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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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Minnesota's First State Flag

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | July 24, 2008
With all of the excitement surrounding Minnesota’s sesquicentennial this year, I’ve been thinking about those formative days in 1858 when we emerged from our territorial adolescence into full-grown statehood. Creating a new state is no simple matter. Given the innumerable legislative tasks involved, we shouldn’t be surprised that one or two slipped through the cracks. What might be surprising though, is that Minnesota’s oversights included the failure to adopt an official state flag – for 35 years!

It was not until plans were made for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 that the lack of a flag became a real problem. As a part of that grand fair, marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas (the fair itself was a bit behind schedule), each of the then 44 states were invited to mount an exhibit at the fairgrounds in Chicago. As the Minnesota display was prepared, the state legislature determined that the occasion called for an official state flag.

The legislature appointed a flag commission and the commission in turn sponsored a design contest open to all Minnesotans. Amelia Hyde Center of Minneapolis submitted the winning entry. Center’s design called for a double-sided flag blue on one face, and white on the other. The Minnesota state seal (which the state had remembered to adopt in 1861) was the focal point. Center placed three dates in the seal: 1819 (the founding of Fort Snelling), 1858 (statehood), and 1893 (the flag's design). Sisters Pauline and Thomane Fjelde, immigrants to Minnesota from Norway and respected needleworkers, were contracted to produce the actual prototype flag. The Fjelde sisters did such a fine job of it that the Minnesota flag earned a gold medal for embroidery at the Chicago exposition.

Center’s design survives largely intact in our current state flag. The double-sided scheme was dropped in favor of two blue sides in 1957, not for aesthetic reasons, but because a single-colored flag was easier to mass-produce. The Fjeldes’ original silk flag became the property of the Minnesota National Guard. It made public appearances in parades as late as 1919, and then went into storage. The flag underwent conservation treatments in the 1930s, and again in the 1980s, before the Guard transferred it to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1993. Some things are indeed worth the wait.

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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1950s Tourist Cabins

By: admin | Podcasts and Slideshows | July 23, 2008
Curator Matt Anderson celebrates the summer road trip season with a look at an early predecessor to the modern motel: the tourist cabin. One cabin from the Star Harbor Resort near Two Harbors, complete with its furnishings and appliances, is highlighted. The cabin is now in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

View photos of tourist cabins in general, and of the Star Harbor Resort in particular, in the Visual Resources Database. Purchase copies of Cabins of Minnesota and Minnesota Vacation Days in the online store. Learn more about one segment of the "hot pillow trade" in Minnesota under "History Topics."


Betsy, Tacy, and Guest Blogger

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | July 22, 2008
Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart LovelaceEmily by Maud Hart Lovelace

[A note from Patrick:] There will be times during the course of rolling out the list of 150 best Minnesota books that I will admit to knowing just enough to know I am ignorant. This is one of them. Maud Hart Lovelace absolutely deserves a place on this list but I'm not qualified to choose the title or write about Maud. Fortunately we have enlisted the aid of a guest blogger to do the honors. Betsy Sundquist introduced herself to readers of this blog in comments under the first posting if your want to check out her credentials. Take it away Betsy...

Maud Hart Lovelace. Betsy-Tacy. New York: Crowell, 1940.

Maud Hart Lovelace. Emily of Deep Valley. New York: Crowell, 1950.

Maud Hart Lovelace wrote a series of books set in Mankato, the fictional Deep Valley, about Betsy Ray, Tacy Kelly and their friends, but I - and many other Lovelace fans - believe her best work is Emily of Deep Valley. Although some of the Betsy-Tacy characters make appearances in the book, it's a stand-alone story about a girl very unlike Betsy: Emily is a loner, shy and not really part of her high school crowd. Throughout the course of the book she realizes she's unhappy, determines to quit feeling sorry for herself and learns to "muster her wits," which helps lead to one of the most satisfying conclusions in Lovelace's books. I've discovered that a number of girls who have read the books in the past - and who continue to read them today - have identified more closely with Emily than with the popular Betsy Ray and her crowd. Although the 10 specific Betsy-Tacy books weave a wonderful story about Minnesota girls growing into women at the turn of the 19th century, I believe that Emily has an important message, delivered in a convincing (and not preachy) manner.

Betsy Sundquist, guest blogger

Nouvelle Decouverte, New Discoveries, and No Discovery

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | July 14, 2008
We have been having far too much fun lately so let's get serious for a while and talk about three of the most important and indispensable Minnesota books. Although they are from three different centuries and three different nationalities, the theme of exploration connects them. These books could hardly satiate the old world's hunger for accounts of this strange new world and its exotic inhabitants.

