How Minnesota Saved Civilization

150 years—and 31 ways that we changed modern life

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.



In 1918, a photographer in Bovey named Eric Enstrom asked a door-to-door salesman to pose for a picture. Maybe Enstrom saw the deeply pious humility in Charles Wilden; maybe he coaxed it out of the old man. Whatever: It’s there in the photograph that Enstrom snapped. Call it Grace, as Enstrom did, or kitsch, as art mavens do—in either case, this picture of Wilden, with head bowed, hands clasped, and elbows resting on a dinner table, is probably the most famous image to ever come from Minnesota.


It’s hard to conceive of today, but the 19th-century America that Minnesotans Sinclair Lewis (1885—1951) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896—1940) were born into had no bloggers. Not a one. It barely even had a middle class. What it did have was a lot of rural poor folk, a lot of urban poor folk, and on top of them a scattering of super-rich robber barons and a handful of Brahmin writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton who did what they could to explain us to the Europeans, or, as they were called at the time, the Only People Who Mattered.

Fitzgerald and Lewis changed all that. Lewis made everyday small-town American characters into villains powerful enough to be deserving of satire, and Fitzgerald showed that middle-class Americans held within them the capacity to soar with melodic grandiosity and crash with the deepest possible tragedy. In short, Lewis, America’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Fitzgerald, America’s most potent producer of tragedies, remade American letters into something about us.

Without those two Minnesota writers there could never have been John O’Hara, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Sylvia Plath, John Updike, or American literature as we know it. And without American middle-class, confessional literature as we know it, there could have been no blogs. And without blogs, of course, we would actually have the time to read Lewis and Fitzgerald, but that’s not their fault.


Question: How did the chicken on your dinner plate cross the country?

Answer: Probably aboard a truck or train, in a cooled compartment invented by Fred McKinley Jones. Before the Minnesota engineer built the first refrigerated trailer in 1938, spoilage was the food industry’s archenemy: Florida oranges, New York strip, iceberg lettuce from California—all of it was likely to wilt or rot during shipping without tons of ice, and hauling fresh or frozen goods to market in the summer heat was a race against time. When a Twin Cities businessman lamented the loss of a truckload of fresh chickens, Jones, a veteran tinkerer who had built a sound-system for the movie house in Hallock a few years earlier, rose to the challenge: His Frigidaire on wheels became the prototype for the kind of refrigerated shipping containers that now carry kiwi fruit, mahi mahi, and Argentine beef around the world. Jones’s name eventually graced more than 60 patents (including one that made shipping refrigerated medical supplies possible during World War II), but the African American inventor’s achievements weren’t fully recognized until long after his death, by President George H. W. Bush, in 1991. Think about that as you chew your steak tonight.


Technically, there had been frozen pizzas before Rose Totino invented “crisp crust,” but these were primitive things, made simply by freezing an unbaked pizza. Once baked, these early pizzas came out gummy, flat, and unappealing. Rose Totino was the one who, working out of her namesake Italian restaurant in northeast Minneapolis, developed and then patented a process of briefly frying pizza crusts (rendering them crisp) and then flash-freezing them (which prevented the slow formation of ice crystals that made crusts flat and gummy.) In short, before Rose Totino, frozen pizzas were almost inedible, but after Rose Totino, frozen pizzas were the cornerstone of the American life we know and love today, allowing children to survive nights with the babysitter, teenagers to survive college, and adults to survive breakups, renovations, and nights when everyone worked late.


C. Walton Lillehei was a University of Minnesota med-school grad who went off to World War II and earned his stripes in medical units in North Africa and Italy. Young, ambitious, and aggressive, Lillehei returned to Minneapolis after the war to complete a residency in surgery under the tutelage of the eminent Dr. Owen Wangensteen. Lillehei tackled the seemingly intractable problem of open-heart surgery: How do you supply a patient’s body with the pumping and oxygenation functions of a beating heart while performing a lengthy operation on that same organ? In 1954, Lillehei found the answer in a technique called cross-circulation—and the world streamed to Minneapolis to find out how it was done. Lillehei taught 134 cardiothoracic surgeons at the U of M, including Dr. Norman Shumway, who developed the technique for heart-transplant surgery; Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who famously performed that operation for the first time; and Dr. Richard DeWall, who helped develop a simplified heart-lung machine that would eventually make open-heart surgery almost commonplace.


