Minnesota officially joined the union as the 32nd state on May 11, 1858, but like the rest of the nation it was in for a tough haul over the next seven years—the depression resulting from the Panic of 1857 struck Minnesota particularly hard because of the excessive land speculation, a severe drought in 1862 and 1863 created food shortages, and in April 1861 Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, sending the young nation into Civil War.
Governor Ramsey, who had been elected in 1859 in part because his Republican Party echoed the anti-slavery convictions of the majority of Minnesotans, was the first governor to offer troops to the Union cause, doing so a day before President Lincoln even requested volunteers. While the battles of the Civil War raged far away, war struck home in 1862 when Chief Little Crow led the Dakota in a devastating, though ultimately unsuccessful, rebellion.
Since wheat and timber supplied Northern armies, the Civil War had the unexpected effect of reviving Minnesota’s economy. By 1867 railroads connected the Twin Cities to Chicago, an important event since frozen rivers prevented steamboat traffic for much of the year. The Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed Americans and immigrants who had started the naturalization process 160 acres of free land if they built a dwelling on it and lived there for five years, eventually brought hundreds of thousands of new farmers to the state.
Most newcomers were New Englanders, while immigrants came primarily from Britain, Ireland, and Germany. To promote foreign settlement, the State Board of Immigration was established in 1867, and, because of similar climates, it focused its efforts on luring Scandinavians. With the ringing endorsement of earlier immigrants from Norway and Sweden, hundreds of thousands arrived by the end of the 19th century, and today Scandinavians collectively constitute, by far, the largest ethnic group in the state. German is the largest single nationality.
Three industries dominated Minnesota’s economy in the second half of the 19th century: logging, agriculture, and iron mining. Logging yields doubled in each decade between 1860 and 1900, with two billion board feet felled at the turn of the 20th century. During this time Minnesota was amongst the leaders nationally in the amount of lumber supplied to the growing nation, but throughout it all agriculture was the state’s lifeblood, and the vast majority of Minnesotans were farmers.
By 1860 wheat was king, and it continued to increase in importance so that by 1878 the golden grain accounted for nearly three-quarters of the state’s agricultural production. The total might have risen higher, but the blizzard of 1873, followed immediately by a four-year grasshopper plague, forced a reluctant move toward crop diversification.
During the 1880s and 1890s the percentage of land cultivated with wheat dropped by more than half, but overall production still increased substantially, and Minnesota led the nation in wheat production during these decades. With the boom in wheat around the state and the active development of new technologies, men like Cadwallader Washburn and John Pillsbury made Minneapolis a world-famous flour-milling center. Mill City, as it was known, thrived as the nation’s leading flour producer for half a century.
Minneapolis’s supremacy in this one industry attracted tangential businesses such as banks, railroads, and food manufacturers, turning it into Minnesota’s metropolis. Had it not been for wheat, St. Paul would almost surely be the state’s leading city instead.
Despite growth in agriculture, farmers’ discontent was almost universal. At the mercy of the railroads, which charged extortionate shipping rates and habitually cheated them at the scales, they were routinely forced into debt. The 1870s was a particularly challenging decade since the natural disasters came side by side with a severe downturn in the national economy (the Panic of 1873), cutting prices for their products.
Their first champion was Oliver Kelley, a farmer from Elk River, who believed cooperatives and scientific agriculture were the answers farmers needed. Kelley had founded The Grange in 1867 to promote these ideals and lobby against the monopolistic pricing of the railroads. The Grange also opposed many of the practices of millers, farm-equipment dealers, and bankers. Surprisingly they had little trouble convincing the governor and legislature to take on the railroads; a railroad commissioner was appointed and rates were fixed in 1871. The railroads, however, simply ignored the new directives.
Two years later the Grangers moved directly into politics when former Congressman and Lieutenant Governor Ignatious Donnelly, a brilliant public speaker, formed the Anti-Monopoly Party. Several Anti-Monopolist legislators, including Donnelly, were sent to St. Paul the next year but had no success reeling in the railroads, and the party quickly faded away. While they affected little legislatively, they did herald the progressive era in Minnesota and the tradition of third-party movements that continues to this day.
The Anti-Monopoly Party was followed by the Greenback Party, Farmers’ Alliance, and Populist Party, all of which continued to campaign for rural issues, largely by promoting currency expansion that would have assisted indebted farmers. Donnelly, who became famous nationally for his crackpot books on Atlantis and other bizarre topics, was involved in all of them, but never again won elected office.
The first iron was shipped out of Two Harbors from the Soudan Mine up on the newly discovered Vermilion Range in 1884. Six years later iron was found on the even richer Mesabi Range, and Minnesota soon became the nation’s leading iron-producing state, an honor Minnesota has maintained ever since. The mines also helped make Duluth the Great Lakes’ largest port.
Tax revenues endowed the Iron Range boomtowns with some of the best schools and public services in the nation, but the difficult and dangerous conditions that the miners labored in bred anger and protest. In later years the Finns, many of whom were Socialists who had fled the Russian Czar’s crackdown on the political left, were well known as effective organizers and agitators.
When organized labor joined the reform cause in the 1890s, they brought great success to the Populist Party in both Minnesota and the nation. Though the Populists were Minnesota’s second party, by the 1894 elections they faded when the Democrats, led nationally by firebrand populist William Jennings Bryan and locally by former Republican and political moderate John Lind, co-opted many of their positions.
In the 1898 elections Lind became the state’s first Democratic governor since Henry Sibley won the initial election in 1857, but it didn’t exactly break the Republicans’ hold on the executive; Lind was defeated two years later, and the GOP took 10 of the next 15 governorships.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition