The Region

America's Northern Heartland

Book Review

Leonard W. Fernelius | Senior Vice President

Published December 1, 1987  | December 1987 issue

By John R. Borchert
University of Minnesota Press
Illustrated, 250 pp.

"When a central Minnesota parish priest blessed the snowmobiles before a weekend dash across winter drifts to quaint taverns....

"When a line crew came in predawn darkness on Christmas morning and worked in a -70 windchill to repair a snapped electrical wire that was flashing eerily where its hot tip writhed in two feet of wildly blinding snow....

This quote, along with many others of similar tone from John Borchert's new book, America's Northern Heartland, belies its content. In some sense it reads like a novel, but in reality it is more a chronicle of our heritage. The author has written a fascinating report on research that ranges in scope, depth, and color as wide, as clear, and as brilliantly hued as the region of his study. It is a landmark document on research of epic proportions.

Heartland concentrates its attention on two slices of history and development: 1870-1920, a half century of rapid immigration, building of the railroads, development of river boat traffic, and settling the communities; and 1920-1980, a time of economic growth, changing technology, and shifting patterns of population distribution. Geographically, the area he describes is bounded by Montana on the west to Michigan's Upper Peninsula on the east, and from the northern edge of Iowa to the Canadian border-roughly the Ninth Federal Reserve District. The region covers one-third of a million square miles and contains about one-tenth of the total land area of the 50 United States.

In the preface of his book, Borchert expresses the hope that it will capture the reality, the spirit, and the dynamics of the region. In his last chapter, he appeals again for recognition that the heartland has a special heartbeat; the spirit and the dynamics are interwoven with the heritage of its people adapting to the environment and to a changing national scene. Jobs that were once integrally linked with the land and its nearby hamlet have shifted in place, content, and direction. In the Upper Midwest, growth in nonfarm employment during the past 50 years not only made up for 600,000 lost farm jobs but added 1.2 million new positions in the process; more government jobs helped in no small way by adding 450,000. The number of military increased from a few hundred before World War II to nearly 30,000 by the year 1980. As farm income dwindled, survivors on the farm as full-time operators netted less money than part-timers.

Firms that at one time had focused on serving the needs of an indigenous population began to change their perspective, markets, and products to a marked emphasis on opportunities abroad. Borchert sets up an impressive list of local entrepreneurs who have shifted gears and gone international. The Twin Cities area shows the most dramatic contrasts in the employment picture. Startling is the statistic showing that 70% of employment gain in that area during the last 30 years has been in nonproduction jobs. Research and development, administrative and professional employment, along with a cadre of corporate headquarters, lead the way.

By the early 1980s, the northern heartland had financial institution deposits of about 3% of the country's total-a figure noted as surprisingly large but reflecting, in Borchert's view, long-standing traditions of a high savings rate, decentralized control, and regional cooperation. Again, this is illustrative of a distinctive historical mix of creative tensions and practical necessities—an adaptive, innovative, resourceful people responding to the unique environment.

No chronicle of the region would be complete without mention of the "quality of life." With all factors considered, including "mild climate," the Twin Cities have been ranked fifteenth among the 30 high-order metropolitan areas. Considering only community factors, however—climate neutral—the Twin Cities rank second after Dallas-Fort Worth among all metropolitan areas in the United States. In addition, among metropolitan areas under 250,000 population, nine of the heartland's cities rank in the top 27: Duluth-Superior, LaCrosse, Sioux Falls, Rochester, St. Cloud, Fargo-Moorhead, Billings, Grand Forks, and Eau Claire-Chippewa Falls.

But not all in this book consists of global descriptions and aggregate data. The author makes liberal use of subsectioning and slices the data by smaller areas, such as the Black Hills of South Dakota and the mining regions of Michigan, Minnesota, and Montana. Readers can almost examine their own neighborhood to learn something about its origins from the research. Borchert, the storyteller, goes beyond the data on many occasions to interject folklore and colloquial legends to make the pages come alive for the reader. His showmanship transforms bland statistics into fun reading:

  • Flat-bottomed stern-wheelers, the backbone of the St. Louis fur trade in the late 1800s, moved an estimated million hides and many tons of pure gold down from Fort Benton, Montana, along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
  • The "mountain boats," as they were called in St. Louis, took seven weeks to make the trip back upstream-and carried not only migrant families but supplies of whiskey, guns, drygoods, and groceries to Montana gold camps and trading posts.
  • When Jack Dempsey defended his world title in 1923, he boxed not in New York but in the unlikely location of Shelby, Montana—a small farm trade center then in the midst of a free-spending oil boom.

The graphics of the book are outstanding, The collaborators have used a full palette of approaches, symbols, and constructions for presenting the data in an intriguing fashion, Photographs, maps, and charts are well sprinkled throughout to make this a pleasurable walk through the heartland; it is a vivid travelogue for the armchair adventurer.

If, however, there is a downside to all of this, it is in the wealth of detail bordering on information overload. It is tough for the lay person to sort out the substance from the curiosity. This is not, after all, a novel that holds one spellbound until the grand climax. The book goes further, though, than others of its type to make a research piece into an inviting reading experience.

America's Northern Heartland is a unique, well-structured piece of nonfiction; it provides the foundation for spinoffs and time-lapse research. It does all that the author said it would do and more. It is a real eye-opener into our past.

John R. Borchert has been Regents' Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota since 1981 and a university of Minnesota faculty member for nearly 40 years.