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How Minnesota Saved Civilization

150 years—and 31 ways that we changed modern life

How Minnesota Saved Civilization
Photo by Robin Eley (Illustrations)

(page 1 of 4)

There's no hard proof that Minnesota lies at the center of the universe. But there’s no evidence that it doesn’t either, right? In fact, the fate of the cosmos (or, at least, America) has hinged on the North Star State more than you might expect. Our state, our people, and even our fungi have fearlessly and repeatedly led the world forward, marching into the bright dawn of the future. Our achievements in commerce, law, medicine, technology, and pizza-making could fill a thousand Post-its. The contributions of our native sons and daughters to the fields of politics, agriculture, literature, and the arts are so sweeping that we’d be tempted to brag—if, naturally, we weren’t so busy being a global beacon of modesty and selflessness. But now, as Minnesota marks 150 years of statehood, it seems appropriate to do more than just acknowledge that “Hey, we could ’ve done worse, eh?” Once and for all, let’s embrace our central role in shaping world history.


Long before the nation’s midsection was crisscrossed with railroad tracks and interstate roadways, just one Super Highway meandered north and south through the heartland. Put a finger to a map, run it up from the Gulf of Mexico to the great state of Minnesota along the Mississippi River, and you will see written there a history of Native American commerce and trade, of Middle Western town-building, of paddle-wheeled steamboats and boys adrift on wooden rafts. On each side of the waggling line, one river after another pours its contents into the muddy waters of the Mississippi: Almost half of the territory of the contiguous United States empties into it. Follow the main line all the way to where it vanishes on the map, and you’ll find a tiny little rivulet that leaks out of Lake Itasca, way up in the piney woods of north-central Minnesota. No wonder they write poetry and songs about it. Of all the gifts this region has given the world, the Mississippi is surely the greatest.


For hundreds of years and across thousands of miles of plains and prairie, when Native Americans reached for the sacred pipe, they reached for an icon fashioned from a red-colored rock found in southwestern Minnesota. Pipestone—the name of the nearest Minnesota town, the name of the quarries, and the name of the stone itself—has been, and still is, dug from a vein of rock-hard red clay in an area near the South Dakota border.

Soft enough to be shaped into ornamented art forms, yet durable, too, this red stone—fashioned, according to legend, from the very flesh of Native Americans—was used for sacred vessels. White Americans called such vessels peace pipes, because the only times they were privy to their use was when Native Americans hauled them out for treaty signings. But the pipes were central to rituals surrounding hunts, trades, dances, and war. Quarried by the Dakota, Pipestone became the preferred bowl for tobacco smokes throughout North America, and was traded by peoples as far apart as Ohio, Georgia, and southern Canada.


Minnesota was less than 50 years old when its leaders decided to build a capitol for the ages. Never mind the state’s rough edges, this would be a temple to high art and aspiration. And who better to design it than the most talented architect in the state? Cass Gilbert’s career was still budding when he got the commission: A St. Paul boy, he had studied briefly at MIT and apprenticed at New York’s famed architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White before returning to Minnesota. Here, he designed houses for the lords of Summit Avenue and conjured up the Endicott Building in downtown St. Paul. It wasn’t until he was tapped to design the capitol, however, that his ambitious reach synced up with his delicate grasp. To crown the structure, Gilbert built a spectacular ribbed dome modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and encased it in a brilliant white Georgia marble. He spared no expense, adding flourishes inside and out, incorporating sculpture, painting, and furniture by the leading artists and designers of the day. The result is one of the most beautiful state capitols in the nation—and a showpiece that won Gilbert attention and acclaim. Even before it was finished, in 1905, Gilbert had already moved on to Manhattan, where his talents were in high demand. To his resumé were added the towers of the George Washington Bridge in New York; the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.; the Woolworth Building in New York, which was for many years the world’s tallest building; and a score of other public structures, in places ranging from Connecticut to Montana.


