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Our Favorite Things

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Meet Writer-in-Residence Chris Martin

Posted byLori Williamson on 16 Oct 2013 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

We are very excited to announce the writer-in-residence in the Minnesota Historical Society Library! In collaboration with Coffee House Press’s exciting project Writers and Readers Library Residency Program, we will be hosting poet Chris Martin through the month of October. The goal of the project is to have new works created in response to working with our unique historical and cultural Collections, either particular pieces or through researching broader themes. One of the goals is to show libraries as creative spaces in addition to reference places. Chris is particularly interested in stories of American Indians, explorers, forgotten literature, and the idea of naming.

Learn more about the project and follow Chris’s progress at the Coffee House Press: In the Stacks blog.

And join us for a public presentation and conversation about his work and experience while here on Tuesday, November 12th at 7pm in the Library! It’s free and open to the public.

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Football and puns and Floyd

Posted byLori Williamson on 26 Sep 2013 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

Football and puns, what could be better? You get both in this 1966 University of Minnesota Homecoming Pin. College homecoming football games have been going on since 1909. Usually the homecoming team schedules an easy opponent to ensure a victory. Commemorative pins for the big game are given out before the game.

This Saturday, September 28, will be the 107th matchup between The University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa. The Gophers have been playing the Hawkeyes since 1935 for the Floyd of Rosedale. Along with winning 61 of the contests the Gophers also won the year this homecoming pin was given out, beating Iowa 17-0.

Ryan Barland, Oral History

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At the State Fair

Posted byLori Williamson on 22 Aug 2013 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

This is a cross-over Favorite Things / What’s New post. We are always lucky when something new to the Collection becomes an instant favorite! Maybe it’s the time of year talking, but when “At the State Fair” came through the Acquisitions Committee last week I knew we had to share it.

This intaglio print by James Boyd Brent exhibits all the excitement and energy of the State Fair. Recognizable Fair motifs (the Haunted House, rides, food) provide the setting, but even more recognizable is the joy, busy-ness, and even confusion among the people in the scenes. The Fair is many things to many people, and he conveys much in this small triptych.

This print is part of a recent acquisition of five pieces — all of which explore familiar scenes of Minnesota. James is a contemporary printmaker specializing in intaglio processes. He is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Minnesota. We are thrilled to add his work to our art collection!

Click on image above to enlarge it.

Lori Williamson, Acquisitions & Outreach Coordinator

Learn More about the Minnesota State Fair:

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Ded Unk’Unpi: We Are Here Exhibit Acquisitions

Posted byLori Williamson on 13 Jun 2013 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

The Minnesota Historical Society strives to make history relevant to the lives of contemporary Minnesotans. One of the ways in which the Society carries out this mission is by collecting and caring for materials that document the stories of Minnesota’s peoples.  In 2012, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Native American Community Development Institute with All My Relations Art sponsored the Ded Unk’unpi : We Are Here art exhibit. As 2012 marked the 150th year since the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, twenty participating American Indian artists shared their reflections on the war and related events, as well as on this “commemorative” year.

As the Ded Unk’unpi : We Are Here exhibit came to a close, the Society’s Collections department was privileged to acquire for its permanent collections eight of these works. Many of the artworks themselves document the historic events of the War and its immediate and extended aftermath, including the subsequent mass execution in Mankato and Dakota removal to Crow Creek. But the artworks also serve somewhat as documents in-and-of-themselves; to be “read” by future Minnesotans in order to better understand this point in time -2012 – and the powerful and complicated emotions, artistic visions, and scholarship of today. Consisting of both traditional and contemporary media, prevailing themes found throughout the pieces include the regaining of cultural strength, the healing of wounds, and the honoring of relatives.

In the ledger art piece, For Every Great Man, There is a Great Woman, 2012, artist Avis Charley depicts three generations of Dakota women moving westward across the plains. A noticeable absence of men may allude not only to the strength of these women, but to the fact that many Dakota men (even those who did not participate in the War), were held as prisoners for years following 1862. In her artist statement, she writes, “The women represent different generations and the virtues of our Dakota values. These values are courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity and the message will be about healing, moving forward, and empowering ourselves as Dakota women despite the trauma in our history.”

