Chapter 1

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Chapter 1


One Tenth of America's Land

 

 

To most Americans the Northern Heartland has long been the most mystifying part of their country. Spreading across the northern states, in the deep interior of North America, from Montana to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, from northern Iowa to the Canadian border, the region contains about one-tenth of the total land area of the 50 United States. It is as big as Texas and twice as empty (or half as crowded). In the western reaches the shopping trade area of Miles City, Montana, includes more land than the state of Connecticut; to the east the local trade area of Bemidji, Minnesota, is almost as large as New York's Adirondack Mountain region. Billboards on the edges of some small towns proclaim plenty of room to grow. They are always at least half-right; there is plenty of room. In many cases they are all right; there is also growth, some of it fast by any comparison, some of it remarkably steady by any comparison.

If you fly the scheduled airlines from Seattle-Tacoma to the Twin Cities, and on to Boston, more than one-third of the transcontinental trip crosses this region (Figure 1). Coming from Seattle you could mark the region's western boundary about where you see the Bear Paw Mountains rise a half-mile above the plains of north central Montana. There on a summer day a dark island of ponderosa pine forest stands above the sage- and grass-covered, deeply carved lower slopes; the whole mass overlooks the sea of strip-cropped wheat fields and rangeland that rolls northward into Saskatchewan. As you head eastward from the Twin Cities and leave the region, you could look far to the north of your route and imagine the boundary where the Porcupine Mountains rise 1,000 feet above Lake Superior. Rock ledges tower above Lake of the Clouds. The glacier-polished rocks and the clear lake are bright openings in the midst of a dense forest where 17 feet of snow fall in an average winter. The northern boundary of the region lies 250 miles north of the Twin Cities airport. There the Rainy River spills from border lakes that wash hundreds of miles of quiet, rocky Minnesota and Ontario shores. In contrast, on the region's southern edge, 150 miles south of the Twin Cities, the upper reach of Iowa's Skunk River winds southward between gently undulating, tile-drained corn fields.

From the Bear Paws to the Porcupines, from the Skunk to the Rainy, this region sprawls over one-third of a million square miles. What shall we call it? Perhaps the name used most widely and for the longest period in the region's short history is Northwest. This was the new Northwest, when the settlement frontier was advancing across the region from the 1850s to the 1910s. It was mostly distinct from the Old Northwest葉he land east of the Mississippi and "northwest of the River Ohio," defined by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. While the name Northwest was applied from the outside, it was also adopted by insiders in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and cities and towns from western Wisconsin to eastern Montana. With development of metropolitan centers at Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland, and emergence of the name Pacific Northwest, Northwest gradually dropped from vogue in this interior region. Meanwhile, Central Northwest was tried, then Upper Midwest and Northland. People from other parts of the United States often vaguely called it the Northern Plains. Those terms imply a unity to the region, which indeed it has. But they also mask its rich diversity. Because this book is in some ways a sequel to a regional study that used the term Upper Midwest a quarter-century ago, I shall use the same term now.1



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Figure 1. America's Northern Heartland. The primary region of the Upper Midwest reaches from northern Iowa to the U.S.-Canadian border, from northern Wisconsin to eastern Montana. The Minneapolis Federal Reserve banking district and some transportation, wholesaling, and services extend the region's periphery across Montana and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The spacing of cities on the map reflects the climatic gradients from the lush, productive Midwestern Com Belt to the colder North and the drier West. The smooth, deep mantle of glacial deposits across much of the heart of the region contrasts with the rougher plains west and south of the Missouri, the glacier-scoured uplands surrounding Lake Superior, and the mountainous western margin.

 

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Figure 2. Church Membership as a Percentage of Total U.S. Population, 1971. The Upper Midwest had one of the highest proportions of church membership in the United States, along with southeastern New England and the Mormon West. Source: note 2.

