I finally found time to read the third book in book in a new group of paper-bound books about ethnic Minnesota -- "The People of Minnesota" -- that is being published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. This one is "Irish in Minnesota." (I wrote about the Norwegian and Jewish books a few weeks back.) Ann Regan, author of the book about the Irish, is the managing editor of the Minnesota Historical Society Press. She wrote the original chapter on the Irish in "They Chose Minnesota," the book that gave birth to this series.
I was a little surprised at the first paragraph in the book, "In the winter of 1999, Minnesota's newly elected governor, Jesse Ventura, joked on David Letterman's show about St. Paul's crooked streets. Whoever designed the streets must have been drunk....I think it was those Irish guys. You know what they like to do,' he said, making a gesture as if drinking. The studio audience gasped, astounded at the outspoken governor's ethnic slur, and then laughed and applauded. Some of Minnesota's Irish did the same -- but others resented the joke or thought it was simply silly."
With such a lively start, I had high hopes for this book, but it settles back into pretty much facts and figures. Not that this is bad, but the book is mostly of interest to people of Irish descent, I would think.
There are paragraphs that commanded my attention. One was in regard to the Dodd Road that runs not too far from Northfield. The book reveals that territorial boosters in St. Paul and Irish farmers in new outstate communities were unwilling to wait for a planned military road from St. Paul to St. Peter and contributed in 1853 to the efforts of Capt. William B. Dodd who built the road to St. Peter.
I also found interesting the paragraphs about how St. Paul, with a mainly German population, became an Irish town. For one thing, by 1858, six of 11 police officers were Irish. Although the Germans asked for more representation, for decades one fourth of the policemen, firemen and watchmen were Irish.
Irish civil servants and lawyers were both a cause and an effect of the group's growing political power in St. Paul, the book states.
Catholic Archbishop John Ireland favored Irish clergy. With parishes in every ward, the fortunes of the church, the Irish and the city became interdependent. To build new churches, the St. Paul Seminary and the Colleges of St. Thomas and St. Catherine, Archbishop Ireland hired construction firms owned by Irishmen -- Foley Brothers, Butler Brothers, Shiely Sand and Gravel, for example -- and they in turn hired skilled Irish workers.
There are paragraphs about Ignatius Donnelly, especially interesting to me because he was much admired by my maternal grandfather who was active in politics in southern Dakota County in the late 19th century.
In the book, Donnelly is described as "politician, writer and Populist philosopher who was born in Philadelphia in 1831 to an Irish immigrant father and a second-generation Irish mother. He moved in 1857 to Minnesota where he entered territorial politics, helped found the townsite of Nininger on the Mississippi River in Dakota County and wrote a number of literary, scientific, and political books of enduring, if unconventional, interest.
"During the next 43 years, Donnelly was associated with many parties -- Democratic, Republican, Granger, Anti-Monopolist, Greenback, Farmers' Alliance, People's and Populist -- and he battled with the leaders of each. He was lieutenant governor when the Civil War broke out and a representative in Congress from 1863 to 1869.
"Although he failed in five tries to regain a congressional seat, he became a favorite of Dakota County's Irish and Populist voters who elected him to the state legislature six times. Donnelly was a talented, humorous and popular speaker, a perennial favorite who addressed Irish gatherings and St. Patrick's Day functions to loud and prolonged cheers."
I wonder if Donnelly had anything to do with a statement my grandmother once made, according to my mother. She said if she had it to do over again, she would marry an Irishman -- for the laughs.
The book reveals that Minnesota's first organized Irish colony was in LeSueur and Rice counties. General James Shields, an Irish-born politician, soldier, lawyer and entrepreneur, purchased an interest in the townsite of Faribault in 1855 and selected lands in what became Shieldsville and Erin townships for an Irish Catholic colony. He brought several Irishmen from St. Paul to settle the townsite of Shieldsville. Attracted by his advertisements, Irish farmers almost filled Shieldsville and Erin as well as parts of Webster and Wheatland townships. And then the colony spread to Kilkenny and Montgomery townships to nearby LeSueur County.
As I mentioned when reviewing the Norwegian and Jewish books, each of these ethnic Minnesota histories contain a personal account by an immigrant. The account in the Irish book has been taken from a journal of a young Irish woman who immigrated in 1908. For a time she worked as a chambermaid in the Summit Avenue home of Louis W. and Maude Hill, son and daughter-in-law of the railroad magnate, James J. Hill. I'm afraid I didn't all that much enjoy her fragmentary report.
