Bernard Pietenpol – The Father of the Home Built Airplane

A new dawn of mechanical advancement was brought to the forefront of American consciousness because of the burgeoning automobile industry after World War I. Dreamers and adventurers alike were captivated by the use of airplanes during the war. Many Americans were eager to experiment with building their own airplanes, or improving motorized aviation technology. Tinkering with cheap and practical home built aircraft became common in garages and workshops throughout small-town America. Much like Orville and Wilbur Wright had years before, these trailblazers sought to use the latest technology to forge new pathways in aviation history.

When barnstormers began buzzing dairy barns, cornfields, and cherry orchards in southern Minnesota, it lit a fire within three young men in Cherry Grove. Bernard Pietenpol, Donald Finke, and Orrin Hoopman grew up in a time of meager subsistence and great sacrifice. Their quest to join the golden age of aviation lead them to collect  spare parts, build what they could not buy, and experiment with motorcycle, aircraft, and automobile engines in order to create their own home built airplane.

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The Gales of November: George Herbert Shipwreck

It was a typical Monday morning for the crew of the flat-bottomed scow, George Herbert. Captain Charlie Johnson and lumber clerk William Hicks were discussing their trip one-hundred miles up the north shore of Lake Superior with provisions for the M.H. Coolidge Lumber Company. Three other crew members, Ole Nelson, George Olson, and Ole Miller were loading shovels, axes, smoked meats, coffee, whiskey, and lard into the scow’s hold. The lake was calm, and the weather was fair for November, but a steady northeast breeze made the temperature feel like it was below zero. The unpowered scow was loaded quickly. Captain Johnson rang the F.W. Gillett, their tug for the trip, to let them know the scow was ready.

As the George Herbert and F.W. Gillett made their way east along the shore, the wind began to blow harder, and the temperature began to fall. Hoping they could get past the edge of the storm, Captain Johnson stayed on course. By about 1:00 in the afternoon, the wind and the waves had increased to an alarming level. Johnson continued to press eastward hoping to find relative safety from the wind behind a group of islands near present-day Taconite Harbor. After two hours, the scow and its tug dropped anchor on the lee side of Two Islands. The George Herbert and F.W. Gillett  were the first boats to encounter the storm that would become known as the Big Blow of 1905.

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James J. Hill’s North Oaks Farm

James J. Hill was the preeminent transportation pioneer in the American Northwest. He arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota on a steamboat in 1856 and planned on becoming a trapper and trader. Instead, he found work with a steamboat company. During the Civil War, Hill learned the business of buying, selling, and transporting goods. Through connections made during this time, he was able to move into a more lucrative position with the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. His entrepreneurial spirit lead him to start a new business which would supply the StP&P with coal for fuel. Skip ahead to 1883 and Hill had acquired the StP&P and incorporated it into the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway Co. and was now the railway president. Under Hill’s direction, the railway prospered and its net worth increased by $24 million in just five years.

As James J. Hill’s professional interests took his railway west to the Pacific, his personal interests were firmly locked in Minnesota. He dreamed of experimenting with cutting-edge agricultural practices that would improve farming for the immigrants that were flooding into Minnesota on his railroad. In 1880, he acquired 160-acres of land on Lake Minnetonka’s Crystal Bay. He named it Hillier Farm. Hill set his mind to use the farm to breed stock that would improve the cattle available to farmers along his railroad lines. In December of 1881 Hill began purchasing land in the fertile Red River Valley near Hallock, Minnesota. The 45,000-acres of land he purchased became known as Humboldt Farm and was run as a basic bonanza farm. Eventually, 3,000-acres of Humboldt would be split off and managed by Hill’s youngest son, Walter, under the name Northcote Farm. Finally, in 1883 Hill purchased 3,500-acres of land in Ramsey County for $50,000. This investment would expand to nearly 5,500-acres and serve not only as a farm, but also as Hill’s country estate. It became known as North Oaks Farm.

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Lilac Way: Showcase of the Belt Line

Although it’s difficult to tell now, Highway 100 in the west metro was once one of the most beautiful and serene roads in the nation. The roadway was conceived just after the start of the Great Depression as a joint venture between the National Recovery Work Relief Program (which would later become the Works Progress Administration) and the Minnesota Highway Department. Highway 100 would be the first piece of a larger road system that would bypass the Twin Cities, called the Belt Line. This western portion of the project would be the showcase section because of its innovative design and thoughtful landscaping.

Minnesota’s First Vocational School

In February 1915, students poured into the first vocational school in the state. Located in the mining town of Eveleth, this school was the first education building in Minnesota to be devoted entirely to industrial subjects. The Prairie School style building was designed by William Bray and Carl Nystrom of Duluth for around $48,000. The building was constructed of gray Menominee brick and terra cotta. The exterior featured an intricate cornice and a diamond pattern in the brick above the factory-style windows on each end of the building. A relief carving just under the cornice in the center of the school announced that this was the Eveleth Manual Training School.