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The Ties That Bind

To those who regularly travel the region, do business in it, and live in it, this is a big neighborhood, or an empire, or perhaps both. All over the far-flung area, familiar regional names mark chain and franchise stores, banks, and farm cooperatives. Familiar hymnals from familiar publishers are at hand in the church pews (Figure 2). (With southeastern New England and the Utah valleys, this ranks as one of the three most churched areas in the United States.) Familiar networks of friends and relatives, built on the migration patterns of several generations, bridge between the farms, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the intermediate towns and hamlets . Familiar meetings and conventions come together most often at Minneapolis-St. Paul. And everybody shares the concealed satisfaction of surviving and even prospering in the world's most extreme climate (Figure 3). Hot winds, arctic gales, searing drought, dripping humidity, dust clouds, dense fogs, tropical downpours, tornadoes, chinooks, fence-high snowdrifts, breath-freezing stillness, baking sun葉hose tests of human adaptability occur in various combinations in every part of the world. But only in the Upper Midwest can you expect all of them in the course of any normal year.2

One measure of neighborhood is who talks to whom and how much. Telephone connections provide a measure of that kind of interaction, and the Upper Midwest is a buzzing hive of phone messages between places and people (Figure 4). The contacts have a geographic pattern. To be sure, there are calls from everyplace to every other place. But the calls from farm neighborhoods or hamlets go most frequently to the nearest shopping and service center. From shopping and service centers most frequent connections lead to the nearest larger centers of wholesale distribution, services, and shopping. And within the region, calls from all those places to a large metropolitan area flow predominantly to the Twin Cities. In a different way the professional sports radio networks outline the region (Figure 5). While the breadth and depth of their coverage has varied with success on the playing fields, the networks have persistently linked the localities in which there is enough loyalty to the regional teams to make the broadcasts commercially salable in the local markets.3

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is one of 30 high-order urban centers in the geographic structure of America's urban settlement (Figure 6). Those 30 centers are the home of nearly two-thirds of all the country's population. They are the locations of nearly all of the Federal Aviation Commission's major hub airports. They are the main concentration of corporate headquarters, professional services, arts, and professional sports. Those activities combine with their skylines to make the high-order cities the main symbols of metropolitan America.4

The primary region of the Upper Midwest is that part of the United States which is closer to the Twin Cities than it is to any other high-order metropolis. The pattern of phone messages reflects this fact. And what are the messages about? They undoubtedly reflect the sweep and diversity and historical evolution of the region. People are placing orders with wholesale distributors, transferring payments, arranging professional services, reserving seats for games or concerts or foreign tours, reserving hotel rooms for meetings, catching up on the affairs of migratory friends and relatives, and of course talking about the weather. Sometimes the same call serves several of those purposes. Thus the Upper Midwest is the primary trade and service area of the Twin Cities. The Twin Cities did not make the region. The region did not make the Twin Cities. The pattern just evolved in the complex process of settling the land of the United States.

Some strong linkages reach beyond this primary region of the Upper Midwest. The periphery of the region extends west into the Montana Rockies-to Glacier Park and Yellowstone, to the valleys of the Flathead and the Bitterroot. And it extends east across northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the rapids of the St. Marys at Sault Ste. Marie. Phone traffic from smaller towns and cities in the periphery to the Twin Cities is less than the flow from those places to Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, or Detroit. Yet those smaller places in the periphery are more strongly linked to the Twin Cities than are other places of similar size outside the region.

 

The region's extended periphery largely reflects Twin Cities banking connections. With the creation of the Federal Reserve system in 1914, regional Federal Reserve banks were established at a dozen major cities. Minneapolis was one because it was the larger of the twins, and because the Twin Cities metropolitan area at that time was far larger than any other western or southern city except San Francisco and Los Angeles. The national map was divided-into 12 Federal Reserve districts, each tributary to one of the system's banks. Then, as now, a territory existed in which correspondent ties between metropolitan and local banks clearly focused on the Twin Cities. The territory included Minnesota, North Dakota,  much of Montana and South Dakota, and northwestern Wisconsin.   Banking ties in much of that area reflected sheer proximity to the Twin Cities. In central and western Montana they reflected the legacy of business connections along the Twin Cities-based Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads. There were important ties in nearby northern Iowa, too. But all of Iowa was foregone Chicago territory in this contest. Without part of Iowa, the population of the Twin Cities banking region was not quite enough to meet the minimum requirement; hence more of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan were added. Metropolitan ties of those areas then, as now, ran mainly southward to Chicago, Milwaukee, or Detroit. But an important flow of commerce also moved east-west along the original Soo Line railroad, between the Twin Cities, Sault Ste. Marie, and eastern Canada.5

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Figure 3. Seasonal Temperature Extremes. Source: note 7.