Father Louis Hennepin. Description de la Louisiane, Nouvellement decouverte au Sud' Ouest de la Nouvelle France...Paris: Chez la Veuve Sebastien Hure, 1683.

Jonathan Carver. Travels Through the Interior Parts of North-America, in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. London: C. Dilly; H. Payne; and F. Phillips, 1781.

Zebulon M. Pike. An Account of a Voyage Up the Mississippi River from St. Louis to its Source. Washington, D. C., 1807.

The oldest, rarest, and most expensive (in case, as I hope, you are attempting to acquire all 150 books) book on our list is the Hennepin. In recounting his trip up the Mississippi River from the Illinois River the Friar gives the first written account of the French holdings of Louisiana and becomes Minnesota's first author. The question is whether Hennepin is Minnesota's first writer of fiction or non-fiction. I chose this edition because the narrative embellishments become intolerable in subsequent editions. In his 1697 sequel, Nouvelle decouverte... Hennepin claims to have first paddled down to the mouth of the river before returning north! And in a matter of days!! LaSalle remarked of his underling: "It is necessary to know him somewhat, for he will not fail to exaggerate everything; it is his character." Fowell dryly states that the writings of early explorers "... may be said to contain truth."

Carver began with an advantage: he had read Hennepin. This piqued his amateur curiosity to find out more about the Mississippi River and its inhabitants. To make a long and complicated story bloggably short, Carver contributed greatly to the knowledge of the river and of the Dakota people, with whom he spent a winter. Unfortunately Carver's London publisher added much material that was both plagiarized and fanciful, even by the lax standards of this genre. As they expected, this made the book extraordinarily popular. It was quickly printed in all European languages but Carver's veracity was widely questioned. It wasn't until the legendary Dr. Jack Parker, from the James Ford Bell Library, discovered Carver's original manuscript in the British Library that Carver's reputation recovered. I have listed the third edition of Carver because it is considered the best edition, having added a biography of the author, an index, and 3 colored plates, one of which is Europe's first image of a tobacco plant.

Thomas Jefferson read both Hennepin and Carver. In 1805 he sent young Zebulon Pike to acquire land from the Indians for permanent forts, to bring the influential Chiefs to St. Louis for talks, and to discover the source of the Mississippi, which Carver had misidentified as Lake Pepin. Pike proves to be shockingly inept in diplomatic encounters with both the native population and the British traders. He also proved to be a poor explorer and poorer cartographer. He concluded that Leech Lake was the source of the Mississippi and that Cass Lake (called Red Cedar Lake) was the "upper source," whatever he meant by that. Pike's only success was procuring the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers for what would become Fort Snelling. Still this is an important part of Minnesota history, a good story, and a must read.

For readers inclined to cheat, skip the above and read Tim Severin's highly entertaining Explorers of the Mississippi. New York, 1968.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

Notes from the Book Fair

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | July 1, 2008
Life doesn't get any sweeter for Minnesota bibliophiles than it was last weekend! It was the 18th annual Twin Cities Book Fair and 50 dealers from around the country brought their best books. I was especially gratified to see how many of the 150 best Minnesota books were available. Just from the last two posts, for example, I saw several volumes of Sig Olson's writings. The best might have been at the booth of Winona book dealer and Professor, John Campbell. It was Open Horizons and was signed with a long presentation to Florence Barker, author of Bird Songs of Southeastern Minnesota. There were many copies of Jacques Canoe Country available but the Rutstrum book remains as elusive as ever. Steve Anderson of Ross & Haines books in Hudson had Lindbergh's Why is Your Country at War... for a reasonable $500 and Rulon-Miller of St. Paul had a rare dust jacketed copy of Lindbergh's The Economic Pinch for $450. Rare book dealers from Rochester, New York, Boston, and Paris (Tennessee, sorry) had books that made taking out a second mortgage on your house seem like a reasonable idea. All have vowed to help the MHS secure every foreign language edition of Sinclair Lewis's Mantrap.

Speaking of the collections, I had an especially good book fair. After last year's effort to educate dealers about the rich tradition of Minnesota pulp fiction writers I seem to have created a market for these titles. Of the genre fiction that showed up at the fair the MHS bought two Poul Anderson firsts in beautifully graphic jackets, two Frank Gruber westerns, and a handful of Sci-Fi magazines (again, great graphics) with local authors featured prominently on the covers. These will not be on the list of Minnesota's best books, but I thought you might enjoy seeing an example, at right.