The interior of the Manual Training School was functional and modern. It was thought to be completely fireproof because reinforced concrete was used for the floors and ceilings, and the  interior walls were made of light-gray brick and tile. The only material used in construction that would have been flammable were wooden floors in the corridors and lecture and drafting rooms. The building was wired for electricity throughout and was heated by a steam vacuum system. Skylights brought abundant daylight to the large drafting and woodworking rooms, as well as the electrical “laboratory”, on the second floor.

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Architecture of the State – The Rochester State Hospital

In 1873, the State of Minnesota was looking for a way to house an increasingly problematic group of residents —“habitual drunkards.” In order to pay for a facility to care for these individuals, the state legislature passed a bill that year that would implement a $10 tax on all liquor dealers in the state. As you can imagine, the liquor dealers were strongly opposed to the tax and appealed the fee all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the fund to build the Inebriate Asylum grew. When enough money was raised through the tax, the state purchased a 160-acre parcel of land just outside of Rochester. Just after construction on the hospital began in 1877, a more urgent need was brought to the attention of the government. The St. Peter Hospital of the Insane was becoming overcrowded and unmanageable. In order to ease the congestion, the state legislature repealed the tax and stipulated that the Rochester Inebriate Asylum was to become the Second State Hospital for the Insane. A portion of the new State Hospital was to be used to house and treat chronic inebriates, but most of the facility would house the insane.

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Wilder Public Baths

It’s hard to imagine a time when taking a bath or shower in your own home wasn’t possible, but the convenience of showering on a regular basis is a modern luxury. One hundred years ago, a great deal of working-class homes in St. Paul lacked bathing facilities. People living in rooming houses and along the Mississippi flats didn’t even have running water. Public beaches were a popular way to wash away the dirt and sweat from hard work, but they were only available in the summer. Recognizing the public need for a year-round facility for people to clean themselves, the Amherst H. Wilder Charities established a facility where anyone could have a “shower bath” — no matter the weather.

Cornelia Day Wilder was the only child of Amherst and Fanny Wilder. She grew up on St. Paul’s swish Summit Avenue, just two houses down from the James J. Hill house. As a child, Cornelia recognized her privileged position in St. Paul and decided to use it to help the poor. Throughout her life, she volunteered her time and money to help the less fortunate. Through her stories from the front lines of helping the poor, Amherst and Fanny recognized the need to provide funds to benefit people in need.

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Maine Prairie Corners: A Minnesota Ghost Town

A township of new settlers from Maine sprung up in Stearns County, Minnesota around 1856, but it wasn’t until 1858 that the small pioneer village officially adopted the name Maine Prairie. During the Dakota Conflict of 1862, Maine Prairie became the site of a small log fort, known as Maine Prairie Fort. Built in August of that year, the fort was a two level, 40’x40’ square stockade that was manned by a volunteer militia. Although there was some fighting nearby, the Maine Prairie Fort and nearby village was never attacked.

By 1865 several small business and community buildings had sprung up near the fort. A post office, blacksmith shop, cheese factory, general store, lodge hall, and three churches were erected at the intersection of County Roads 8 and 15. Residents of the little town decided to change the name to Maine Prairie Corners that same year. A short time later, a community cemetery was established just north of the town. Maine Prairie Corners became a vibrant settlement. Families began to build homes near downtown while the fertile countryside was snatched up by farmers.

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Minnesota’s Northwest Angle

At a glance, nothing peculiar stands out about Minnesota on a map. It’s when you take a longer look that you’ll notice it. Along the northern border there is a small piece of land that looks like it should be part of Manitoba, Canada marked as territory of Minnesota, and the United States. However, this piece of land is not physically connected to the United States at all, it is surrounded by Canada on three sides, and Lake of the Woods on the other. Visitors either have to travel by boat across Lake of the Woods, or cross the Canadian border at Warroad, then cross back into the United States once they reach The Angle.

The mapping oddity that gave this 123-square-mile chunk of land to the United States happened when land negotiators were deciding where the USA/Canada border should be set. The Mitchell Map was used during negotiations — it mistakenly showed that the Mississippi River originated in Lake of the Woods. Understandably, the United States wanted to make sure the headwaters of the Mississippi River remained in the United States, so the border was set at the very northwestern tip of Lake of the Woods, ran due south to the 49th parallel, and then continued west. Because of this, the Northwest Angle became part of Minnesota.

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Colonel Colvill of the First Minnesota


William Colvill — does that name ring a bell? Unless you’re a Civil War history buff, this name probably doesn’t mean anything to you yet. Perhaps he’s been forgotten because he was a good, simple man — hardworking and generous. He held fast to what he believed was right and stood up against wrongdoing. Perhaps it’s only natural for his name to fade into obscurity after so many years, he probably would have preferred that anyway, but let’s not let that happen just yet. William Colvill deserves to be remembered. 

An often overlooked bronze statue of William Colvill currently stands in the rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol. Thousands of people pass but it each year, yet most probably never stop to wonder who Colvill was or why he has a place of such prominence in the Capitol. However, this statue is an exact reproduction of another that is more difficult to overlook. The original statue stands proudly in the Cannon Falls Community Cemetery where Colvill is buried. It towers over all of the other graves from a shady hill near the eastern edge of the cemetery.