For Every Great Man, There is a Great Woman, 2012
Avis Charley
color pencil and acrylic on paper

On December 26th 1862, following six weeks of war, thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota – a hanging that remains the largest one-day execution in American history.  Among these men was Wicaŋḣpi Wastedaŋpi, or Good Little Stars. Within the Dakota culture, each child born has a public name which denotes their birth order, and first born males are called Caske (Cha-SKAY).  Wicaŋḣpi Wastedaŋpi, among many others, often answered to his public name of Caske.

Wicaŋḣpi Wastedaŋpi and his family protected Sarah Wakefield, the wife of a doctor from the Upper Sioux Agency, and her children during the war. In spite of protests and professions of his innocence by Mrs. Wakefield, he was sentenced to death, and she ostracized for her efforts to protect him.  There are conflicting accounts of whether or not this man was hanged by mistake or whether his execution was deliberate.  One version of the story purports that because there were multiple Caskes imprisoned, Wicaŋḣpi Wastedaŋpi simply answered the executioner’s call by mistake. A closer inspection of the historical record proves this version to be oversimplified and perhaps superficial.

Today, to many Dakota people, Wicaŋḣpi Wastedaŋpi represents a martyr or a lost hero. It can be seen that for his efforts in protecting other human lives, his only reward was a vindictive frontier justice. Through her piece Caske’s Pardon, Gwen Westerman offers a prayer for his federal pardon.

Caske’s Pardon, 2012
Gwen Westerman
Quilt: 100% commercial and hand- dyed cotton; glass, beads, hemp, and paper embellishments

James Star Comes Out created his piece, 1862 Sung Ite Ha, and other similar pieces, with the goal of revitalizing the art of horse regalia in his home community of Pine Ridge. He writes that “in doing so, I believe that it will be beneficial to all, as it will exemplify the beauty of Lakota culture and in return it will encourage, motivate and revive a centuries-old art form.” This piece was created as a tribute, to honor the 38 men that were hanged in Mankato in 1862.

1862 Sung Ite Ha, 2012
James Star Comes Out
cotton fabric, brass spots, brass bells, beads, tin cones, goose feathers, red fluffs, turkey feathers, and mirrors

These pieces, along with others by well-known artists Jim Denomie, Julie Buffalohead, Maggie Thompson, Jodi Webster and Dwayne Wilcox were formally added to the Society’s permanent collections in 2012. To view these and other artworks, visit our collections online database here.

Ben Gessner
Collections Associate, American Indian & Fine Art Collections

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Treasure in the Minnesota State Archives

Posted byLori Williamson on 16 Apr 2013 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

In April 2011 a Library patron found an 1862 dollar bill in a Winona County District Court civil case file.  The case file itself is routine, so the real treasure is the dollar bill.  The well worn dollar bill was probably sent to the court to pay for a court fee, but for some unknown reason remained in the file.  The case files for this time period are tri-folded, and most likely the file has not been opened and used since 1868 when the case occurred.

This is an intriguing story and the researcher was very conscientious about informing the Library staff of her find.  The dollar bill was one of the first paper dollars bills issued by the federal government on August 1, 1862; both the Union and Confederate governments issued paper currency to finance the American Civil War.  The dollar bill is intact, in fair condition, but dirty and worn at the corners.  It actually feels like a paper towel or a piece of soft cloth.

Here is a photograph of a mint condition 1862 dollar bill.

Note the red engravings, and the reverse of the dollar bill is green, and that is where we get the term “greenback” for dollar bills.   The paper currency issued by the Union government was referred to as greenbacks, because the reverse or “back” of the dollar bills were printed in green ink.  And who is the distinguished gentleman pictured on the dollar bill?  That is Salmon P. Chase, the Treasury Secretary for President Abraham Lincoln.  He is well known to numismatists for his causing the motto “In God We Trust” to be adopted for our national coinage. The values of the greenbacks fluctuated during the war, and at times were only worth 40 cents in gold.