I'll be checking more titles over the next few days - since I can't remember every book in the library and don't yet have an iPhone - but so far the best book from the fair came from the booth of Paul Johnson whose Apple Valley store is simply called "The Bookman." It is a very rare printing of a Louise Erdrich short story, "Snares," which was published by the Friends of the Library of Middlebury College in 1987.

Special thanks goes to the Dean of Minnesota Book sellers, Jim Cummings, who brought gifts for the MHS to the fair. These were a photo that Jim took as an eight-year-old boy of the farm buildings at Crosby Farm in St. Paul (which may be the only image of that old landmark) and several photos of Ignatius Donnelly's home at Ninninger, documenting the first and unsuccessful preservation fight in Minnesota. Donnelly, by the way, will be an honored author on our 150 list. Stay tuned and let me hear what you found at the book fair.

James J. Hill Papers

By: admin | What's New | July 1, 2008

You know his mansion on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, and you know that he's the railroad magnate, but did you know about how diverse his ventures were or the kind of family man he was? The answers can be found in his papers!

The James J. Hill/Louis W. Hill manuscript collections provide a wealth of documentation on topics as varied as mining interests, agricultural enterprises, national and international commerce and finance, and the expansion of the Pacific Northwest. These business papers complement our massive collection of railroad records. The papers contain details about the Hills’ interests in Canadian fishing, oil exploration, Glacier National Park, and philanthropy throughout the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Complementing these business topics are the Maude Hill papers, a rich resource on the domestic side of the Hill family.

The papers were transferred from the James J. Hill Reference Library to the Minnesota Historical Society in May 2008. They are currently in the process of being recataloged, and so will not be available for public use for several months. In the meantime, come see materials from this outstanding collection on display in the Lobby of the Minnesota Historical Society Library through August 25, 2008.

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Land Survey Records

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | June 30, 2008

There are certain core documents you would expect to be preserved in the Minnesota State Archives, such as the state constitution, the papers of the state's governors, Supreme Court case files, and the proceedings of the state legislature. Indeed, these records are preserved in the Minnesota State Archives, but there are a set of very important records concerning Minnesota's land itself. These are the original land survey field notes and land survey plats created during the first United States government land survey of the state. The records date from 1848 to 1907 and are of great value to the State of Minnesota, researchers, surveyors, and ordinary citizens. The handwritten survey notes, in small leather covered notebooks, were compiled by U.S. Surveyor General surveyors as they laid out the exterior and subdivision lines of each township, recording survey reference points and marker posts and including plat drawings and comments on the natural features of each township. Besides the survey notes for the approximately 3,800 townships in Minnesota, there are separate survey field notes for the state's Native American reservations, islands, and military roads. The field notes of survey lines are supplemented by field notes of other surveyors commissioned to examine the accuracy and completeness of the surveys. They serve as fundamental legal records for real estate, as an essential resource for surveyors, and as an analytical tool for the state's physical geography prior to European settlement.

The original public land survey plats are the official legal land records for Minnesota, and all property titles and descriptions stem from them. The plats have been scanned (or ditigitized), and are available online free of charge. This digital collection is a compilation of the state's original plat maps drawn by the U.S. Surveyor General's Office over the years 1848 - 1907. The collection includes later plat maps, up to the year 2001, drawn from surveys conducted by the General Land Office and the Bureau of Land Management. The collection of plats can be viewed any time at either the MHS web site or the Original Public Land Survey Plat Maps of Minnesota site. You are able to view and download high quality, full color images of the over 3,500 plat maps and associated textual data (tables of meanders appear on the back of some maps). Each plat map is available as a high resolution PDF and a lower resolution resampled PDF. The images have not been georeferenced. At this web site there is information about the history and organization of the Public Land Survey System as well.

The original land survey notes are available for use in the Library of the Minnesota Historical Society, but because of their fragile and unique value must be handled with care. Since the land survey plats are available online, and because of the fragile nature of the orginal land survey plats, they may only be used with special permission.

Charles Rodgers, Government Records Specialist

'Thank God and FDR' on WCCO!

By: admin | What's New | June 24, 2008
Art curator Brian Szott was interviewed on WCCO television on Sunday, June 29, as part of their Finding Minnesota segment. He gave a wonderful overview of the current Hill House exhibit, 'Thank God and FDR', which is on view until November.

Watch the interview, and come see the show!

