications and Collections, discuss the importance of creating a digital trail that documents, records, and preserves the records of today’s electronic legislature.


Base from Metropolitan Stadium

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | October 2, 2009

Base from Metropolitan Stadium, Bloomington, Minnesota

The Minnesota Twins 2009 season is winding down as I write. It's been a noteworthy year, as it's the team's last in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Come next April, the Twins will play at Target Field, in the open under blue skies for the first time in over 25 years.

The Twins' move reminds me of one of my favorite pieces in the collection. It's a base used at their pre-Metrodome home, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. In fact, it's a base used at their final game played at the Met. That match, against the Kansas City Royals on September 30, 1981, resulted in a 2-5 loss. According to our records, the base had been used for up to three years prior to the last game, and repainted after every game. Unfortunately, we don't know whether it served as first, second, or third base during the finale.

Metropolitan Stadium, which had been built in 1955 specifically to attract a major league baseball team to Minnesota, was razed in 1985. (The Mall of Amercia was built in its place a few years later.) Today, the Metrodome's fate is an open question, as the Twins and the University of Minnesota's Golden Gophers are out, and the Vikings are hoping for a new stadium. We can be sure, though, that whatever happens to the Dome, the fans who grew up with it will remember it fondly, just as their parents remember the Met.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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Images of the Edmund Fitzgerald

By: admin | What's New | September 22, 2009
Edmund Fitzgerald

The Society recently acquired five prints and color slides of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald shortly before it sank in Lake Superior taking the lives of all aboard in a terrible storm. These color slides were shot by vacationing tourists, Jerry and Marilyn Sexton, as the ship passed through the Soo Locks in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan in late July of 1975. The sharp and poignant images record the lives and activities of a ship soon to vanish.

At 729 feet, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes at the time of its christening in 1958. It was built by Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, Michigan and owned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. Distinguished for having set a number of cargo records over the years, the ship was also well known to both casual and serious ship watchers.

The final voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald began November 9, 1975, when it left Superior, Wisconsin loaded with iron ore. Captain Ernest M. McSorley and his crew of 28 were soon joined by the Arthur M. Anderson, another ship that had departed Two Harbors, Minnesota under Captain Bernie Cooper.  Aware of a building November storm entering the Great Lakes the Captains agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior, where they would be protected by highlands on the Canadian shore. This took them between Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula. They would later make a turn to the southeast to eventually reach the shelter of Whitefish Point. The two ships were in radio contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald in the lead and the distance between them averaging a dozen miles.

The storm’s ferocity increased with winds gusting to 70 knots and seas 18 to 25 feet. At 3:30 in the afternoon of the 10th, Captain McSorley radioed Captain Cooper and said: "Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I'm checking down. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?" McSorley was checking down his speed to allow the Anderson to close the distance for safety. Captain Cooper asked McSorley if he had his pumps going, and McSorley said, "Yes, both of them."

The two ships remained in close radio contact until their last communication at 7:10 p.m. Five minutes later, the pip of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the radar screen of the Anderson was lost again (high seas were interfering with radar reflection), but this time, did not reappear. The Anderson called the Fitzgerald at about 7:22 pm. There was no answer.

The Anderson turned out to be the primary vessel in the search, taking the lead. With the ship pounding and rolling badly, the crew of the Anderson discovered the Fitzgerald's two lifeboats and other debris but no sign of survivors. Only one other vessel, the William Clay Ford, was able to leave the safety of Whitefish Bay to join in the search at the time. The Coast Guard launched a fixed-wing HU-16 aircraft at 10:00 that night and dispatched two cutters, the Naugatuck and the Woodrush. The Naugatuck arrived at 12:45 p.m. on November 11, and the Woodrush arrived on November 14, having journeyed all the way from Duluth, Minnesota. On November 14, a U.S. Navy plane equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector located a strong contact 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point. During the following three days, the Woodrush, using a side-scan sonar, located two large pieces of wreckage in the same area.

All 29 crew, including the Captain who had commanded the ship since 1972, were lost. No one has ever been recovered. The broken hull of the steamer was located in 530 feet of water, the bow and stern sections lying close together. The lack of survivors and eye witnesses to the wreck, coupled with the lack of clear evidence in subsequent underwater expeditions, leave a variety of theories for the ship’s sinking. And, although the Coast Guard conducted an extensive and thorough search, there is no definitive reason to date. It is one of the most controversial and emotional shipwreck stories in Great Lakes history, further immortalized by Canadian singer/songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot, in his 1976 ballad, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s Split Rock Lighthouse has been a retired lighthouse since 1969, but every November 10th, at dusk, the beacon at Split Rock Lighthouse is relit in memory of those men, that famous ship, and all the sailors lost on other Great Lakes shipwrecks. The Split Rock Lighthouse Visitor Center will open at noon on November 10th and will feature information on Lake Superior gales and shipwrecks, and a film on the tragic last trip of the Edmund Fitzgerald will be shown in the Visitor Center Theater.  At 4:30 the lighthouse will be temporarily closed to allow for a brief ceremony on the lighthouse steps.  The ceremony, called the “last muster”, will include the reading of the names of the men lost on the Fitzgerald and, the ringing of a ship’s bell for each name, plus a thirtieth for all other victims of Great Lakes shipwrecks.  At the conclusion of the ceremony the lighthouse beacon will be lighted, the lighthouse will be reopened, and visitors may climb the interior stairs to the lantern room for a rare, close-up view of the lighted, 3rd order Fresnel lens.

