Born a generation and 1,300 miles apart in the mid-1800s, Florence Bramhall and Maria Louise Sanford came together in the early 1900s to preserve a lake-dotted, 660,000-acre swath of Minnesota’s pine woods near Cass Lake that is now known as Chippewa National Forest.
Sanford, Bramhall and a group of outspoken Minnesota women emerged as early environmental allies, lobbying citizens and congressmen to save some of the forest from what Sanford called “the annihilating, destructive slash of the lumberman’s ax.”
Bramhall, born and raised in St. Paul, spearheaded the forest reserve committee of the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs — an influential civic group that lobbied for enhanced libraries, kindergarten programs, garbage pickup, tuberculosis tests on milk and outdoor activities to improve health.
Bramhall said she attributed “much of my interest and enthusiasm for the forestry and national park project” to the fact that she was born in Minnesota. At a time when it was still rare for women to speak on the floor of the state Senate, Bramhall was applauded for delivering in 1901 what the Minneapolis Journal said was a “comprehensive and exhaustive argument” for cherishing lakes and forests.
Bramhall and her second husband, a St. Paul lawyer who attended Cornell and Columbia, were well connected. “The conservationists moved within the middle and upper strata of Minnesota society,” according to a 1971 article in Minnesota History magazine. “Bramhall moved easily among the molders of policy and opinion.”
Born in Connecticut, Sanford was one of the nation’s first women professors. She taught history at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1869 before launching a nearly 30-year career as a popular English professor at the University of Minnesota. She used her rhetorical skills to buttress the case for forest preservation in the federation’s journal, the Courant.
“State pride, health, recreation, and the best interests of this generation and of posterity,” she wrote, “all demand that this last opportunity shall not pass without the most favorable action for a permanent forest reservation in Minnesota.”
Bramhall was credited with hashing out a compromise from an earlier proposal to set aside 4 million acres. While she and Sanford led the charge, other women played key roles in preserving the forest and lakes, including federation presidents Lydia Phillips Williams and Margaret Evans, a Carleton College dean. One newspaper called them the “Brainy Women of Minnesota.”
“In contrast to the stereotype of fussy matrons in flower-festooned hats that would later characterize the group, early members demonstrated progressive thinking and a capacity for stirring controversy,” Tim Brady wrote in a 2004 Minnesota conservation magazine. “It was no great leap, then, for the federation to get involved in saving this great northern pine forest.”
Early plans had called for making the forest a national park. But Congress in 1908 instead made it the Minnesota National Forest, the first national forest east of the Mississippi River and the most lake-filled forest reserve in the country. The name was changed in 1928 to highlight the land’s connection with the Chippewa.
Gifford Pinchot, federal forestry czar under President Theodore Roosevelt, said it would have been impossible to protect Chippewa National Forest’s 1,300 lakes, 925 miles of streams and 400,000 acres of wetlands “without the farsighted and patriotic support of the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs.”
An editorial cartoon from the era summed it up best: A chin-stroking, ax-wielding lumberjack contemplating how to cut down a pine tree while surrounded by federation women. “Up against it,” the caption read.
The women’s victory to save some of the forest came only after the land was wrested from Ojibwe tribal members, whose Leech Lake Reservation was part of the parcel. An 1887 law allowed Indian land to be divvied up for sale and development.
In the end, about 5 percent of the full-grown forest was saved, while 95 percent went to timber interests and settler development. Still, the Minnesota women’s preservation work was pivotal.
“The efforts of Maria Sanford, Florence Bramhall, and the federation helped to define the forest conservation movement in the early 20th century,” according to a 2016 report from the Wisconsin-based Aldo Leopold Nature Center. The report heralded them for helping to “persuade the public, government leaders, and progressive executives in the timber products industry that the U.S. needed to take steps to conserve … our forests.”
Bramhall died at 62 in 1924 and was buried in St. Paul’s Oakland Cemetery. Sanford had died four years earlier at 83 and was buried in Philadelphia. Her name went on the first women’s dorm at the University of Minnesota and several schools across the state. And her statue stands in the U.S. Capitol, one of two Minnesotans recognized there for her work as a civic leader and educator.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.