Fact: Norman Borlaug, an Iowan educated at the University of Minnesota, is credited with saving a billion lives since the 1960s as the father of the so-called Green Revolution, in which high-yield, disease-and-insect-resistant crops have been implemented in Third World countries prone to famine. For this work, he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Fact: Contrary to predictions that the Green Revolution would push the world population past the food supply’s reach, Third World births have dropped considerably since Borlaug’s innovations.

Fact: A good argument can be made—and Borlaug has made it—that higher-yield crops have saved millions of acres from deforestation at the hands of traditional slash-and-burn farmers.

Fact: All this apparently means diddly-squat. How else to explain those who oppose the Green Revolution for its reliance on genetic cross-breeding, which they impugn as everything from a boon for greedy agribusinesses to simply unnatural? Never mind that organic farming, the obvious alternative to Borlaug’s methods, would be hard-pressed to feed the entire world without a dramatic increase in either land use or starvation.

What does Borlaug, now 94, think of these folks? “If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world,” he has said, “as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

Conclusion: That’s a billion people, people. When you’ve figured out a better way to feed them, let us know.


Looking back through the bifocal lenses of middle age, it’s hard to see Southdale as the beacon of promise it once was. But when the world’s first fully enclosed shopping center opened in 1956, it changed the very nature of social interaction in America.

Victor Gruen, the Viennese architect who designed the center for the Dayton Company in the mid-1950s, was a man on a mission. His goal was to bring European sophistication to American suburbia. He saw the commercial strips popping up on the fringes of American cities as “avenues of horror…flanked by the greatest collection of vulgarity—billboards, motels, gas stations, shanties, car lots, miscellaneous industrial equipment, hot dog stands, wayside stores—ever collected by mankind.”

The antidote to this chaos, he proclaimed, were planned developments that would not only supply suburbanites with comfortable places to shop, but would also “fill the vacuum created by the absence of social, cultural, and civic crystallization points in our vast suburban areas.” Southdale’s skylight-domed Garden Court was the linchpin of his scheme. Here was the new town square, complete with fountains, benches, a sidewalk café, a two-story birdcage full of canaries, and a 45-foot-tall abstract bronze sculpture.

Gruen envisioned this space as a bustling center of communal activity comparable in spirit to Paris’s Champs Élysées or Venice’s Piazza San Marco.

The basic elements of Gruen’s design were replicated in malls in suburbs from New York to California, but his vision of the mall as a new town center was, alas, never completely realized. Turns out people didn’t want to socialize or listen to canaries or talk about civic engagement while sitting at a sidewalk café. Mostly, they were just interested in shopping.



Back in the days when the Iron Range was alive with miners, merchants, and mensches, four synagogues provided services for Jewish congregants in the region. The oldest, and longest-lived of these temples, would also turn out to be one of the boldest religious communities in the state’s history. Built in Virginia in 1909, B’Nai Abraham Synagogue maintained a thriving congregation for many years. In 1942, outraged by the despotism they saw in Europe and Japan, temple members took the novel action of subpoenaing Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito “for the crimes of murder, mayhem, rape, arson, libel, slander, and malicious destruction of property.” While there was obviously a measure of farce in the indictment, those charges were deadly serious and true. The publicity garnered by the gesture not only underscored the horrors of fascism, it also let the world know that, even up in little Virginia, the actions of these tyrants were being weighed and measured.


What’s the difference between burnt toast and perfect toast? Springs and a variable-speed timer, the very things that Stillwater mechanic Charles Strite applied in 1919 to a newfangled invention: the electric toaster. Problem was, the electric wires sometimes blackened the bread. Strite took the matter in hand, founded a company, and in 1921 something called the Toastmaster was born: It was a pop-up electric toaster similar to the kind you know and love today. And so America was ushered into a new world of perfect toast at home.

No longer was perfect toast reserved for those wealthy enough to employ servants! Thanks to Charles Strite, homemade toast points became possible; and, thus, America suddenly found itself able to play bridge; and, thus, suburban ennui was born.