Summer in Minnesota - Books 19, 20, 21

By: admin | 150 Best Minnesota Books | June 24, 2008

Welcome to the first week of summer. I'm among those who believe there is absolutely no reason to live in Minnesota unless you enjoy and take advantage of our impressive parcels of wilderness. Last week, playing the role of Bourgeois [as in the wise old respected leader, not as in a member of a fussy upper class] to a small group of middle-aged voyageurs, I hosted a meeting to plan our summer trip into the Quetico-Superior wilderness. This is simply what Minnesotans do unless they've inherited the family cabin up north. To enhance the experience of wilderness, and to remind us of it when we are not there, we are lucky to have books. The three best...

Florence Page Jaques. Canoe Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1938.

Sigurd F. Olson. Listening Point. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958.

Calvin Rutstrum. Way of the Wilderness: A Complete Camping Manual... Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company, 1952.

Sigurd F. Olson is the Dean of outdoor writing. He began selling his stories to hunting and fishing magazines in the 1920s. By the mid-1950s he was writing books that would spark a cult-like following of people who believe that the wilderness experience is a spiritual one, of which I'm a card-carrying member. As is the case with many of the authors on this list, it is hard to choose just one of Olson's books. I would love to hear your opinion. I chose his second book, Listening Point, because it is the name of Olson's getaway, which became a Mecca for environmentalists. Curiously, this is the signed first edition of the "Minnesota Statehood Centennial Edition" as it was "prepared in tribute to the State." Here is a sample from Sig's first book, The Singing Wilderness:

There have been countless campfires, each one different, but some so blended into their backgrounds that it is hard for them to emerge. But I have found that when I catch even a glimmer of their almost forgotten light in the eyes of some friend who has shared them with me, they begin to flame once more. Those old fires have strange and wonderful powers. Even their memories make life the adventure it was meant to be.

Olson's books were illustrated by Frances Lee Jaques, which greatly added to their charm. Jaques was at his best, however, when illustrating the writings of his wife Florence Page Jaques. The two collaborated on several books including Canoe Country, and the U of M Press has kept this title along with Snowshoe Country and Geese Fly High in print. Going into the woods is one thing; knowing how to get in and out safely is quite another. Calvin Rutstrum, from Marine on St. Croix, was the go-to guy for this information and once again [thanks Todd] the U of M Press is keeping his books in print for us. I choose this edition of Way... because it is so uniquely bound in a Duluth Pack-like cover. It is impressive how much harder camping was a half a century ago. I'm proposing a new movement - retro camping. Let's go into the wilderness without equipment or technology invented after WWII. - wood not kevlar. Wool not polypropylene. Canvas not Gortex. Rutstrum can be our guide.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian

Nokomis vessels

By: admin | What's New | June 23, 2008

The July 2006 - April 2007 History Center exhibit "Red Wing Retro: Extraordinary Pottery, Everyday Life" provided an opportunity to feature a significant portion of the Society's holdings documenting a Minnesota firm and products. Exhibits also enable museums to inform potential donors about strengths and gaps in a collection. As a result of this exhibition, nearly 50 pieces of Red Wing pottery were acquired for the collections between 2006 and 2008.

A recent and most generous gift from a long-time donor has greatly increased our holdings of early and rare Red Wing art pottery with 9 examples of the vessels in the Nokomis line.

The company best known today as the Red Wing Potteries, Inc., had its beginnings in Red Wing, Minnesota about 1878. While focused on utilitarian wares with a conscious eye toward affordable yet fashionable offerings, Red Wing Potteries were at the same time traditional and modern. In 1929 glazed art pottery became part of the Red Wing Potteries, Inc. product family, and examples from many lines continued to be available until 1967. The Potteries' artware featured exhaustive quantities of abstract, stylized and iconic objects created either for contemplation or to function in various capacities throughout the home. The vases, planters, ashtrays, bowls, sculptures, commemoratives, promotionals, and other items in the artware line generally amounted to about 15% of the Potteries' sales.

Produced circa 1926 -1929 and likely sold into the 1930s, Nokomis vessels were slip-cast in plaster molds. The glaze was described by the company as "a metallic finish in gray and tan with a tint of copper;" and collectors today agree that the 18 classic shapes decorated in this impressionistic hand-applied glaze were marketed ahead of their time. Nokomis vessels are found in matte, semi-matte, and glossy surface finishes. All the shapes in this donation (#195, 196, 198, 200, 201, 205, 207 & 212) appear in the "Price List-August, 1931 Red Wing Pottery Glazed Ware."

Marcia Anderson, Senior Curator

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