 

 

 

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Figure 4. Frequency of Phone Calls to the Twin Cities. Source: note 6. (Detailed data from 1963; intensity adjusted on the basis of data for 1972 and 1975.)

 

 

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Figure 5. Professional Sports Radio Stations and Listening Area, 1983. The broadcast for Twin Cities professional baseball and football teams has coincided approximately with the Upper Midwest primary region. Source: Kaufman, note 3.

 

Thus an Upper Midwest primary region reaches from the Bear Paws to the Porcupines and the Skunk to the Rainy. And a periphery extends west into the Montana Rockies and east to Sault Ste. Marie. The primary region and the periphery, together, are the banking region. Together they reflect the emergence of the Twin Cities regional metropolis and the rail, trade, and financial interests historically centered there.

Of course, the region is no monolith: it is a kaleidescope of ever-changing small communities and networks of people, who spend most of their time conducting local, day-today affairs. The overlay of regional connections, though always subtly guiding them in many ways, directly affects only a few people's daily schedules most of the time and most people's daily schedules rather seldom. The region's boundaries are no knife-edge; there are gradients. Strength and frequency of the binding internal ties decline gradually with increasing distance from the Twin Cities. Across western Montana the direction of dominant flows gradually shifts to Seattle. Across southwestern South Dakota and southern Montana the gradients shift toward Denver. Across western and northern Wisconsin they tilt sharply toward Chicago and Milwaukee.6



   
Climatic gradients occur as well. With the temperature extremes that accompany location in the continental interior, comes the reward of a predominance of bright days. Indeed from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountain foothills the region is the sun belt of the Frost Belt. Westward across the Rockies the regimes of sunshine, cloud, and precipitation gradually swing toward the moderating influence of the Pacific. Winter cold also moderates and the growing season lengthens gradually toward the south.  Eastward across the lake country the Atlantic regime of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada gradually takes over, and the yearly number of cloudy, snowy, or rainy days increases.

 

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Figure 6. Busiest U.S. Airports and High-Order Urban Areas, 1983. Except for Las Vegas, Salt Lake City,and Memphis, all of the most heavily used air hubs are in high-order urban areas. The high-order urban areas, or conurbations, are daily commuter areas with at least 2 million population, centered on one or more census metropolitan areas of at least one million. Source: note 4. Air traffic data, 1983; population data, 1980.

 

 

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Figure 7. College Students' Image of Livability. Source: note 8, Gould and White.

 

 

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Perhaps the steepest gradient, in many ways, occurs at the United States-Canada boundary. To be sure, the border is open, friendly, easily crossed, and frequently crossed by many who live and work near it. Yet, to cross it and remain for long, you have to disentangle from one web of national history and geography and weave yourself into a different one. The two histories and geographies overlap and entwine in many ways all along the border. But they are recorded in separate sets of records 熔ne set linked north and the other south, one set ultimately to Ottawa and the other to Washington. In the settlement and development of the Upper Midwest and the Canadian Prairies, many broad parallels and cross-linkages emerge. Yet the balance of binding ties today shifts very sharply to Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton at the Upper Midwest's northern boundary. For most Americans the mental map of climate ends there, too. Details of seasonal and daily variety dissolve into a uniform misconception or a blank. Canada's federal and provincial governments work hard at educating Upper Midwesterners about the warm, sunny summers north of the border. For it has been hard to get Midwestern Americans beyond the idea that central Canada is an icebox, from where the coldest weather comes.7

The External Image That Segregates

While internal ties bind the region, an awesome national mixture of disinterest and puzzlement has segregated it. You might guess that 95 percent of Americans view the region as uninhabitable, with a climate suitable only for testing batteries, motor oil, and pick up trucks. Most of the other 5 percent know better because they live here or they have lived here. Migration data make it clear that many would like to return, and many do. Business-executive surveys rate the Twin Cities at or near the top among large urban areas for quality of housing, neighborhoods, recreation, government, education, and culture. I have heard senior officials in Washington wax nostalgic over times they spent in "those remarkable communities" of Bismarck or Brookings, to name two. But those are the reactions of people who have lived in the place. And most have not.

