Local author finds the land, rebels shaped Minnesota

“Fourteen years after the Pilgrims reached the coast of America, a Frenchman named Jean Nicolet stepped out of a birch-bark canoe near the site of modern-day Green Bay, Wisconsin. Wearing a silk damask robe embroidered with oriental bird-and-flower patterns, Nicolet believed he was correctly dressed to officially open the trade route ... to China. With an eye to the meaning of the moment, he raised his pistol and fired two shots into the air.
“On the shore, a delegation of Winnebago chieftains observed Nicolet and quietly agreed that they were being visited by a white god.”

So begins the newly published book, “Minnesota: Shaped by the Land,” written by Roseville resident Deborah Gelbach. The coffee-table book is filled with lush color photos of the land, taken by her husband, Phil, and many black-and-white historical photos and text that, combined, tell how the state was shaped by its geographic resources and its people.
“I picture people curling up on the couch with a fire, enjoying reading history,” Gelbach says. “The book tells a wonderful story, and it’s a good read.
“The glaciers left us with a bountiful set of resources — lakes and rivers that provide transportation, wildlife, mines, the fertile Red River Valley — so many resources to make the economy boom,” she adds. “No wonder the state grew and drew a variety of cultures.”
Gelbach touches on fur traders, Native Americans, the territory and statehood, lumbermen and miners, bankers, early settlers, farmers, riverboats and railroads, Charles Lindberg, the Mayo Clinic, economic prosperity mixed with recessions, wars and advancing technology, thanks to companies like Medtronic, 3M and Unisys.
“I did a lot of research and a lot of reflection,” she says. “The people making history have the same emotions and concerns as we do. They made mistakes and they accomplished good things.”

Author’s history
When Gelbach was asked to write this book, she was well-known in local business circles for her articles in Corporate Report and Minnesota Business Journal.
She grew up in Falcon Heights, graduated from Alexander Ramsey High School and Hamline University but moved away after getting married. After returning to St. Paul in 1976, she began business writing. Several years later, she and Phil started a marketing company, Gelbach Plus Gelbach.
Gelbach has been an active volunteer in St. Paul, serving on the board of directors for the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, St. Paul Rotary and STAR. She currently serves on the boards of the St. Croix Valley Girl Scouts and the chamber’s charitable foundation, and is involved in Leadership St. Paul.
“I really like serving the community — it’s very satisfying and the community has done a lot for me, providing clients and leadership
opportunities,” she says. “I learned how to do public speaking and the art and science of running meetings, which has been very helpful in meeting with clients.”

Lumber and railroad barons
Gelbach says she didn’t know a lot of Minnesota history or how complicated it was when she agreed to write the book. She discovered that history isn’t just about the people and the land but about rebels who make big, powerful changes and are not afraid to be disliked.
Take Alexander Ramsey. He lost out to Henry Sibley in a bitter contest for the first state governor but was elected governor the next time around in 1860. He led the state’s support for the Union cause, and Minnesota became the first state to answer Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops for the Civil War. In 1862, Ramsey put out a call for troops for the bloody Indian wars in the state.
Gelbach also writes about lumber barons negotiating deals with settlers in smoke-filled rooms, ruthlessly stripping the land and floating rafts of lumber down the Mississippi River to Chicago and St. Louis in the 1860s, and about the railroad owners who were laying tracks across the country.

“In 1873, James J. Hill … began a long, uphill battle to build his own railroad line across the northern plains … over the mountains … and west to Puget Sound. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad … opened new stands of pine to the lumber barons as well as trade opportunities with the Orient.  Within months, Hill was shipping southern cotton … to Japan as well as flour from Minneapolis, textiles from New England mills, and ores from Colorado mines. …
“His ability to wheel and deal … dazzled his opponents.”

In 1907, knowing U. S. Steel feared running out of iron ore, Hill allowed the company to explore his vast landholdings on the Mesabi Range in exchange for royalties on the iron ore he delivered by railroad to Superior, Wis., for shipment to steel mills in Ohio and Indiana. By 1914, Hill made over $45 million in royalties.

History is about rebels
“History is really messy,” Gelbach says. “We see progress and then fall back into turbulence and froth — like the 1930s truckers’ strike. Labor and big business were really in a tense but workable situation. People had jobs and business was picking up after the stock market crash.
“But there was a strike, and we saw truckers were not making enough money for the long hours they put in. We saw problems under the patina. People then looked at Minnesota (a big center for the trucking industry) in a different way, and workers’ compensation became a bigger issue.
“It’s much easier to write about the past,” she says. “When you write about today, you have to describe big trends, and you don’t really know the outcome.
“Take the Northwest Airlines mechanics strike. Something big is changing on how airlines are operating. And with the Job Z zones Gov. Pawlenty is doing — it looks like a cool idea but are we bringing in a lot companies that won’t carry their burden of property taxes?” she asks.
“In 15 years, people will look at Hurricane Katrina and say, ‘We really learned a lot.’ It’s tragic people have to go through it. Yet, when something bad happens, we learn and that’s what makes progress.
“I’m always learning new stuff by writing. You can never rest on your laurels. You never have all the facts. It helps to learn from different perspectives — makes you empathetic to different points of view. My research was a journey of great pleasure through the decades.
“My eyes are bigger now. I have a whole different perspective on life. Everywhere I’d go there was something interesting. Every part of the state has incredible history to tell,” she adds.

Another slice of life
In her personal life, too, Gelbach has gained a new perspective after surviving cancer and other health issues the last three years.
“I was at the University of Minnesota a lot for cancer treatment, and I saw a whole different slice of people making the best of tough times.
“And the whole St. Paul community helped support me. It was like the old neighborhood feeling — people know you and want to take care of you,” she says.
Gelbach is now writing grants for non-profits and finding it very satisfying. Next year when she finishes recovering her health, she hopes to plow into volunteer work in Roseville.
Meanwhile, she is doing book signings and radio interviews across the state. She says some people are buying her book for a gift and quite a few are history buffs who are buying it for themselves.

“Minnesota: Shaped by the Land” is available at Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon.com.


 

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