The case file in which the dollar bill was discovered is entitled Byron B. Northrup & Abram Hoagland v. H. T. Jewett.   According to the documents in the file, Mr. Jewett owed Northrup and Hoagland $562.50.  The documents, dated 1868-1869, include a summons and complaint, affidavits, and a statement of the Winona County Sheriff that Mr. Jewett could not be found in the county or in the state.  That’s not too surprising, since another document states Mr. Jewett was a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, but owned property in Minnesota.  Other Winona County court records preserved in the State Archives were examined, but apparently this case was never resolved, and Mr. Jewett never paid off his debt to Northrup and Hoagland.

But, this 1862 dollar bill which remained undisturbed in a routine court file, helps tell an intriguing story about an important period in our country’s history, and illustrates the treasures (monetary and non-monetary) that may be found in the Minnesota State Archives.

Charles Rodgers
Government Records Specialist

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1970s – the Do Something Decade?

Posted byLori Williamson on 31 Jan 2013 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

Oh, the 1970s…they were quite a time. There has been renewed interest in this period lately, both scholarly and in popular culture. From the movie Argo to the book being published this fall by MHS Press, people have started taking a closer look at this often neglected time that shaped many of us. Today, however, we are taking the popular culture angle. These two pieces were added to the collection here just last week, and I thought you should see them.

Windom is a town of about 4,500 people in the southwestern part of the state. This program is from the beauty pageant held there, leading up to the Miss America pageant.

Were the 70s really the “Do Something” decade?

To balance out the beauty, I submit this:

This is a copy of Charlie Brown and Snoopy in German, published in 1971. The popularity of Peanuts knows no bounds, nor national borders apparently.

Both of these items will be cataloged and available in the Library for a closer look.

Lori Williamson
Acquisitions & Outreach Coordinator

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Fractional currency

Posted byLizzie Ehrenhalt on 08 Nov 2012 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

If the words “United States” weren’t printed on it, you might think that this unusual bill came from Canada or Great Britain.  But it’s very American, and evidence of a curious chapter in the history of American money.  It’s an example of fractional currency, so called because it was issued in denominations (3, 5, 10, 15, 25, and 50 cents) worth less than $1.00.   The use of fractional currency dates to the Civil War, when wartime inflation accompanied a sharp decrease in the value of paper money.   Panicky citizens hoarded anything they could find containing precious metals, including pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.  Coins all but disappeared from circulation, making simple cash transactions difficult.

Casting about for a solution to the problem, U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase hit on the idea of pasting postage stamps to pieces of paper.  The resulting bills posed no hoarding risk but could be created in various low-value denominations and exchanged for legal tender.  The new postal currency proved so popular that the Treasury approved additional issues (this time of better-designed, harder-to-counterfeit bills that were themselves legal tender), and fractional currency was born. The era of the five-cent note lasted until 1876, when Americans were once again willing to part with their nickels and dimes in order to make exact change.

The unfamiliar gentleman on the five-cent bill shown above is Spencer M. Clark, Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau (now the Bureau of Printing and Engraving) from 1862 to 1868. Stories differ as to how Clark’s portrait came to be printed on the bill.  Some say that the intended honoree was explorer William Clark, others Freeman Clark, a New York representative and eventual Comptroller of the Currency.  Whatever the Bureau’s original plans, the superintendent saw to it that his own likeness appeared on the bill instead of one of his namesakes’.  His arrogant move scandalized Congress, which responded by retiring all five-cent notes and passing a law banning portraits of living people from appearing on currency.  Subsequent bill designers limited themselves to images of Lady Liberty (pictured on the 10- and 15-cent notes above), deceased Treasury secretaries and founding fathers like George Washington.

Lizzie Ehrenhalt, Collections Assistant

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Confederate Soldier’s Bible

Posted byLori Williamson on 17 Sep 2012 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

This inconspicuous cloth-bound copy of the New Testament has a remarkably full story to tell. It was published in 1851 by the American Bible Society in New York and by the time the southern States seceded from the Union, the Bible had made its way to Georgia. By 1862 it had come into the hands of Franklin Gassett, a twenty-five year old Private in the 6th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company G.