The region is a blank on the mental maps of most Americans. For better or worse, no popular image or symbol takes shape. College students elsewhere do not spontaneously think of it as a place to live after they graduate (Figure 7). Families approaching retirement age do not hear of it as a place for enjoyment of their later years (Figure 8). In media stereotypes wheat ranchers are from Kansas, not North Dakota or Montana. Cattle ranchers are from Texas, never South Dakota. Carefully shirt-sleeved decision makers ponder printouts in the towers of New York, Chicago, perhaps Houston or San Francisco, not the Twin Cities. Outdoor recreation is pursued in the mountains, in the Southwest deserts, or on subtropical beaches, seldom in the Boundary Waters canoe country or on the quiet lakes of the North Woods. To be sure, over the years a jumble of names has shown through the mist-for instance, the Mayo Clinic, Burma Shave, Scotch Tape, Glass Wax, Sinclair Lewis, Lawrence Welk, Bronco Nagurski, Roy Wilkins, Mary Tyler Moore, Hubert Humphrey, and the characters of Lake Wobegon. But such emissaries appear to be as accidental and unusual as a chilly day in the Sunbelt. Frequently the national media quote someone who says "the Twin Cities are an excellent place to live." Thus Minneapolis-St. Paul become a vague, inexplicable anomaly amid the wastelands, glaciers, and boondocks. The personal and institutional emissaries and the peculiar reputation of the Twin Cities do as much to deepen the mystery as resolve it. As a New York cab driver said to me, "You got a ball club there. They got to have a place to play. So what does the place look like? Yankee Stadium and glaciers?" Momentary visions arise, but sooner or later the emptiness closes in again on that part of the national mental map that yawns between the Bear Paws and the Porcupines, the Skunk and the Rainy. At least so it seems sometimes from the heartland!8

Varied Environments

In fact, 6 million people do live in the primary region of the Upper Midwest, 8 million in the banking region. They live in natural environments with vivid variations from one part of the region to another容nvironments which do, indeed, have a lot to do with glaciers (Figure 9). Those different environments not only offer the reality to fill the void that exists in so many imaginations, but also provide the stage on which the real story of the region's settlement has unfolded.9


THE FOREST ZONE

On the east and west the region is framed by two of the great wooded regions of the United States葉he northern Great Lakes and the northern Rockies. The Great Lakes forest葉he North Woods to 40 million Midwesterners who live and work to the south of it shades the Upper Midwest east and north of a line from Lake of the Woods to the Dalles of the St. Croix River, northeast of the Twin Cities, to north-central Wisconsin.

 

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Figure 8. National Image of Where Not to Retire. Source: note 8, Boyer and Savageau. (Based on map 

of rated retirement sites, 1984.)

 

 

 

 

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Figure 9. Upper Midwest Natural Environments. Source: note 9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cropland, partly improved pasture strewn with glacial boulders, and the ever-present forest backdrop, in the northern Wisconsin countryside between the Twin Cities and Wausau, are typical of the eastern part of the Upper Midwest.  Photo by author.

 

 

 

Today the forest is a crazy-quilt. Each patch is a grove dominated by one of many species-spruce, pines, balsam, tamarack, birch, aspen, oaks, maples, and other hardwoods. In the brief autumn patches of a brilliant variety of reds, browns, and golds flash among the evergreen, and for a week or two the quilt becomes a masterpiece. At that time, on a clear late afternoon, it is worth the price of a plane ticket to Duluth or Houghton just to see the quilt in aerial panorama.

 

Each patch has its story. In part the patches reflect the stages in the botanical succession as each particular piece of the forest recovers from its most recent cutting or burning, invades the derelict clearing of an abandoned farm, or grows in the neat rows of a new plantation. In part, also, the forest patches reflect the random pattern of sand, clay, gravel, boulders, and bog that make soil mapping on these glacial moraine deposits a cartographic nightmare. Disorderly heaps and terraces and saucers of glacial material form the land surface everywhere beneath the trees. But there are natural openings at the thousands of lakes and ponds and a few openings, too, where geologically ancient bedrock protrudes as bald hilltops through the glacial drift.

Water is in abundance. Dependable summer rain and winter snow supply the moisture. Cool summers reduce direct evaporation and the amount needed by growing vegetation. As a result the subsoil is moist. The lakes are full. Closely spaced, dependable streams meander and tumble from lake to bog as they head for Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, or the Mississippi.


