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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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The City Beautiful

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | October 9, 2008

Another one of those beautiful "must have" Minnesota books is:
Edward H. Bennett. Plan of Minneapolis: Prepared Under the Direction of the Civic Commission... Edited and Written by Andrew Wright Crawford. Minneapolis: Civic Commission, 1917.

In 1909, Daniel Burnham [chief architect for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the subject of the 2003 bestseller, The Devil in the White City] and Edward Bennett published their Plan of Chicago. It was dubbed "Paris on the Prairie" by wags who couldn't help but notice the influence of the École des Beaux-Arts where Bennett studied from 1895-1902. Also in 1909, a Civic Commission was formed to discuss a city plan for Minneapolis, consisting of a dozen Minneapolis organizations from the Woman's Club to the Trades and Labor Assembly. They hired Bennett, who as Chicago's chief proponent of The City Beautiful Movement believed that cities could be "White" like the Columbian Exposition and that people would be uplifted through their contact with art and beauty and order.

The author and editor of this work, Crawford, always gets short shrift so let me rectify that. He was a lawyer and art connoisseur who is most often associated with his hometown Philadelphia. Crawford was civically active with a strong interest in city planning and in the development of city parks. His interests made him the perfect choice to author Bennett's Plan of Minneapolis. Crawford's avocational interest in architecture earned him an honorary membership in the American Institute of Architects. For a bit of his prose and the rationale for the plan, let me present a few lines from Chapter 1 "The Coming Metropolis:"

  • Minneapolis is the commercial and officially designated financial capitol of an empire greater in size than Great Brittan, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Switzerland combined.

  • Minneapolis is now a large city. The greater city that the future is so surely and so swiftly bringing must be a more economic, a more convenient, a happier and a more generally beautiful city.

  • City planning is the exercise of municipal imagination. It is the scientific and expert vision of inevitable city growth, and the preparation of plans to provide for that growth. It is municipal prevision, municipal prevention and municipal preparedness. (bloggers note: The 3MP's of planners?)

Ultimately very little of the Plan [of which 1,000 were printed and distributed] could be implemented because, in spite of the emphasis on science and imagination, none of the planners anticipated the most important shaper of 20th century American municipalities: the automobile. Still, it seems to me that they anticipated a refocus on the riverfront by 70 years and had countless other ideas that we might wish had been implemented.

I hate giving this much attention to Minneapolis, so allow me to mention the less grandious but 11 years earlier St. Paul eqivilant, Report of the Capitol Approaches Commission to the Common Council of the City of St. Paul, 1906. This would be another fine addition to a complete Minnesota book collection but at 31 pages we can not nominate it for our list of best books.

I would love to hear from architects, city planners, and the Met Council on our selection of Bennett's work for our greatest Minnesota books list. Does anyone think about the issuses raised by the Plan? Know about this book? Study it? Still look at it from time to time? Click on "Comment" and let us know.

Of Maps and Men: or Vigorous and Lusty Minnesota

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | September 23, 2008

The overwhelming response to our last post, admittedly one of the least significant of the best Minnesota books, makes me a little nervous about nominating one of the most significant books on our list.

A. T. Andreas. An Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Minnesota. Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1874.

Anyone remember door-to-door salesmen? Fuller brush men? Me neither. Musta been before my time. But in 1873 salesmen covered Minnesota like locusts, hawking a landmark publication: the first illustrated atlas of any state. These salesmen were not only looking for subscriptions to the forthcoming book but also appealing to their client's vanity. They pushed subscribers to immortalize themselves by paying extra to have everything included in the book, from their portraits and biographies (at 2 1/2 cents per word), to images of their cows, to prosperous farms and businesses. While the salesmen were doing their work, a crew of surveyors were scouring the U. S. Land Offices consulting the work done out in the field and drawing their own maps. Andreas had chosen Minnesota for his bold experiment and departure from other map publications because we were prosperous, in spite of our youth, and Minnesota was cartographic virgin territory. For a detailed discussion of Andreas's business model and methods see an 1879 article, in the MHS library, by Bates Harrington titled "How 'tis Done: A Thorough Ventilation of the Numerous Schemes Conducted by Wandering Canvassers Together With the Various Advertising Dodges for the Swindling of the Public."