Frank Gassett was born into a large farming family in Georgia, the twelfth of fourteen siblings. The family home was located in Soda Town, Georgia, near Butler in west-central Georgia. When the call to enlist reached Taylor County, Frank, along with at least five of his brothers and his seventy-six year old father signed up. Frank, his father, and his brother John joined the 5th Infantry Georgia State Troops, Company F, on October 15, 1861. Five months later Frank Gasset put pencil to paper inside the front cover of his bible for the first time, writing: “A Testament / Apral 27th 1862 / Frank A. Gasset[’s] Book.” This may have been the day he received the bible, a day important enough to jot down before slipping the book into his uniform pocket for safekeeping.

After serving with the State regiment for only six months, Frank and two of his brothers, Malachi and Francis, transferred into the 6th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company G. They were immediately sent to Virginia to join the fight. On May 11, 1862, just two days before the muster rolls record his enrollment with his new regiment, Frank signed and dated his bible again, this time inside the back cover. Five days after enrolling with the 6th Georgia, Frank wrote in his bible, this time recording his arrival in Virginia: “New Kint Co. May 18th 1862”. Perhaps this was when he also recorded his home address and his father’s name in the bible’s pages, writing “F. A. Gassett / Butler, Georgia / or Sidertown” and “Direct your letter / to Wm Gassett / Sadatown / Ga”.

Within weeks of being at the front the reality of war set in. The next time Frank picked up his pencil, just five days after he takes part in the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), he wrote “God of Mercy / Rember us in this day of truble”. On September 17th, 1862, Frank Gassett and his Georgia regiment found themselves in an impossible situation. They were defending a fence in Miller’s cornfield, seventy miles northwest of Washington, when their right flank became exposed because the North Carolinians defending it fled. The 28th Pennsylvania and three small Ohio regiments advanced through the woods unseen and fired into the 6th Georgia at point blank range. Men fell in heaps. And then the charge began; men were run through with bayonets and clubbed with muskets until the few who remained standing ran for cover. Of 250 men in the 6th Georgia, only twenty-four escaped Antietam unscathed. Frank Gasset was not among them. He lay dead on the field with the bible he carried tucked in his pocket until a Yankee soldier came upon his body and discovered the bible.

New hands picked up a pencil and made an addition to the story, writing “This book was taken out of a Dead Rebel officer’s pocket / 17th day of Sept. 1862 / Battle fought on Banks of Antietam”. The Union soldier later gave the bible to his son Fred C. Cook, who made the final entry inside the bible’s cover: “Presented to Dr. A. E. Higbee by Fred C. Cook, whose father found this testament the day after the battle as described elsewhere herein”.
Cook was referring to a newspaper article published long after the war was over, on November 12, 1894. The St. Paul Daily Globe published this entertaining though only semi-factual article about the bible’s story, also reporting that an attempt to locate the Gassett family had been made. The bible remained in Minnesota, so it is likely that the attempts to reach the Gassetts failed.

The bible’s recipient, Albert Higbee, a native of New York, served with the 12th Wisconsin during the war and later moved to Minnesota. Long after his death, Higbee’s daughter Marjorie donated the well-worn bible to the Minnesota Historical Society with her father’s other Civil War keepsakes. Since 1961 the bible has rested in collections storage, just waiting for its story to be told again, hopefully with a bit more accuracy.

- Sondra Reierson, MHS Collections Assistant


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Paul Kramer, artist

Posted byLori Williamson on 10 Sep 2012 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

Self Portrait, 1964

We are sorry to note the passing of artist and gallery owner Paul Kramer. Kramer was not only a member of Minnesota’s Greatest Generation (having served in the armed forces during WWII) but a member of a generation of great Minnesota artists. His career and artistic output ranks him as one of the most important Minnesota artists of the twentieth century.

