History buff: Keillor takes narrative approach to state's story

WORTHINGTON -- For people with an interest in history -- state history, in particular -- this is a banner year. With Minnesota celebrating its sesquicentennial (150 years) this year, writers have been churning out a number of historical tomes.

WORTHINGTON -- For people with an interest in history -- state history, in particular -- this is a banner year. With Minnesota celebrating its sesquicentennial (150 years) this year, writers have been churning out a number of historical tomes.

One such author is Steven Keillor, a professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, who has released "Shaping Minnesota's Identity: 150 Years of State History," through Pogo Press. Keillor recently spent his spring break touring the state and stopped in Worthington and a few other southwest locales to talk about it.

A resident of Pine County, located about 100 miles to the north of the Twin Cities, Keillor took pains to include outstate Minnesota in his research and writings.

"The book looks at the state's history partly from the Greater Minnesota perspective," he said. "The Twin Cities are included as one of five regions in the state, but not a defining region. The book partly builds on previous research I've done. I did a history of the state's rural cooperatives. I did two political biographies of outstate politicians and a Civil War memoir of a soldier from Red Wing. Much of the work I've done has been out in rural Minnesota."

Keillor begins his book with preparations for statehood, choosing not to delve back too far or tackling topics that would take him beyond what would become the boundaries of Minnesota.


"It does not look at the fur-trade era or the prehistoric period, with the idea that the state's boundaries don't make any sense going back that far," he explained. "Looking at it as a state gives you a plot line that you don't have otherwise; with the state, it's a plotline, succeed or fail.

"Mine was done by a small press, Pogo Press, not by the U of M press or the historical society press, so the monkey was off my back as far as having to give the official history of the state and include everyone that ought to be included. I focused on the lives of ordinary Minnesotans and didn't feel an obligation to list absolutely everything and everyone."

Keillor further explains his approach to Minnesota history in the book's introduction:

"This book is an interpretation of Minnesota history in the form of a narrative or story. It does not pretend to be comprehensive -- to list all the persons, places and events that 'should' be included in a history of Minnesota. It includes what is important for the interpretation and the story. ... This is also not an academic attempt in that I am not a political scientist or lawyer or economist dividing one part of Minnesota's experience from the other parts. There is no separation of church and state, of business and state, of sports and state in this story. Every part of the story affects every other part. I have tried to tell the story of ordinary Minnesotans, using their reminiscences and letters. Also, to look at social, cultural religious and economic matters at the same time as the political and governmental, I often tell the personal story of individual governors as symbols of both aspects of this history."

When he started working on the book in August 2006, Keillor looked at the five regions of the state he had identified and tried to figure out how to portray them. He defined the regions by largely by what they produced in Minnesota's early years with these titles: The Dairy Region (southeastern Minnesota); The New Wheat-Growing Region in Western Minnesota; The Rough-and-Tumble Logging Region of Northern Minnesota; The Early Iron Mining Region of Northern Minnesota; and The Twin Cities Rule Other Regions Together But Do Not Resemble Each Other.

The bulk of his research was accomplished through the Minnesota State Historical Society.

"I was reliant on people's memories to a large extent," he said. "I couldn't go out and research all the newspaper accounts."

The book follows a general timeline from pre-statehood up to current events, skipping around the state to show how historical events and occurrences had an effect on residents in a particular area or relating events from a particular region.


Keillor pointed out a couple of stories of interest to southwest Minnesotans. The first deals with a not-particularly-proud time in Minnesota history -- World War I -- when German immigrants were subject to persecution and harassment, and an incident that occurred in Rock County.

"World War I was something of a failure in the state," Keillor related. "There was a lot of persecution and harassment, things like painting people's houses yellow if they didn't give enough for war bonds. A guy was deported to Iowa from Rock County because he was a German-American and was accused of not being loyal to the war effort. They got an automobile caravan and took him to the Iowa border. When he complained to the vigilantes that he didn't have enough cash to survive in Iowa, they let him write a check for $100, and they came up with enough cash to give to him."

The book goes on to relate that this German-American, named Meints, later returned to Rock County and was tarred and feathered and again deported -- this time to South Dakota.

"I should say ... that Luverne is my sort of negative example of World War I," added Keillor, "and when the book was in the final stages of editing, I realized that Ken Burns was coming out with this film about World War II, that a lot of it was about Luverne. They got it right in the second World War. My apologies to Luverne, but (the World War I story) was accurate. That's the way it happened."

Keillor uses the memories of Walter Benjamin, son of a Pipestone physician, in the subsequent chapter that looks at World War II:

Benjamin recalls the impact on Pipestone. Two newspapers ran war photos and articles, addresses of soldiers and lists of draftees. A Lutheran pastor chaired the draft board. A scrap metal drive drew the headline, "LET'S JOLT THE JAPS WITH JUNK FROM PIPESTONE!" Coffee rationing cut intake to a cup per day; sugar, gasoline and tires were rationed. War bond drives netted $400,000 one year. High school boys had a rifle club. A Ford dealer got a defense contract. And seven acres of Victory Gardens were plowed. Community pressure enforced rules and duties in "a form of therapeutic tough love," as "well-justified gossip (was) directed at miscreants," Benjamin noted. "I lived ... within the arms of family, neighborhood, school, church and flag ... I accepted the moral canon, 'Do good and you will do well,' as a law of the universe." Moral effort nationalized a town.

The "Shaping Minnesota's Identity" project took Keillor almost exactly a year to complete. He turned in his manuscript in August 2007 and went to the Minnesota State Fair to celebrate.

"I was getting tired of writing by August 2007, but I had to write the last chapter and wanted to bring it up to the present," he related wrapping up the book. "Jesse Ventura came along as my tag team partner; there at the end, he stepped into the ring. In an odd way, he reinforced a theme that I'd started out the book with, and I wasn't sure that theme was going to make it to the end. There's a sentence in the Northwest Ordinance about religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government. He tried to separate those things, so he reinforced that theme at the end of the book by trying to disprove it."


The last chapter also includes the state's newest immigrants, and how their arrival has affected communities across the state. In the end, Keillor hoped that he accomplished what he set out to do: relate the state's history, the good and the bad, its failures and successes, in an enjoyable format for the reader.

"People like a good story," he concluded.

On the Net:

What To Read Next
Get Local