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Ice-age glaciers scoured a deep trench for Lake of the Clouds and polished the hard, half-billion-year-old rocks that surround it. A mixed forest of pine and northern hardwoods mantles the rugged terrain of the Porcupine Mountains, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Photo by author.

 

In the northern part of the Great Lakes forest zone, the land rises in massive waves toward the great Canadian Shield. Made of some of the oldest, hardest, and most mineralized rock, the Shield forms the high ground of central and eastern Canada. There the continental glaciers of the ice age accumulated, and from there they spread chaos south to what is now the Ohio and the Missouri. The southern edge of the Shield is in the Upper Midwest, in the wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the Voyageurs National Park of northeastern Minnesota. As the elevation falls toward the south, only the higher ridges of hard rock protrude through the mantle of glacial deposits. Several of those ridges are the famous mineral ranges - the Me-sabi and Vermilion of Minnesota; the Gogebic, straddling the Wisconsin-Michigan border; and the Copper, Menominee, and Marquette ranges of Upper Michigan.

   
The most impressive ridge is the great geologic fault scarp that forms the north shore of Lake Superior. Behind the clean pebble beaches and headlands, the country rises a thousand feet or more to the north horizon. Offshore a few miles the lake is nearly a thousand feet deep. Off the south shore another ridge, nearly submerged, rises faintly above the lake level to form the Apostle Islands. In summer the deep, cold lake, towering ridges, and rocky islands create anomalous narrow strips of maritime environment in the heart of the continent-always cool; with ample wind for sailing; sometimes fog-shrouded; with a long, mild growing season that is especially gentle for flowers of forest and garden. In deep winter the scene takes on the character of the wildest coast of Lapland 幼rashing waves amid driving snow with a southeast wind, grotesque giant ice curtains and stalactites, colorful pebble beaches encased for miles like souvenirs in a sheet of ice laid exquisitely by breaking waves, days when arctic sea smoke rises in whisps as far as the eye can see while the open lake steams beneath subzero air blowing from somewhere near the North Pole.

 

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Nearly 1,000 feet deep a few miles offshore from this point, midway betwen Duluth and the Canadian border, the open water of Lake Superior combines with a subzero arctic gale to create a unique, awesome midwinter scene. Photo by author.

 

The other forest realm covers the western part of the region. As you move toward the west, it first appears in islands of ponderosa pine on the great isolated earth crustal domes called the Black Hills or the Big Horn, Bear Paw, Big Snowy, Belt, and Crazy mountains. Farther west the forest is nearly continuous in the corridor of crustal upheaval named the Rocky Mountains, from Yellowstone to Glacier Park and beyond. Most of the forest lies above the 4,000- to 5,000-foot contours, up to the timberline at 9,000 to 10,000 feet. In that range of altitude, both moisture and summer heat are adequate. Not only is the forest more dense and tall in the main ranges of the Rockies, but also it is more varied. West of the continental divide stands of douglas fir and lodge-pole pine turn your thoughts toward the Pacific Northwest. Winter snow, spring and autumn rains are more reliable, thanks to more direct exposure to moisture from the Pacific.

The highest water yields in the region come from the mountain forests and the barren jagged peaks and snowhelds above them. Most of the water pours out in torrents during the spring melt and spring rains. But some soaks in to saturate the forest litter and rocky slopes, then seeps out gradually during the warm season. All of it feeds the clear upper reaches and the muddier, lower main stems of famous tributaries of the Missouri and Columbia. Below the forest, grassy benchland slopes to the Great Plains on the east and into the broad valleys between the main ranges especially the spectacular trenches of the Bitterroot and Flathead. In the classic western settlement pattern, cities, towns, and irrigated ranches lie in the wider valleys. Old mining towns and locations string along certain canyons. Logging roads and scenic highways lead to camps and cabins of exurbanites and to the edges of wilderness preserves in the mountain forests.