Diane Adams-Graf, Sound & Visual Curator

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Minnesota and the Federal Writers' Project Exhibit

By: admin | What's New | September 17, 2009

WPA Fair booth, 1938

The Great Depression was a terrible time for Minnesota and the rest of the nation. One of the New Deal programs intended to get people back to work was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was one of the Roosevelt Administration’s most successful projects, creating jobs in everything from road construction to feeding people to literacy and more.

WPA programs focusing on the arts produced some of the best examples of federal support. In addition to producing amazing works of art, the Federal Writers’ Project was designed to encourage written work and support writers through the tough times.  Among the most well-known products are the state guides series.  Other works created by the Writers’ Project focused on history, society, and the land around them. Some examples are on display in the Library cases.

This exhibit will be on view when the Library is open, and is part of the Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story project, organized by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library. For more information about other programs in this series, please go to:

The Northfield Duster

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | September 10, 2009

Duster used in Northfield bank raid

Like the First Minnesota's charge at Gettysburg, or the Dillinger gang's escapades in St. Paul, every good Minnesotan knows the story of the Northfield Raid. On September 7, 1876, Frank and Jesse James, along with Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger, attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. When clerk Joseph Lee Haywood refused to open the vault, the James-Younger gang shot him dead. Northfield citizens heard the shot, grabbed their own guns, and ambushed the gang in the street. Gang members Clell Miller and William Stiles were killed, as was Northfield resident Nicholas Gustavson. The James brothers got away, but the Youngers were captured near Madelia, Minnesota, after several days of pursuit. Sentenced to life in the Stillwater State Prison, Cole and Jim were paroled in 1901 (Bob died in prison in 1889).

Among the most revered objects in the Minnesota Historical Society's collection is this linen duster. It was recovered outside of the Northfield bank just after the raid, and is known to have been worn by one of the James-Younger gang members (purportedly, Cole Younger himself). Dusters were common in the horse-and-buggy era (and even in the days of open automobiles). Just as its name implies, a lightweight duster keeps dust and dirt off of one's clothes while traveling. For the robbers, though, their dusters served a darker purpose. The long, loose garments concealed their guns. As soon as the gang members walked into the bank, they shed their outerwear and revealed their weapons. This duster was left behind as the gang fled from the ambush.

The duster came to the Society in 1890 as a donation from George N. Baxter, the prosecuting attorney for Rice County in 1876. Baxter apparently held onto this piece of evidence after the Youngers' trial, and saw to it that it was preserved for future generations. While the Youngers' prison sentences may have been cut short, the duster's survival seems far more permanent.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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The Ferrell Collection: Cataloging and Photography

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | September 9, 2009
Collections Assistants Jane Wong and John Fulton discuss their efforts to catalog and photograph more than 3,000 different objects in the Richard Ferrell Flour Milling Industry History Collection. The size of the collection, together with some of the unusual items it contained, presented special challenges. You can learn more about the collection from Mr. Ferrell himself in an earlier podcast.


Come All Ya Rounders

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | August 27, 2009
Rails to the North StarRails to the North Star New

If you have been paying attention to our civic fathers lately you would have heard the news that a Nineteenth Century technology is going to lead us into the bright Green future. Sometime before I die, light rail (formerly known as Street Cars or the Trolley) is on track to whisk us to Minnesota Twins games and high speed rail is promising to take us to see the Chicago Cubs. Because of the significant role railroads played in the development and identity of this state and region, a train book must be on our list. The best work, I believe, is…

Prosser, Richard S.  Rails to the North Star. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1966.

Prosser’s book is a comprehensive and chronological description of the developments of Minnesota’s transportation landscape. As a reference tool it is indispensable and the maps alone make it worth your shelf space. There are over fifty pages listing railroad companies that built in Minnesota and six pages of companies that incorporated but never built a mile of track.

From Prosser’s last chapter, titled “20/20 Hindsight:”

One hundred years have elapsed since the birth of the original parent of Minnesota railroads, a ten mile stretch of track between St. Paul and St. Anthony over which wheels first turned on June 28, 1862. Growth of Minnesota Population, land cultivation, industry, and trade are all due in some measure to one or another offspring of that pioneer which, whether remembered by the name of William Crooks or St. Paul and Pacific, will be embossed forever in the annals of history. Today, Minnesotans can well be proud of the rails which lead to the North Star, with principal trains second to none - the rails which symbolize wealth and commerce.

The University of Minnesota Press reprinted the book in 2007 with a new forward by noted rail historian, Professor Don Hofsommer, and an uninspired new subtitle, "A Minnesota Railroad Atlas." Sorry for that little snipe but as long as I am at it, I liked the original cover a lot better than the reprint’s image. Still, kudos to the U of M Press for keeping this available (the colored maps in the book must have given the publisher pause)  because for thirty years I have been wishing people “good luck” in finding and affording the original volume of this much sought after work.

Rails to the North Star maps

The Biggest Thing in the Collection

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | August 6, 2009
One of our most frequently asked questions is, What is the biggest thing in the Society’s collection? Objects Curator Matt Anderson provides the answer in this podcast. It certainly stands out - even among the various cars, boats and wagons in the collection.