Thanks to Charles Strite, Pop Tarts were devised (in 1963); and, thus, the munchies were born. Few can doubt that, without the foundational elements of suburban ennui and the munchies, there would be no road trips, Dharma Bums, San Francisco poetry scene, late 1960s hippie-driven cultural revolution, Watergate, Jimmy Carter, Reagan conservatism, Yuppies, surf punk, real punk, YouTube, or, in fact, anything of any cultural import whatsoever. In short, America without the Minnesotan invention of a pop-up toaster would be little more than a late 19th-century Canada, just a nice place where people stood around hoping breakfast turned out.


Let’s say it’s 1962: Unless you’re in New York City, you don’t know any professional actors. In fact, you’re not sure what a full-time actor would do in the Twin Cities, because there’s not any of that kind of nonsense going on around here, thank you very much. Why not? Well, because in those dark days before Tyrone Guthrie opened his theater in Minneapolis, professional theaters simply didn’t exist outside of Manhattan. All you had were traveling productions and community shows starring your neighbors (now that’s tragedy!).

But all that changed in the mid-1960s. Witness the article that appeared in the New York Times in 1959, revealing the ambitions of Guthrie and his associates, who hoped to build a “regional theater” somewhere in middle America: “Stage Unit Slated Outside of City” reads the headline. Holy Hamlet! “Concerned over the centralization of the legitimate theatre in New York and the general lack of opportunities for burgeoning professional actors,” the article announced, “three prominent show people have taken steps to remedy these conditions.” That remedy would change everything. Guthrie’s original company of Broadway transplants in Minneapolis—Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy among them—would prove that theaters could thrive in the hinterlands, and that actors were worthy of showering with grants, not just rotten tomatoes.


Children playing baseball. A boy hugging a blanket. A dog dancing on his hind legs. It all sounds so warm and fuzzy. And Peanuts did have its cuddly side. But just below the veneer of cuteness resided a world seething with anxiety, loneliness, and frustrated desire. Where did such a bleak worldview originate? In the mind of St. Paul’s own Charles M. Schulz, ironically known to family and friends as Sparky. For half a century, Schulz gave voice to his deep-seated insecurities through a pack of big-headed kids and, in so doing, elevated the lowly newspaper comic strip from fleeting diversion to profound existential commentary. Although various Peanuts characters served as spokespersons for facets of Schulz’s melancholy psyche, it was the lovable loser Charlie Brown who seemed closest to his heart. Without Charlie’s example, later cartoon schlemiels like Garry Trudeau’s Michael Doonesbury and Berkeley Breathed’s Opus may never have seen the light of day. “Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than we are with winning,” Schulz once wrote. “Winning is great, but it isn’t funny.”


Of the Minnesotan “twins” who served on the U.S. Supreme Court in the ’70s and ’80s, history has been far kinder to Harry Blackmun than it has to Warren E. Burger. Blackmun was curious, compassionate, and funny, and his opinions—on everything from abortion to civil rights—left an indelible mark on American culture. Burger was pompous and aloof, obsessed with administrative minutiae.

And yet, it was Burger who was most responsible for one of the great moments in our democracy: an opinion establishing that, in America at least, no one is above the law.

The case started in 1973, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, when President Richard M. Nixon—citing “executive privilege”—refused to comply with a subpoena ordering him to turn over secret recordings of his White House conversations to a special prosecutor. The fight over the tapes went to the heart of a basic Constitutional issue: Does the separation of powers established in the Constitution give the president absolute power to withhold information from other branches of government? Writing on behalf of a unanimous court, Burger basically answered No frickin’ way, and he ordered the president—the man who had appointed him—to surrender the tapes. It was a ruling that not only codified one of the country’s most important ideals, it also prompted Nixon’s resignation.


You live in a state that loses its collective mind over hockey, so you probably already know the facts: In February 1980—amid the Cold War, inflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, economic uncertainty—the U.S. Olympic hockey team (a bunch of kids, really; their average age was 22) took on the team from the Soviet Union, the most talented squad in the world, and beat them 4—3. The game, the winning goal, and even the play-by-play call (“Do you believe in miracles?”) would become legendary. Twenty years later, Sports Illustrated would call it the biggest sports moment of the century.

But what is often buried in the story—especially because a couple of Boston guys got much of the glory, and because the team’s best player was from Wisconsin—is how thoroughly Minnesotan the U.S. team was. Twelve of the 20 players were from here, as was head coach Herb Brooks. But it went beyond numbers. Tough, hard-working, quietly confident, smart, unimpressed with its opponents (Brooks constantly told his players that Soviet star Boris Mikhailov looked like Stan Laurel), the team’s identity was the product of their coach’s sadistic genius and a particular brand of hockey culture, a culture that is as much a product of the Gopher State as Hamm’s and hotdish. Let everybody else call it a miracle. You can call it Minnesotan.