 

 

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THE CROPLAND CORRIDOR

 

The wide plains between the two forests are the agricultural realm of the Upper Midwest. The heart of the agricultural country is in the prairie-glacial drift plains corridor. It trends southeast-northwest from northern Iowa to northern Montana. That corridor shares, with the rest of the North American Middle West and Great Plains and perhaps three or four regions on other continents, the world's finest upland soil resource for modern farming technology. The land was mostly treeless prairie at the time of white settlement; hence nature spared farm settlers the costly work of clearing it. The soils are formed on deep, fresh glacial deposits, generally high in soluble mineral plant food. Deep, dense roots from millennia of prairie grass growth made the soil initially high in organic matter and nitrogen. Though a few boulders remain, not yet decomposed from glacial times, the material is mostly a thick blanket of clay, loam, and silt.

But some important differences emerge within the corridor. South of roughly the latitude of the Otter Tail River in west-central Minnesota and the Sheyenne in southeastern North Dakota, the growing season is long enough for grain corn, and soybeans. Eastward from the wide, level valley of South Dakota's James River, the spring rains are ample and fairly dependable. Summer rains are fickle but adequate in most years. This warmest, best-watered part of the prairie-drift plains forms the Upper Midwest's part of the American Corn Belt and the richest part of the Upper Midwest agricultural base. Nature boosted the settlers there to a head start, and subsequent generations of farmers have parlayed their inheritance from the pioneers.

North of the Corn Belt, a sizable part of the cropland corridor is one of the most remarkable of legacies from the ice age, the Red River Valley. Of the great lakes ponded against the edge of the retreating glaciers in central Canada 10 millennia ago, the greatest was Lake Agassiz. The lake was named long after its demise, of course, for the Swiss-Bostonian naturalist Louis Agassiz. It covered a large part of what is now eastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota, and Manitoba. It rose to the height of a divide along the present Minnesota-South Dakota boundary and spilled over the divide, southeast down a mile-wide trench now occupied by the Minnesota River Valley. When the ice finally disappeared, the lake emptied northward through Hudson Bay to the sea. The vast lake floor, mostly clay and flat as a pancake, was then exposed to the sky and quickly covered with a carpet of prairie. And so it lay until large-scale white settlement began in the 1870s. Two brief, catastrophic events in the long history of the earth have created today's landscape there: the melting of the last ice sheets and the nineteenth-century spread of European people. From the air today you see a fantastic landscape of unbroken, flat, checkerboard fields. In summer the fields are square miles of wheat, square miles of potatoes, square miles of barley, square miles of oats or blue grass or sugar beets. The continuity and scale of the checkerboard overwhelms all but the larger urban centers in the landscape, while it sustains them as thriving nodes in the regional economy. Though smaller and less moisture-retentive, the plain along the James River through South Dakota is the second of these two major islands of flat land on the rolling prairie.

 

West of the Red and James valleys the climate is drier. Rains fail occasionally in spring, frequently in summer. The climatic break comes near the meridian of 100 degrees west longitude. The Hundredth Meridian is the classic boundary of the semiarid West in much of our literature and official lore. Farmers near Lawrence Welk's hometown, southeast of Bismarck, live close to that meridian. They could show you prairie land shaped by the glaciers that is just as smooth as much of the Corn Belt. But their reliance on wheat and barley rather than corn reflects their lesser confidence in the moisture supply. As the glaciers pushed southwest into drier, warmer country, they thinned and stalled on long, high ridges that trend northwest-southeast on the plains. The longest and highest of those 葉he Missouri Coteau 耀till carries the name the French explorers gave it. Chaotic small hills, intervening shallow prairie potholes, and boulder fields pock the surface. Those are the features of glacial moraines, where the glacier's edge stood vacillating for hundreds of summers. The rate of ice advance equaled the rate of melting at the front; as a result the glacier just kept hauling in and dumping load after load of dirt and rock along the same line. Today the potholes fill to the brim in a wet spring. But during perhaps half of the summers in living memory, drought and evaporation have left many of these low areas as mere flat white beds of cracked alkaline mud. Nineteenth-century school geography maps used the label "Region of Salt Waters." That was the way the area looked to surveyors who saw it during the 1860s. But the larger, wetter potholes provide way stations for tens of thousands of waterfowl on the plains flyway between the Gulf of Mexico and their Canadian nesting grounds. North Dakota farmers on the Missouri Coteau could explain how they avoid potholes and the worst boulder fields, leaving those areas for grazing and waterfowl habitat.