The book states that into the 1900's, the declining Irish-born population of Minnesota became progressively more urban. By 1910, three-fifths lived in cities with populations of more than 2,500. But even as their numbers in rural areas fell, Minnesota's Irish departed from the pattern in the rest of the United States. In 1920 when 17 percent of the nation's first and second-generation Irish lived in rural areas and in towns of less than 2,500, more than twice that proportion -- 38 percent -- of Minnesota's Irish did so.
A book recently reprinted by the Minnesota Historical Society Press is of all things, the "WPA Guide to Minnesota." In the depths of the Great Depression, a Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration created this book. I was surprised that the society would consider the book worthy of 2002 circulation, but then I discovered that Frederick Manfred, Minnesota writer who prepared an introduction to this reprint, referred to the book as "a mine of many treasures."
I'm old enough to remember the WPA first hand. It provided employment in a number of different fields in 1935-43.
In Northfield a WPA team indexed Northfield newspapers -- the card files are kept and very much used in the Pye Room of the Public Library.
I remember being in the presence of a member of that team some 40 years after the index was made. She was shocked to think anyone was making use of it. She had felt she was participating in made work that had no future.
Part of the introduction to the "WPA Guide to Minnesota" reprint states, "Although this volume is not recognized as a scholarly reference work on Minnesota history, it is recommended to readers who will delight in its literary style and colorful evocation of the past."
The beginning of the reprinted material is fascinating, "When the tourist from the Eastern coast or from the South walks into the marble and bronze Memorial Hall of St. Paul's functional courthouse, when he listens with 4,000 others to the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, or suddenly comes upon a view of Duluth-Superior Harbor with its great freighters moving along the miles of ore docks and grain elevators, it is hard for him to believe that some Minnesotans clearly recall the terror of Indian massacres, the sight of browsing buffalo herds, and the creaking of thong-tied Red River carts. Yet if he is to understand the Minnesota of today, he must keep always in mind the fact that within the span of a single lifetime 54 million acres of forests, lakes, rivers and untouched prairies have been converted into an organized area of industrial cities and rich farms, of colleges, art centers, golf clubs and parks."
Part of the book is directions for making 20 auto tours across Minnesota, also 15 canoe trips. No. 14 for auto starts in Minneapolis, goes to Farmington, Northfield, Faribault, Owatonna, Albert Lea and to Northwood, Iowa.
In this area, the description mentions the sandstone outcropping Castle Rock and tells that the Carleton College Arboretum exists along the Cannon River.
Northfield, it says, has an altitude of 915 feet and a population of 4,153.
The early milling industry here is mentioned as well as the time when Northfield was the Holstein Capital of America. Specifically the Springbrook and Miller herds are listed as including outstanding dams. There is also mention that Northfield has a factory producing breakfast foods!
Quite a bit of space is given to a portion that begins, "Many residents still remember the seven minutes that shook Northfield' on Sept. 7, 1876, when Jesse James, Missouri badman, and his bandit gang attempted to hold up the First National Bank."
There is information about both Carleton and St. Olaf colleges. The St. Olaf paragraphs, in addition to tracing the forming of the college, zeros in on the famed St. Olaf Choir and its founder, F. Melius Christiansen, and mentions O.E. Rolvaag, faculty member who wrote the best seller, "Giants in the Earth."
The Carleton section mentions the annual May Fete of which I have fond childhood memories -- and wish it could be reinstated. The Arboretum is described briefly. A sizable paragraph is devoted to a Carleton graduate from this community, Thorstein Veblen, world-known economist and philosopher.
What is a bit strange about this is that back in the 1930s when this was written, people around here had forgotten about Veblen (we've been reminded since) and were very much aware of Rolvaag. But Veblen is given four times as much space. Both are also mentioned in a different section of the WPA Guide devoted to "The Arts."
At the beginning of the reprint there is current information about Minnesota. In the back is a chronology of Minnesota history from 1654 to 1937. There are also suggestions for further reading and an index.
I guess there are people who collect all the guides pertaining to 48 states. But I'll have to admit that, busy as most of us are, I can't quite imagine spending much time on the Guide. It is fun checking out familiar places to see what was thought 65 years ago. For that reason it belongs in every public library.