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collections up close Blog

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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How Your Library Book Gets to You

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | November 18, 2009
Patrons of the Society’s library know that it has “closed stacks.” Reference Assistants retrieve your requested books and bring them to you. In this episode, Acquisitions Librarian Patrick Coleman takes us behind the scenes to see where the books are stored, and how they make their way to the reading room.

Veterans Grave Index

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | November 11, 2009
Fort Snelling National Cemetery

Beginning in 1927, Minnesota statutes required that the Adjutant General maintain a permanent registry of the graves of all persons "who served in the military or naval forces of the United States and whose mortal remains rest in Minnesota". In 1943 this duty was transferred to the Commissioner of Veterans Affairs who later enlisted the help of funeral directors who were required to send information on deceased veterans to the Department of Veterans Affairs. By 1969 the program had become quite large and expensive and so was officially discontintued, but some 55,000 records of veterans had been compiled. Between 1970 and 1975 several counties and Fort Snelling cemetery continued to add records.

The report forms cover individuals from the Civil War through the Vietnam War who are buried in Minnesota. The information provided incudes: name, date and place of enlistment, rank and organization, date and place of discharge, residence, birth date, date and cause of death, name and address of next of kin, place and location of burial. Some forms also include photographs and clippings relating to the veteran. The collection is indexed on the MHS web site. Photocopies of Veterans Grave Registration records can be ordered through the index.

Hamp Smith, Reference Librarian

Home Grown Smut

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | November 4, 2009
Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang, 1921Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang, 1932

Wilford (Billy) H. Fawcett returned to Minnesota from World War I with a footlocker full of dirty jokes. On a slow night in 1920 while he was working at the Minneapolis Tribune he sorted through the jokes and put them into a pamphlet he titled "Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang" [whiz-bang being the sound shells made during the war]. So our next best Minnesota book is:

Captain Billy's Whiz Bang

The content was loosely organized around Whiz-Bang farm in Robbinsdale, the original Lake Woebegone. Characters included Gus, the hired man; Deacon Callahan, whose daughter, Lizzie's virtue was always being designed upon; and Pedro the bull who rejected unworthy author submissions. The masthead read "explosion of pedigreed bull." The jokes were juvenile, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and haven't aged well.

The Girl: “You mustn’t come into my dressing room.”

The Man: “Why not? Am I not good enough?”

The Girl: “You might be worse.”

Or “Harold” said the pretty young teacher, “in the sentence ‘I saw the girl climb the fence’ how many i’s would you use?”

“Bofe of ‘em teacher” replied Harold with a grin.

Fawcett found a printer and enlisted his sons to distribute the press run from their wagons to Minneapolis at baseball games, drugstores and local hotels where the consigned blue humor was held under the counter. Word of mouth fueled sales. The magazine went from an initial press run of 5,000 to half a million once Fawcett created a distribution network that revolutionized the industry. Soon the "Whiz-bang" was in newsstands, hotels, and trains, all over the country.

By the end of the decade Fawcett had twelve magazines. "True Confessions" was the first followed by titles like "Screen Play," and "Modern Mechanics" [which was sued by "Popular Mechanics" beginning a seemingly never ending series of lawsuits]. Roscoe Fawcett, Billy's brother, was brought into the business and much of the work during summers was done on Pelican Lake at Fawcett's Breezy Point Lodge.

When Billy divorced his wife Annette, who he referred to in his publications as the "henna-headed heckler," she used his money to purchase a competitor of the "Whiz-bang" called the "Eye-Opener" and moved it to Minnesota. For a period of time Minnesota was the capital of indelicate literature.

The company eventually moved to Greenwich, Connecticut and played perhaps an even more important role in dictating literary taste. Fawcett Publication began Whiz Comics, staring Captain Marvel, and a line of original paperback books under the Gold Medal imprint.

The Company kept the same "Whiz-bang" sensibilities. The Gold Medal Books editor in 1964 stated that they were trying to blend the "shoot 'em up sex novel" with a helping of good literature. When Gold Medal Books editor -in-chief, William Lengel received a scathing review of a manuscript his inclination was to publish it rather than pass on it. One such title was Mandingo a title that sold two million copies in its first five years.

It is hard to understate the impact, for better or worse, Fawcett had on American culture. By the mid 1960's the Fawcett brothers presided over an empire with $75 million and 200,000 million units in annual sales.  CBS bought the company for $50 million in cash in 1977 [$ 160 mil in today's dollars].

The Minnesota Historical Society library has a nearly complete run of "Captain Billy's Whiz-bang" and has microfilmed it for posterity.

Whiz comics

Conserving Minnesota's Battle Flags

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | November 3, 2009
The Minnesota Historical Society recently began a project to conserve several Civil War and Spanish American War battle flags. Doug Bekke, Assistant to the Textile Conservator, explains the painstaking process of examining and treating each of these historic banners.


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: