The Land The Indians The French The British The Northwest and the Ordinances The Yankee Empire The Pineries and the Mines American But More So Pioneering the Upper Midwest
The History of the Upper Midwest: An Overview
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American But More So

By 1890, the Upper Midwest was firmly integrated into the national economy. A fully-developed railroad system moved the region's products east through Chicago to New York. Wheat cultivation shifted to the north and west as yields within the region diminished and new lands elsewhere demonstrated their superiority. A spectacular example of the new wheat lands was the Red River valley in far northwestern Minnesota and North Dakota. A kind of corporate farming took advantage of the newly available machinery for harvesting wheat and of vast spaces of flat and virgin (and cheap) land. The bonanza wheat farms, by traditional measure, were gargantuan in size, taking in thousands of acres. The small-scale wheat farms of the pioneer period were hopelessly outclassed.

Farmers had to change their ways. Corn, hay, oats and hogs replaced wheat. Wisconsin repeated and improved upon the experience of Yankee farmers out east who had had to develop dairying as an economic niche in an increasingly specialized agricultural economy. With the help of research and education at the universities devoted to such subjects, Wisconsin became known as America's Dairyland. Minneapolis became the world leader in the flour milling industry, as new technology made possible the grinding of high-quality flour from spring wheat (the kind of wheat grown in the Red River valley) and as investments, some from money earned during the timber boom, supplied the superstructure needed to make and market the flour.

As soon as the means were there, eastern visitors came to the Upper Midwest, marking the beginnings of a thriving tourist industry. Once steamboats reached the upper Mississippi in the 1840s, the "fashionable tour" to the area by Southerners and Easterners soon followed. Mackinac Island, at the head of Lake Michigan, was a well-established summer resort by 1838. The second national park to be created was established on the island in 1875, and its Grand Hotel, built with railroad and steamship money in 1887, became one of the nation's most fashionable summer hotels. These developments were an early phase of the eastern invasion fueled by the notion that a bracing northern climate was good for what ailed you, which was the reason that Henry David Thoreau took a trip up the Minnesota River in 1861. In the twentieth century, transportation was readily available from the big cities of the region to the lakes and birches to their north, and second homes there became a regional fixture, along with the seasonal flow of tourists.

The integration of the region into the national economy brought with it centers of heavy industry. The growth of the auto industry is a dramatic case in point. By 1890, lower Michigan had become a center for the manufacture of various products (e.g., wagons, stoves, furniture) and, particularly, of gasoline engines. Money from timber and mines was available for investment. A few individuals, and notably Henry Ford, moved from tinkering with automobiles to their large-scale production. As we all know, the Detroit area became the pre-eminent center of that vast industry. The Milwaukee area came to specialize in the production of heavy machinery for mines, power plants and heavy machinery, agricultural machinery included; it also, famously, pioneered in the production of a beer that could be shipped long distances without undue loss in quality.

The Upper Midwest has been distinguished by its support of education at all levels. The region took to heart the provisions of the Ordinances, underwriting education as a primary public goal. By 1890, vital public school systems throughout the countryside reached their climax in excellent state universities with relatively low fees and open access and with a tradition of public service. (La Follette's "Wisconsin idea" built upon that Midwestern version of the university.) It was characteristic of the region that the famous Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, privately established, was quick to ally itself with the University of Minnesota in the support of medical research and education, to the manifest benefit of both.

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"The morning milk lunch for under-nourished school children, in an elementary school kitchen. Movement started in 1916"
Memoirs of Mary D. Bradford; autobiographical and historical reminiscences of education in Wisconsin, through progressive service from rural school teaching to city superintendent; illustrated with photographs, by Mary Davison Bradford (Evansville, Wisconsin, 1932).
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The Upper Midwest region tends to be progressive in its politics, if on the conservative side in its social norms. The politics has been remarkably free of scandal, with a relatively high level of public involvement. Midwest Republicanism is, characteristically, sensitive to social equities and distrustful of dogma (most of the time). The region has experienced its share of independent and third party movements, from the reformism of Hazen Pingree in Detroit and Michigan, to Milwaukee socialism and La Follette progressivism in Wisconsin, to Ignatius Donnelly's Populism and Floyd B. Olson's Farmer-Labor party in Minnesota.

By 1900, the farm country and farm towns of the Upper Midwest were emptying out, and cities began to sprawl. This transformation became complete with the coming of automobiles and reliable roads. When Sinclair Lewis, in Main Street (1920), argued that the real America was to be found in the small town, that the Midwest was American but more so, he betrayed a bias with remarkable staying power, identifying the Midwest as the heart of the nation and the small farm town as the heart of the Midwest. One can see where that bias came from in reviewing what is said above about the years of Yankee dominance, when farming and small towns were the rule. In reviewing the whole story, however, one can't help but notice how quickly regional pioneers looked beyond the farm to the whole range of opportunities in the rapidly expanding region and nation. It is in its vision of continuing sturdy growth, rather than its past incarnation in the farms and the small towns, that the region can properly be described as American but more so.

by Clarence Mondale, Emeritus Professor of American Civilization, The George Washington University, Summer, 1998


The History of the Upper Midwest: An Overview

The Land | The Indians | The French | The British | The Northwest and the Ordinances
The Yankee Empire | The Pineries and the Mines | American But More So


Pioneering the Upper Midwest Home Page