The top five Minnesotans (mostly) in everything that matters


Bob Dylan
Judy Garland
The Replacements
Polka king John Wilfahrt


F. Scott Fitzgerald
Louise Erdrich
Sinclair Lewis
Tim O’Brien
Charles Baxter


Post-it notes
Seat belts
Kitty litter

Sports Heros

Bronco Nagurski
Charles Albert Bender
Verne Gagne
Dave Winfield
Neil Broten


The Mayo Brothers
Walter Lillehei
Earl Bakken
Peter Agre
Leonid Hurwicz


W. W. Cargill & John MacMillan
William McKnight
Bob Ulrich
James J. Hill
Richard Schulze


Norman Borlaug
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Tyrone Guthrie
Alan Page
August Wilson

Political Leaders

Little Crow
Hubert H. Humphrey
Roy Wilkins
Walter Mondale
Eugene McCarthy

Fictional Characters

Marge Gunderson
Jay Gatsby
Mary Richards
Brandon and Brenda Walsh
Betty Crocker


Alexander Ramsey
Browns Valley Man
Father Hennepin
Henry Schoolcraft
Betty Crocker

Hollywood Types

Joel and Ethan Coen
Jessica Lange
Terry Gilliam
James Arness
Josh Harnett

Media Mavens

Charles Schulz
DeWitt Wallace
Garrison Keillor
Harrison Salisbury
Thomas Friedman


Sascha, the Hamm’s Beer bear
The Pillsbury Doughboy
Betty Crocker
Bullseye, the Target dog
The Jolly Green Giant


Paul Bunyan
Judy Garland
Tammy Faye Bakker
John Madden
The one that got away



Rogues & Sources of Infamy

I-35 Bridge
Harold Stassen
Minnesota Vikings
Clem Haskins



We invented Intercollegiate Basketball

The first intercollegiate basketball game was played in Minnesota on February 9, 1895. Minnesota State School of Agriculture (now the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus) beat Hamline University 9—3.

We Gave Kids a Place to Read

The Minneapolis Public Library established the first children’s library in 1889. Today it holds the Upper Midwest’s largest public collection of children’s books.

We Expected More From Business

The nation’s first Better Business Bureau was founded 1912 by the Minneapolis Advertising Club to eliminate advertising abuses. Today there are 128 bureaus in the United States and Canada that evaluate and monitor more than 3 million businesses and charities.

We Banned Smoking

At 35,000 FeetTwin Cities—based Northwest Airlines was the first major airline to ban smoking on domestic flights, and has since banned smoking on all its flights.

We made swearing less profane

Say what you will—Gosh Golly, Well I’ll Be, Jeepers Creepers, Good Heavens, Holy Mackerel—there’s only one way to sum up the kind of eye-popping astonishment that comes with watching the losing team hit a grand-slam over the outfield fence: Holy Cow! Minnesota baseball commentator Halsey Hal coined the phrase during a Twins radio broadcast

We invented the road trip

The first bus line ran between the towns of Hibbing and Alice in 1914—using only one bus. The bus line was later incorporated as Greyhound Lines, which today serves more than 3,100 destinations

We Honored the Lowly Mushroom

In 1984, the morel became the first official state mushroom, the highest honor a fungus can achieve. Other states have been slow to follow our lead, but in 1999, Oregon named the Golden Chanterelle as its official state ’shroom.

We Put Up the Nation’s First Skyway System

The Twin Cities’ skyway systems were the first ever constructed in North America. Since 1962, the climate-controlled networks of shops and restaurants have almost made it possible to never set foot outside.

We Made Crashes Less Lethal

The first automatic seat belt, which is standard-issue in today’s cars, was invented at the University of Minnesota by mechanical engineer James “Crash” Ryan. His seat belt saved more than 226,000 lives from 1975 to 2006, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

We modernized Breakfast: Part II

Alexander Anderson of Red Wing discovered the process for puffing wheat and rice, giving us hundreds of breakfast cereals, rice cakes, and—best of all—Cracker Jack. Yum.