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Of Maps and Men: or Vigorous and Lusty Minnesota

Tuesday, September 23rd, 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.

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Marschner Map of Original Vegetation

Tuesday, September 9th, 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

Tuesday, September 9th, 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.

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Bruce Laingen Papers

Monday, September 8th, 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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An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs