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June 3, 2008

Minnesota’s Women Historians – 14, 15, 16

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Lori Williamson @ 9:59 am


As this primary campaign season ends, I no longer know quite what to call myself. Am I a “first wave” or a “second wave” feminist or simply, as a colleague told me, “an old feminist”? Probably the latter. I do the best I can. Bedtime reading for my daughters was frequently a book called Girls Can Be Anything in which a snotty pre-school boy keeps telling a female classmate that she can’t play with him because girls can’t be X, Y or Z. His trump card (sorry Hillary) was that girls certainly couldn’t be president. My girls grew up to be “third wave” feminists and are now both Obama supporters (sorry again Hill). C’est la vie.

When I was raising those daughters I was becoming aware that one very important field that didn’t need to parse feminism, that didn’t seem to discriminate against woman in the least, was history. The giants of Minnesota history were all women. Lucille Kane and Sue Holbert ran the archives and manuscripts division here at the MHS. June Holmquist and Jean Brookings ran MHS Press. Nina Archabal, Rhoda Gilman, Helen White, Lila Goff, and Pat Harpole ran the rest of the institution. I was proud to work with and for those legends while studying these “Best” Minnesota books.scn0001-res.jpgscn0001-res.jpgscn0001-res.jpgscn0001-res.jpg

Agnes Larson. History of the White Pine Industry in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1949. 

Henrietta M. Larson. The Wheat Market and the Farmer in Minnesota, 1858 –1900. New York: Columbia University, 1926 

Grace Lee Nute. The Voyageur. New York: Appleton, 1931.

The Doctors Larson were business historians. However, Henrietta’s book is also an absolute necessity if you want to understand Minnesota political history! In her Columbia University M.A. Thesis on the Nonpartisan League, written six years earlier, she states that the League was “a barometer registering general conditions in the ‘wheat’ West”. Since the Nonpartisan League (about which we will have more to say later) morphed into the Farmer Labor Party, which morphed into the DFL, this book is still relevant.

Agnes’s book holds a special place in my heart. My first job at the MHS was cataloging a pile of lumbering artifacts the size of the Cathedral. I learned more about the timber industry in three hours with her book than in 9 months of handling the material culture lumbering left behind. It broke my heart to read, in her beautiful prose, that Pinus Strobus often reached over 200 feet high. In our life time one would be lucky to see a 120 foot high White Pine - what a marvelous forest that must have been.

Dr. Nute’s The Voyageur is still in print and still the best book on this important Minnesota icon, and the industry that preceded the lumbering and the milling. Much like Doris Kearns Goodwin today, she could do unparallel research and make it exquisitely accessible to a popular audience. Don’t leave home in a canoe without it.


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3 Responses to “Minnesota’s Women Historians – 14, 15, 16”

  1. Bruce White Says:

    The Voyageur is a great book and I have spent a lot of time over the years fighting with it. My mother, Helen White, was a student and protege of Grace Lee Nute, but had a very complex relationship with her over the years. Then when I came along I got hooked on the fur trade and ended up writing a crappy intro to the reprint of Caesars. What amazes me about Grace Lee Nute is that all her writing was based on primary sources. She managed to write very popular books based on documents that no one else would ever have seen otherwise. Very little of her work relied on secondary sources. She had real integrity. She also had a very good sense of place. I respect her work a lot because of those two characteristics. Real historical research written in a popular way about real places in Minnesota. My quarrel with The Voyageur was always not with its research but with the fact that she so successfully captured the subject that she perpetuated the stereotype of the short, singing, gay voyageur.

  2. Ann Pflaum Says:

    I have great admiration for Agnes Larson and wish I had met her. Her work on the white pine and lumber seems to hold up very well over the approximately eight decades since she began her doctoral research.

  3. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Thanks. I am honored to hear from such historical scholars as Ann and Bruce. Have either one of you read Henrietta’s work? I don’t think I have overstated her significance but then I haven’t met many people who know her writings.

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