The result was a beautiful oversize volume of maps showing all the counties and significant towns, along with one map of the northern third of Minnesota that is virtually empty. A map librarian at the Library of Congress wrote that within the Andreas "... is an unexcelled historical, biographical, and pictorial record of Midwestern America in the vigorous and lusty Victorian era." About 10,000 subscribers paid $15 for the atlas but because of the panic of 1873 many reneged on their promise. The text, which includes W. W. Clayton's "History of the State of Minnesota," was not especially new or interesting, but that wasn't why people looked at the book. Some "deluxe" copies were sold with three panoramic or "bird's eye" maps of St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Winona. (Collectors note: don't settle for a copy without these stunningly beautiful panoramas.) Andreas showed the world a 16-year-old state in all its splendor; what an impact this must have made on the Minnesota psyche. We know from early letters that many people who had come early to this state were unsure they had made a good decision. This one book, the Andreas Atlas, must have at least temporarily eliminated this lingering inferiority complex. There could be no doubt that we were on the map to stay.

Marschner Map of Original Vegetation

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | September 9, 2008

In late January 1966, a man was found dead on Washington Mall in a mid-season blizzard. He had no family, left no will, and despite being 83, was on his way to work when he died. This man was Francis J. Marschner, one of Minnesota's greatest known map makers. Never heard of him? Well, don't feel too bad. F.J. Marschner had never even been to Minnesota.

If you recall, a couple of months ago, our Government Records Specialist blogged about the original land survey notes we have in our collection. These are the notes that the original surveyors wrote as they trudged across Minnesota 150 years ago. The information in these notes is priceless; it paints a picture of what the land looked like on the fringes of European settlement, describing prairies, pine forests, and great bogs. If you want to study land change at a local level, these notes are invaluable. But to get a picture of the whole State, one would need to stitch together thousands of maps and hundreds of thousands of descriptions - a feat for even a computer today. Well, between 1929 and 1931, Marschner took on such a task.  From a desk in Washington, he went through the notes, word by word, and constructed a map of pre-settlement vegetation for the whole state of Minnesota.

A full-size copy of this map is now housed at the Minnesota Historical Society. It stands just under 5 feet tall in brilliant color. With a glance at it you can see a wide swath of yellow prairie on the western front. Anyone who has heard of the grasshopper plagues that devastated Minnesota's croplands in the late 1800s will get a quick sense why. You can also see the great abundance of hard woods that once filled South Central Minnesota, and the areas of bogs that have been now filled in.

While we are quick to see the how European presence and industrialization strongly changed the land, we don't get a complete picture with this map. We don't see land prior to changes made by American Indians.  We see only what was captured by the surveyors on the day they recorded it. If there had been a windstorm or a recent fire this could have affected their notes, as would the high price of land containing White Pine. It is important to remember that any map represents the moment of its creation and the experience of the mapmaker.

In recent years, The MN Department of Justice, Department of Transportation and Department of Agriculture have made digital copies of the map. With new mapping technologies, Marschner's old map can now be overlaid atop satellite images. Check out an overlay of the Minneapolis/St Paul airport. You'll see that the land was once predominately prairie and deciduous hardwood forests. Imagine. Though F.J. Marschner died without ever seeing the beauty of Minnesota he described, his work lives on in this fabulous map, the Marschner Map of Original Vegetation.

Lesley Kadish
Curator of G.I.S. and Digital Maps

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Pigskin Review

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | September 9, 2008

If politics is not your favorite spectator sport, Minnesota history has a lot more to offer. Chief among these offerings is the golden era of the Golden Gophers football team. For 16 seasons Coach Bierman turned out winning team after winning team. Five National Championships! His record was 93 wins, 35 losses, and 6 ties, or a .727 percentage. Compare that to Jim Waker's .291. Was that unfair? Sorry. I'll stop talking sports and get back to something I know, books. Another one of Minnesota's 150 best books is:

B. W. "Bernie" Bierman Winning Football: Strategy, Psychology and Technique. New York: Whittlesey House, 1937.

If you can find it, another fun book [what is called a little big book] to add to your collection is Coach Bernie Bierman's Brick Barton and the Winning Eleven illustrated by R. M. Williamson.

