COLUMN: From the Grange to the Range, Minnesota’s protest history shapes today

This is my Sunday column for the Feb. 26, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

From the Grange to the Range, Minnesota’s protest history shapes today
By Aaron J. Brown

I’ll never forget the night of the 1998 election. I was working as a reporter for KDTH-AM in Dubuque, Iowa. My boss Cindy Kohlmann and I were about to broadcast live from the county courthouse when the national networks announced that Jesse “The Body” Ventura had won the Minnesota governor’s race.

“I’m from Minnesota!” I yelled reflexively. “That’s my state!”

A somber group of local election watchers and courthouse troglodytes turned their jowly Iowa faces toward me with expressions that ranged from pity to perplexity. Me, I was thrilled. I knew my state was just exercising its longstanding tradition of surprising the nation.

A new book “Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota’s Protest Tradition” by Rhoda R. Gilman from the Minnesota Historical Society Press details this tradition in a quick, entertaining and informative read.

Gilman, an author, historian, and past political candidate, demonstrates great understanding of the state. The book picks up just before statehood and takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the state’s most dramatic events that almost seems to collapse from exhaustion at the denouement of the 2010 election.

“Stand Up!” is at its best when it’s explaining the broad movements that have shaped this state. From the early days when pioneering Minnesota leaders attempted to check the power of the big railroads, to the progressive era and the rise of the Farmer-Labor Party, the state boasts a story quite unlike any other part of the country.

The book explains how the state moved from a Democratic pioneer territory in the mold of Andrew Jackson to a Lincoln Republican stronghold for most of its history. It narrates the formation of farm cooperatives and early unions, especially the influential work of the early labor movement on the Iron Range.

Minnesotans of my generation, born long after immigration and Americanization, will learn to appreciate the state’s Scandinavian heritage. So many immigrant Swedes and Norwegians, along with Germans and Irish, crafted the state’s populist tendencies. And she rightly acknowledges the corresponding role of Finns in introducing a radical but eventually widely accepted sense of social good in the state’s politics, especially here in the north.

“Stand Up!” knows its limits. Gilman acknowledges right away that the book is an overview; that deeper resources are available on the topics therein. At a svelte 168 pages, including a comprehensive index and reading list, it cruises fast and leaves you wanting more on some stories. It is organized in a loose chronological order but tends to focus more on the progression of trends, rather than dates.

The book does a fine job summarizing the important iron mining strikes of 1907 and 1916 here on the Iron Range. The Range’s first Gov. Rudy Perpich joins her long list of quirky Minnesota governors who could not easily be classified, which he certainly was.

As she moves into the recent past, Gilman’s opinions begin to color the book. She spends perhaps a bit too much time extolling the growth of Minnesota’s Green Party, of which she has represented in a run for Lt. Governor. But it’s an understandable problem. She correctly shows that the state’s most dramatic reform movements have come in the more distant past. In the new media world of modern Minnesota it’s harder for populist movements to have the lasting impact they had in the progressive era.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated to read her account of the American Indian Movement in the ‘70s, which owed much of its origins to Minnesota’s Ojibwe tribes. One early leader in the ongoing effort by American Indians to preserve the environment of its current and former lands was Walt Brisette. He correctly predicted that “the Chippewa Model” of tribal opposition to environmental encroachments would be a central way of protecting untouched lands from development. This hearkens our current debate in northern Minnesota over nonferrous mineral mines near the Boundary Waters.

The book most specifically encouraged me to dive into her reading list on Gov. Floyd B. Olson, a name I knew as the state’s first Farmer-Labor governor but that I had not realized was arguably the best and most important governor in Minnesota history. I look forward to that reading, and in this Gilman has certainly succeeded in her stated goal of spurring interest in the Minnesota story.

Among the interesting observations in reading Gilman’s “Stand Up!” is the notion that while the state has been home to many different radical or reform movements, those movements were never universally beloved. Rather, it was the success of these movements against entrenched political interests that distinguishes Minnesota history from that of Anystate, USA.

When I was in Iowa in the late ‘90s I met the state’s Republican Governor Terry Branstad, who was then retiring from an unprecedented four terms in office. (He has since returned to that office, defeating Gov. Chet Culver in the 2010 Republican wave). A shrewd politician, when I told him I was a Minnesota Iron Ranger Branstad quickly responded, “I worked closely with Rudy Perpich. He was a good man.”

Though our conversation was brief, it yielded a truth I’ve always carried with me. The place where I’m from has a political history and significance that stretches far beyond its borders. “Stand Up!” serves as a wonderful reminder for those who want to know why.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and the host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.

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