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The Minneapolis Industrial Exposition

Minneapolis’ most prominent citizens were shocked to learn that the Minnesota State Fair would take up permanent residence St. Paul. When the announcement was made, these citizens sprung into action to plan a fair in their city to rival the one in St. Paul. In 1885 the idea was born to create an exposition centered around industry and technology instead of around agriculture. Minneapolitans rallied around the idea that industry and technology were the future of Minnesota, and agriculture was the past.

By December 15, 1885 supporters had raised over $250,000 in public funds and began discussing where to build a modern building to house the exposition. Eventually, the site of the Winslow House Hotel in southeast Minneapolis was chosen and the hotel was quickly razed so construction could begin as soon as possible. The committee in charge of planning the exposition wanted the first fair to begin in August 1886 — so they had less than nine months to construct the building and create exhibits for the fair. The design of Isaac Hodgson and Son was chosen and the cornerstone was set on May 29, 1886 with much fanfare. The idea of the exposition and the modern building were so popular with the citizens of Minneapolis that over 5,000 people attended the public ceremony.

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How Betty Crocker Became America’s First Lady of Food

Betty Crocker was born in a boardroom of The Washburn Crosby Company of Minneapolis in 1921. A flood of questions from the public about baking had overwhelmed the company. In a brilliant marketing move, Washburn Crosby created a personality to answer all of the inquiries individually. They combined the last name of a recently retired company executive, William Crocker, with the first name Betty because it was thought to sound warm and friendly. Next, they decided that it would be more intimate to sign responses with Betty’s name in handwriting rather than a typed valediction. Betty Crocker’s signature came from a secretary who won a contest among the female employees of Washburn Crosby. That signature is still used as Betty’s today.

In 1924, Betty Crocker acquired a voice with the radio debut of the nation’s first cooking show on WCCO radio. The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air became such a big hit that it expanded to thirteen other regional radio stations. Each station had their own “Betty” who read from a script produced in Minneapolis. The Betty Crocker School of the Air ran for twenty-four years, making it one of the longest running radio shows in history. In 1928, the top six milling companies, including the Washburn Crosby Company, merged together to form one — General Mills.

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Quinlan’s Renaissance Revival Palace

Elizabeth C. Quinlan was the cofounder of the Young-Quinlan Department Store in downtown Minneapolis. The popularity of her store was due, in large part, to offering exceptionally-made clothing and accessories to not only the elite women of Minneapolis, but also to the upper-middle class. The lower cost of ready-to-wear clothing meant that upper-middle class women could buy off the rack — thus having more than a handful of outfits for each season, and a quick and easy way to obtain the latest fashions. Quinlan’s enormous success enabled her to do many things that most women during this time could not. At the height of her success, she built a beautiful home for herself and her sister, Annie. Their Minneapolis home would become a top address on the Twin Cities movers-and-shakers circuit.

After their mother’s death in 1914, the Quinlan sisters lived in rented apartments, including 1770 Hennepin Avenue and The Leamington — a swish residence hotel at 10th and Third Avenue S.  Annie, who owned the corset shop at Young-Quinlan, and Elizabeth decided to build a comfortable home for themselves in the prestigious Lowry Hill neighborhood in Minneapolis. Together, they purchased two-and-a-half city lots on Emerson Avenue S and set about finding an architect to build their dream home. Elizabeth knew New York architect Frederick Ackerman through his wife. Ackerman was a Cornell graduate and had studied architecture in Paris for two years before earning a reputation for building beautifully private country residences.

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The Legend of John Beargrease

Since 1980, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon has attracted mushers from around the world. Beginning in Duluth and running 400 miles along the north shore of Lake Superior to the Canadian border, the Beargrease is one of the longest, most grueling race routes outside of Alaska. With the 30th running of the marathon starting later this month, many people are asking “Who is John Beargrease” and “Why does he have a sled dog race named after him?”

John Beargrease’s story began in a wigwam on the outskirts of the first settlement along the north shore of Lake Superior – Beaver Bay. The son of an Anishinabe Chief, Beargrease grew up fishing, hunting, and trapping along the north shore with his father and two brothers. When he was in his teens he worked on commercial fishing boats that sailed up and down the coastline. By the time he was in his twenties, a few more small settlements had sprung up along the north shore, including Agate Bay (now Two Harbors), Castle Danger, Pork Bay, Grand Marais, and Grand Portage. Since the train only went as far as Agate Bay, people along the shore had a hard time sending and receiving mail.  Since this was often the only form of communication with the outside world. Letters and packages from family and friends were extremely important. Since Beargrease and his brothers made regular trips up and down the shore trapping and trading, they began to grab the mail in Agate Bay for the residents along the shore and deliver it as they checked their traps or traded with other residents. By 1879, the brothers were making trips for the mail and delivering it all the way to Grand Marais once or twice per week.

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