On the Tuesday after his death on May 29, 1916, all traffic on the railroad lines controlled by James J. Hill stopped for five minutes to salute the fallen leader. That would be 6,000 miles of rail lines running coast-to-coast, upon which workers doffed their hats (some, no doubt, with a sneer) to salute the man nicknamed “The Empire Builder.” He certainly was that. Arriving in St. Paul from Canada as a one-eyed shipping clerk with boundless ambition, Hill quickly climbed the frontier ladder of success. He soon controlled the steamship lines he’d once clerked for, and then began building his fortune-maker, the Great Northern Railway, which he ran from his office in St. Paul. Hill didn’t just devise a railroad that stretched all the way to the Puget Sound; he did it economically, which meant that when his competitors went belly up in the Depression of 1893, Hill was there to buy them out and add to his coffers. In a state that had more than its share of Gilded Age tycoons, James J. Hill dwarfed them all—the equal of Carnegie and Rockefeller. At the time of his death, it was estimated that 400,000 farms had been built along his railroad line; that those farms sat on 65 million acres of improved land; and that together their value was near $5 billion.


In order to truly do justice to the story of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry unit at the battle of Gettysburg, you would need a few hundred pages of prose, a really good map, and a couple of blaring trumpets. So let us focus on just part of the story, a number that says everything you need to know: 47. That’s the number of Minnesotans who were left standing after the unit (of 262 soldiers) attacked Confederate lines at a critical moment on the second day of fighting, a maneuver that gave the Union Army enough time to reinforce its lines, maintain its position, and—eventually—win the battle. The charge would make the 1st Minnesota famous for its courage. But it would also make it one of the most important units in the Civil War, a group of men without whom the history of the state, and the country, wouldn’t be the same.


No outlaws in the history of 19th-century American crime were quite as famed or notorious as the James-Younger Gang. That the band met its demise in Minnesota, at the hands of a bunch of pot-shot wheat farmers, sounds like the plot of a Western that Hollywood never green-lighted because it seemed implausible. The crooks—two Jameses, three Youngers, and a trio of their chums—rode into Northfield on September 7, 1876, planning to hit the First National Bank. Wearing long linen dusters that stood out like moon boots on the Minnesota prairie, these faux cattle buyers looked a lot like nogoodniks to the fine folk of Northfield. Before you could say, “Honey, fetch my gun,” several rifles were being pointed in the intruders’ direction.

In the shootout that followed, the bank’s cashier, a Swedish immigrant, and two of the raiders were killed. The gang hightailed it out of the city—without the contents of the safe—and holed up in the woods near Faribault as armed posses sniffed nearby. The James brothers ultimately slipped through the dragnet and headed home to Missouri, but the Younger brothers would soon find themselves celebrity prisoners at the Stillwater Penitentiary. Minnesota had put America’s most-feared gang permanently out of business.


A century ago, parks were designed as places for pondering the wonders of Nature (or what passed for nature in dense developments). So Minneapolitans were shocked in 1906 when one of the first actions taken by the city’s new parks superintendent, Theodore Wirth, was to remove the “Keep Off the Grass” signs from city lands. He actually encouraged kids to frolic on the greenswards.

The Swiss-born Wirth later wrote, “When it was my good fortune to be called to Minneapolis at the time when the playground movement was on its way, I found the Board responsive to my suggestion to introduce this innovation—and the children and adults of the city likewise in a receptive mood.” The adults weren’t always receptive, though: When Wirth authorized the installation of playground equipment in city parks, the first reaction of nearby residents was, he later recalled, “one of indignation because of the noise of the children.”

But these NIMBYs were soon won over, and before long Wirth was creating new parks equipped with swing sets, tennis courts, and ball fields throughout Minneapolis. He believed that no kid should have to walk more than a few blocks to find one. Wirth went on to preach the gospel of playgrounds to influential planners from around the country and today, the giggles and chirps of children (not to mention the laughter of adults) can be heard in almost every urban park across the country.

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

May 15, 2008 05:27 am
 Posted by  Mark Ritchie, Secretary of State

Governor Stassen was central to the founding of the United Nations, established one of the first and argueably most successful civil service systems in the county, and in 1941 created what we now call the Iron Range Recovery and Rehabilitation Board, the first public-private partnership created to foster economic and environmental sustainability. He was a giant political leader, not a rogue.

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