Kramer taught at a number of art schools in the Twin Cities; worked at the St. Paul Art Center (now the Minnesota Museum of American Art) and the Fine Arts Department at the Minnesota State Fair; and formed his own gallery in 1965.  He won many awards and his work is represented in museums as well as private and corporate collections. He humbly “considered himself a painter who was good at his craft.”

The Minnesota Historical Society is proud to have several fine selections of work spanning his long and productive career. Please see his obituary for more about him.

Sixth Street Hill, St. Paul, 1955

View of St. Paul, 1956

Apartment Walls, 1959

Swede Hollow, 1984

Red Wing, 1984

Model in Blue Dress, 1988

Fountain City WI, 2005

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Fragmentary history

Posted byLizzie Ehrenhalt on 21 Aug 2012 | Tagged as: Our Favorite Things

Shrapnel shell fragmentAirplane fragmentFlag staff fragment (2 of 2)

Forget the History Channel.  If you want to learn about a particular period in the past, take a look at the objects that were around at the time and lived to tell the tale.  Museum artifacts are packed with information about the cultures that produced them, and I don’t just mean mummies and famous paintings.  Even a humble boot—one that belonged to a woman who lived in, say, the late 1800s—can tell you a lot about the life and times of its owner.  A flimsy upper and high heel would show that she was well off, and, like most wealthy Victorian women, not required to do much walking.  Silk laces might point to the availability of imported luxury goods in her local department store.  And the mark of a Parisian cobbler would attest to the popularity of French designs during the Gilded Age.

You can learn all this from a single object—so long as it’s in one piece.  But what about those objects that don’t survive intact?  What can we learn from them?  Many artifacts have entered MHS collections over the years in less-than-complete condition.  These are the scraps of history:  frayed ropes, shards of wood, unraveling threads and twisted bits of metal.   They are rescued from disaster scenes and scavenged from battlefields, and their provenance ranges from monumental (the destroyed battleship Merrimac) to mundane (a 1930s sofa).  Unlike that hypothetical lady’s boot, with its laces and marks and physical quirks, these odds and ends don’t offer a lot of details for us to analyze.  If artifacts speak the truth about history, these fragments whisper it.

Shell fragment US Army blanket fragmentMetal fragment

Consider the three specimens above, all recovered from the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.  An archaeologist might be able to figure out how they were originally made.  A scientist might be able to tell you their precise age and chemical composition.  But to the average history buff, their cultural context is going to remain a mystery.  No matter how much you study that scrap of blanket, it’s not going to teach you anything terribly crucial about the battle of Gettysburg—its causes and aftermath, its function as a turning point in the war and, most importantly, the experiences of the soldiers who fought there.

In the end, fragmentary artifacts are valuable not as evidence of historical facts but as conduits to a material past that is otherwise closed off to us.  After all witnesses to an event have died, we lose a link to the fullness of its meaning.  In the case of Gettysburg, the death of its last veteran marked a shift in the way we understood the battle, distancing us from personal, embodied memories of the sights and sounds and emotions experienced during the campaign and leaving us with only the abstract statistics of an Important Historical Event.

Artifacts return a piece of Gettysburg’s material reality to us, proving as they do that the battle was fought with pieces of wood and wool and iron that are not so different from the wood and wool and iron we use today.  There is an emotional resonance to be gained from restoring what you might call the thing-ness of history.  And artifacts, no matter how fragmentary, transmit that thing-ness like nothing else.

Confederate prison door handle

One of the most striking objects in the fragments collection is another Civil War relic:  the handle of a door in a Confederate prison in Millen, Georgia (above).  Exposed nails give it a menacing, weapon-like look; the grip of many hands has lightened its surface.  Looking at the handle, it’s hard not to start asking questions.  What kind of room did the door open?  Was it a cell?  How often did prisoners get to go in and out?  Before long, you’re imagining yourself into their place and time, your curiosity piqued by a 150 year-old chunk of wood.

Lizzie Ehrenhalt
Collections Assistant

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An Ounce of Preservation: A Guide to the Care of Papers and Photographs

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