As the season begins (the Gophers won their first game with 22 seconds left to play) let's hopelessly pray that we will see the likes of those mid-century elevens again sometime before we die.

Bruce Laingen Papers

By: admin | What's New | September 8, 2008
Bruce Laingen with President Reagan, 1981On August 19, 2008, Minnesota native Bruce Laingen visited the History Center to donate his papers and personal artifacts to the Minnesota Historical Society. In November 1979, Laingen was chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, and the senior American diplomat taken prisoner during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Laingen and 51 of his colleagues were held captive for 444 days, until their release in January 1981.

Born in Watonwan County, near Butterfield, Minnesota, in 1922, Laingen was raised in a modest farm community and enjoyed participating in 4-H events. He graduated from St. Olaf College, joined the U.S. Navy and served in the Philippines during World War II. Laingen studied at the National War College and earned a Masters degree in international relations from the University of Minnesota. He joined the Foreign Service in 1950 and stayed with the agency for 38 years. Laingen was President of the American Academy of DipAmerican flag presented to Bruce Laingen by President Reaganlomacy from 1991-2006.

Today Laingen resides in the Washington, D.C., area with his wife, Penelope (Penne). Penne originated the yellow ribbon campaign during the hostage crisis. Ribbons are still used to this day to bring attention to issues ranging from support for American combat troops to breast cancer awareness.

The Laingen collection includes personal papers and letters, the suit and tie Laingen wore while in captivity, and an American flag given to him by President Ronald Reagan after his release. The collection will serve as a wonderful resource for any scholar researching 1970s politics, U.S.-Iranian relations, diplomacy, hostage issues, rural Minnesota farm life and World War II in the Philippines. Some of the material will be featured in the Minnesota's Greatest Generation exhibit, scheduled to open at the Minnesota History Center on Memorial Day, 2009.

 Molly Tierney, Curator of Manuscripts


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The Republicans are coming… The Republicans are coming…

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | August 25, 2008

It won't/shouldn't surprise readers of this blog that there are a couple of political titles on the 150 Best Minnesota Books list. So, as the invasion of St. Paul - popularly know as the Republican National Convention - begins, let's nominate two of them.

E. V. Smalley. A History of the Republican Party from Its Organization to the Present Time; To Which is Added a Political History of Minnesota from a Republican Point of View... St. Paul: E. V. Smalley Publisher, 1896.

Robert Esbjornson. A Christian in Politics; Luther W. Youngdahl: A Story of a Christian's Faith at Work in a Modern World. Minneapolis: T. S. Denison, 1955.

You may be surprised to hear this but it is hard to over emphasize the significance of the Republican Party in Minnesota. They built this state; all the great Minnesota institutions- like the Historical Society and the University- are Republican institutions.

Democrats won (or as Smalley argues, stole) the state's first election but after that Republicans ruled Minnesota for the rest of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. In 1973, when my father became the first Democratic majority leader of the Minnesota Senate in 116 years, he wondered aloud how another Irish Democrat, Senator Richard Murphy, had screwed up so badly that Republicans had the run of the legislature's upper body for more than 11 decades. E. V. Smalley celebrates this "continuous position of political power" in his 426 page oversize book that we have nominated as one of Minnesota's best books. Smalley attributes this long run of success to the "progressive spirit" of the Republican Party. They were the party of regulation and fair taxes. Even when the party finally lost the executive branch in 1898 it was really just to "silver republican" John Lind, who was replaced two years later by another reform minded, trust-busting Republican, Van Sant.

The second book we are placing on the 150 best books list, Esbjornson's biography of Luther Youngdahl, illuminates another important era in the history of Minnesota's Republican Party. After the short reign of the Farmer-Labor Party during the 1930's, Republicans reestablished their leadership. Youngdahl was emblematic of these Governors. His main gubernatorial initiative was known as the "humanity in government" program. He was concerned about the sorry state of mental hospital facilities, interested in civil rights, and worked to enhance public education. Influenced by the "social gospel" movement, he defined being a Christian politician quite differently than those running for office today.

From A Christian in Politics:

The Christian in not content with the measure of wealth and justice attained along the first mile of conflict and compromise. He sets out on the second mile, speaking for the un-represented groups and demanding benefits for the under-dogs, even though they cannot help him politically. He appeals to the consciences of men, not just their self-concern. He sub-ordinates his personal ambition to his public duty.