 

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Outbuildings make up a large livestock feeding operation in south-central Minnesota in the early 1980s. The black soil evolved beneath natural prairie grasses that mantled much of today's Upper Midwest cropland corridor before white settlement. Trees in the picture are all planted shelterbelts around the farmyards. Photo, Frederic Steinhauser.

 

In the drier wheat country west of the Hundredth Meridian, strips may be cropped in alternate years to conserve moisture on the gently rolling uplands. Where river valleys are incised into the plains, grass and sage sparsely mantle the sharp ridges, cedars pock the rocky ledges, and cottonwoods and box elder follow the narrow draws. This view is north from the breaks of the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana. Photo by author.

 

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This southeastern Minnesota valley, west of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, lies in the stream-dissected, unglaciated part of the transition zone between the cropland corridor and the Upper Great Lakes forest. Steep, wooded valley walls separate the fertile, rolling ridgetops from the rich bottomlands several hundred feet below. Photo, Frederic Steinhauser.

 

West of the country around Havre and Great Falls, the prairie-glacial drift plains broaden and flatten again in an area Montan-ans call the Triangle, between the Missouri, the Rockies, and the Canadian border. This is the type locality of the famous warm chinook winds of midwinter. Rainfall and snowfall are a little more reliable than on the plains to the east. The Sun and Marias rivers, and numerous swift creeks, bring irrigation water from the neighboring mountains. With more moisture and milder winters, ranchers in the Triangle grow nearly half of Montana's wheat.

THE TRANSITION ZONES

    A narrow transition zone separates the main cropland corridor from the Upper Great Lakes forest realm. The transition zone is widest and most unusual庸or the Upper Midwest-southeast of the Twin Cities, through southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa. By chance the ice-age glaciers bypassed this area. As a result, splashing rain and streams have had more than a hundred million years to carve its surface into treelike networks of valleys and intervening ridges. The land is unglaciated and stream-dissected. The upland fields, on fertile but thin soil, command panoramic views across waves of high, rolling ridge tops and deep ravines. Clean limestone cliffs and intervening steep slopes of rock waste form the valley walls. Rich hardwood forests darken the north-facing bluffs and ravines, while cedars dot the otherwise open goat prairies on drier southwest-facing slopes. On the bottoms the rich floodplains and terraces support cropland, and the tributary rivers wind rather steeply toward the Mississippi. On the western, drier side of the transition zone, before agricultural settlement, prairies covered the ridgetops as well as the south-facing slopes. Scattered groves interrupted the tall grassland.  But on the less drought-risky eastern edge of the zone, only scattered openings of prairie interrupted the dominant woodland. The lovely islands of prairie and grove inspired scores of place-names across the transition zone in the Upper Midwest.

 

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Rough, lake-studded glacial moraine land in the Park Region of west-central Minnesota is typical of much of the Dairy Belt, on the northeastern margin of the Upper Midwest's cropland corridor. Photo by author.

 

In Minnesota, from the southernmost lake district at Albert Lea to the most northwesterly lake district around Detroit Lakes, the forest-to-prairie transition zone lies on the remarkably varied surface of the Upper Midwest's most extensive and roughest glacial moraines. From the tops of 100- or 200-foot knobs, early explorers could see for miles across a lush, rolling compage of hills, lakes, prairies, and woodlands. For good reason, they called it the Park Region. The name still fits the landscape, although the prairies are now pastures or fields. These transition areas are the historic heart of Upper Midwest dairy farming.

North of Detroit Lakes the big moraine loops eastward into the forest zone. But the forest-to-prairie transition zone continues northward across the international boundary, along strings of low, sandy beach ridges that once formed the shores of great Lake Agassiz. Groves of aspen and openings of prairie, at the time of white settlement, made the transition between wooded beach-ridges among vast bogs in the forest zone to the east and the flat prairies of the Red River Valley to the west.

Another, very much wider and very different transition zone spreads westward from the Missouri. South Dakotans call it West River country. North Dakotans call it the Slope and might tell you it's the section of the state with rattlesnakes. Summer tourists speeding from Chicago to the Black Hills get a feeling that this is where the West begins.

