LORI STURDEVANT

Take it from a Minnesota historian: An occasionally strained but functional alliance between city and country folk is at the core of Minnesota’s success story.

In fact, take it from two — neither of them a journalist who dabbles in Minnesota history on the side. To make this important point, I enlisted two pros earlier this fall: professor emeritus Hy Berman of the University of Minnesota and professor emerita Annette Atkins of St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict. Sadly, it was my last interview with Berman. The beloved prof died on Nov. 29 at age 90.

A good portion of Atkins’ work has examined Minnesota’s founding decades in the 19th century. Berman’s work focused on the Iron Range, the Twin Cities and labor history in the 20th century.

From those two vantages, they came to the same conclusion: Minnesota would not have emerged in the second half of the 20th century as a leader among Midwestern states without a durable economic and political partnership between urban and rural Minnesotans. The synergy of city and country in this state produced something greater than the sum of its parts.

To that, I’ll venture a conclusion of my own: A metro/Greater Minnesota rift spells trouble for Minnesota’s future.

To buttress these claims, Atkins began at Minnesota’s beginning.

“We tend to think of settlement happening with farmers breaking the frontier and towns following. In fact, the towns came first. There was a St. Paul and a Stillwater before there was a rural Minnesota. There’s a way in which urban people set the agenda, always, for this area.”

The myth of the lone pioneer in his covered wagon choosing a homestead on the prairie is just that — a myth. Most of Minnesota was settled by recruited groups in a coordinated way, Atkins said, with a lot of the recruitment and coordination happening in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The mostly New Englanders who founded those cities sought to populate the rest of the state “with people just like themselves — Christian, hardworking, appreciating education.” They sent recruiting agents to Germany, Scandinavia and Ireland, as well as New England, for settlers with shared values.

That commonality laid the foundation for a functional state government, one entrusted from 1858 forward with responsibility for education, transportation and other services that in other places were provided solely — and often haphazardly — by local governments.

The milling industry that took off in Minneapolis and the commercial shipping industry that dominated St. Paul were both dependent on the enterprise of the rest of the state, and vice versa. But the city and country populations shared something intangible, too.

“Their partnership is partly a joint aspiration — the notion that we can all get ahead,” Atkins said. “The Germans and the Scandinavians aspired to be like those Yankees,” some of whom were amassing fortunes in the Twin Cities. “They believed it was possible to be like those Yankees.”

By the early 20th century, that belief was fading, and so were the bonds of mutuality that built state government. Atkins said it happened because “people like James J. Hill made a fortune, while the people who used Hill’s services were getting ground down to nothing. Railroads had a stranglehold over farm people.”

The 20th-century progressive movement arose first among disillusioned farmers. But it soon found like-minded allies within the urban working class. Berman took the story from here.

“There grew up a genuine coalition of rural and urban people, the farmer-labor coalition. It was pushed together by external forces,” Berman said.

Many “hyphenated Americans” turned against the Republican Party during and after World War I when a nativist strain took hold in the party that had dominated Minnesota since statehood. Within the GOP, “nativists joined forces with those who looked on any kind of intrusion in the free marketplace as being essentially subversive,” he said.

In larger cities, immigrants who were coalescing into unions to seek such things as a five-day, 40-hour workweek found themselves accused of un-American activity and, often, out of a job. In the countryside, faith in the free market and farm incomes was already at a low ebb before the bottom fell out of farm markets during the Great Depression.

The two groups came together in the Farmer-Labor Party. In 1930, they elected Gov. Floyd B. Olson and created a new direction for Minnesota, Berman said.

Olson was the state’s first and most prominent Farmer-Labor Party governor; the father of the state income tax; the savior of many farms from foreclosure and country schools from dissolution, and a politician who acquired legendary proportion when he died in office.

His party’s merger with the Democratic Party in 1944 created the modern DFL, a party whose very name bespeaks a time when political bonds were strong between metro and rural portions of the state.

That coalition has always been fragmented and fragile. But its policies in the mid-20th century — particularly concerning education — were big contributors to economic success in the late 20th century, Berman asserted.

State policies championed by DFLers to equalize school funding and make higher education available throughout the state were critical building blocks for prosperity. So were moves at least initially backed by both parties to use state-collected revenue to bolster municipal services and infrastructure.

But in the decades since those policies were enacted, both historians noted, the components of the urban-rural coalition changed. Small farms dwindled in number. Old ethnic identities faded, while new immigrants from places other than Europe arrived. Union membership declined, especially in the private sector, and with it a sense of solidarity. In many Greater Minnesota counties, population fell, while the suburban population swelled and inner-city populations dropped.

All of that has strained Minnesotans’ sense of belonging to one state. Atkins cited one thing more: a loss of confidence in the collective action called government.

“Minnesota grew up as a state at a time when we were compelled by a vision that government could make the world better,” Atkins said. That vision is now clouded by disappointment and disillusionment — sentiments that in a democracy can be defeating.

“I fear that in losing our trust in the ability of government to do good, we’ve lost trust in each other,” Atkins said.

Take the word of two professional and one amateur Minnesota historians: The sooner Minnesotans regain that trust, the stronger this state will be.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.