But as we know, history is the process of change over time. "[D]emanding benefits for the under-dogs"? Republicans don't look much like Youngdahl anymore.

Gov. Youngdahl sets fire to various restraints at Anoka State Mental Hospital

Minnesota State Fair in Archival Film Footage

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | August 20, 2008
In our tribute to the MN State Fair, Collections Assistant John Fulton digs into the KSTP-TV news film Archive to find some stories that recall Fairs gone by. A taste of the large amount of film in the society’s collection.

1892 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | August 20, 2008
As a prelude to this year's Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Acquisitions Librarian Patrick Coleman takes a look back at the last time the Twin Cities hosted a national convention, the 1892 Republican Convention in Minneapolis. Then as now, the metro area took center stage with a huge influx of delegates, supporters, and of course, media. However, the conditions and the possibility of a surprise outcome were rather different. Take a listen!

1892 Republican Convention in Minneapolis

By: admin | What's New | August 19, 2008

Come by the Library Lobby and see some of the wonderful pieces we have from the Republican National Convention of 1892 on display. This includes badges, original newspapers, photographs of the event, as well as visitor guides given to the Delegates. Consider the 1892 Convention in light of the hoopla surrounding the upcoming Convention, which will be held just down the hill!

This display will be on view the same hours as the Library. It will not be available during the Convention itself, from September 1 through September 4.

Be sure to listen to the Podcast on the 1892 Convention as well!

So Wild A Dream

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | August 8, 2008
I just returned from my most arduous canoe trip in years [an estimated 65,000 - 75,000 paddle strokes] reminding me that I'm not 20 years old anymore. Four friends and I retraced a trip in the Quetico that Aldo Leopold took in 1922. Tom, one of my canoe mates, was reading Eric Sevareid's Canoeing with the Cree, which also reminded me that we have not officially placed this classic on our list of best books, so here it is:

Arnold Sevareid. Canoeing with the Cree. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

This is the book most often recommended to me as one of Minnesota's 150 best books. I couldn't agree more, but I admit that I am a bit surprised by such wide spread agreement. This true adventure story begins on the Minnesota River at Fort Snelling and ends a harrowing four months and 2,250 miles later in Hudson Bay. I won't take away any of the pleasure of a full reading, but Tom marked two passages in his copy with campfire charcoal that I'll share. The first passage comes when the boys, using horrible maps and bad advice, had just come life threateningly close to missing the outlet of the God's River.

Half a mile westward and suddenly we were in a strong current. Again we had done it! And missed the river by only half a mile!

"Mr. Sevareid," said Walt pompously, extending his hand like an archduke, "I congratulate you, rawther splendid you know."

"Sir Port, positively gorgeous. You, my lord, not I, deserve the plaudits of these gaping multitudes."

But only the spruce and the birch could witness our triumph.

This proved the truth of an earlier passage that Tom had marked...

This was another indication of something we came to realize many times before we reached home, that the God who guides the footsteps of errant fools most certainly was riding on the weathered prow of the Sans Souci [their canoe].

I love the last paragraph of this coming of age story...

We went by the school, sitting on its terraces among the yellow trees. As we drew nearer and nearer to home, high-school boys and girls passed us on their way to classes. We realized that we were looking at them through different eyes. We realized that our shoulders were not tired under the weight of our packs. It was as though we had suddenly become men and were boys no longer.

I recommend collectors find a copy of the first edition. It was published under Eric's original name, Arnold, and the dust jacket has an image canoeists will find familiar, a photo by Sevareid of Walter Port's bare back in the bow of Sans Souci. The edition currently in print is, however, the best. It contains an introduction by Ann Bancroft, who wisely sums up the one of the reasons this book is timeless: "Only our acceptance, our willingness to go where we are small and where we need to respect the power and objectivity of nature, makes it possible for us to experience a hero's journey. And we are all eager for that journey."

There can't be any better place to read a book than sitting on jack pine needle covered granite in canoe country. Other books we painfully carried over countless portages? The Secret Life of Lobsters, Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez, and Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. I love the juxtaposition of reading gritty urban novels in the wilderness, so I brought along John Banville's Dublin in his Christine Falls.