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A midwinter view looks southwestward across the wide Missouri in south-central South Dakota. The stream's crevassed ice cover separates the smooth veneer of glacial deposits, black prairie soil, and checkerboard of corn fields on the east side from West River ranching country. To many travelers, this is where the West begins. Photo by author.


The general elevation begins to rise subtly from the Missouri toward the Black Hills, Big Horns, and Rockies. Meanwhile, like the Upper Mississippi Valley below St. Paul, the trans-Missouri country was mostly beyond the reach of the ice-age glaciers and their smoothing veneer of drift. The face of the land reflects the work of the master rivers that flow from the mountains and Black Hills to the encircling Missouri. Their names are legendary in the West-the Yellowstone, Musselshell, Big Horn, Powder, and Tongue, the Little Missouri, Cheyenne, and White, and the smaller Knife, Heart, Moreau, Grand, and Bad. Except for the Yellowstone, these are slender streams, for they drain the driest part of the northern Great Plains. But without harassment by continental glaciation, there has been time for a quarter-million hundred-year storms to pound and erode their watersheds. The result is a series of deep, wide, rugged trenches radiating from the high country toward the Missouri, and along the Big Muddy. Valley walls are generally covered with prairie and sagebrush.   The surface is harsh but resembles velvet in shadowy panorama when the sun is low. In a few spectacular places, the soft, colorful, geologically young bedrock has washed easily and has seldom stabilized long enough for the plant cover to take hold. Those are the Badlands. The rivers are widely spaced, for it takes a lot of land to catch enough water to make a river in this dry country.

 

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Gently rolling plateaus project toward the Missouri between the breaks of tributary valleys. With no glacial deposits to mask them, local buttes and pine-edged escarpments rise above the plateaus. They are landmarks on always distant skylines. To the early scouts they first intimated the mountains beyond the horizon to the west, and later they provided guideposts to wagon trains on the trackless prairie. Today you might get the local names for those features from ranchers, as you survey the hve-square-mile expanse of each one's wheat fields or rangelands.

Global Forces 湧atural and Human

The active powers of nature have created this varied stage for Upper Midwest settlement. The stage is the product of global flows of air, water, and the earth, itself. The global flow of air makes a dramatic and dynamic climate today (Figure 10). Daily television and newspaper maps tell that story. Two of the three most frequent positions of the atmosphere's west-to-east jet stream across North America converge from Alberta and Colorado to the Great Lakes. The low pressure centers that follow those routes swing their continuous procession of fronts, with accompanying temperature changes, cloud, and precipitation, across the Upper Midwest.

Those converging storms and jets draw air from three of the world's most contrasting sources across the region's forests, fields, lakes, and settlements. One source is the Canadian Arctic. Air from that source is cool in summer, frigid in winter, and always antiseptically clear, to let the northern lights, stars, and sun shine brighter. A second source is the Tropical Atlantic. Moist air streams from there westward across the Gulf of Mexico, north up the central lowlands, and into the passing lows and fronts. Storms lift it to form the mountainous thunderheads of summer and the leaden, layered clouds of winter. Then the storms wring from those clouds the downpours, blizzards, and drizzles that water the land. Those tropical maritime airstreams often reach the Upper Midwest at the surface east of the Hundredth Meridian in spring and summer, but west of the Hundredth Meridian only occasionally and mainly in the springtime. They seldom reach the region at the surface in winter but spread over it aloft to produce most of the winter's clouds and snow. The third source is the dry western plateau country, between the Rockies and Sierra-Cascades. That source is cool in winter, hot in summer, and always dry. Passing storms draw its dry air into the Upper Midwest frequently as far east as the Hundredth Meridian, less often into the eastern prairie region as far as Minnesota and Iowa. In winter continental incursions are the warm chinook winds of the High Plains and the less frequent thaws of the eastern areas. In summer they are the spells of hot winds which bring searing temperatures and, if they persist long enough, wilt sapling trees and turn fields to dust. Only over the high mountain country do these air masses give up some of their meager water content, from sheets of winter clouds and summer-afternoon thunderheads.10

Thus the global wind system today differentiates the region into a northeastern province of cool, moist summers and cold, snowy winters; a subhumid prairie province east of the Hundredth Meridian; a semiarid short-grass prairie province west of the Hundredth Meridian; and the moist high country of the mountains and Black Hills. In the ice ages of the geologic near-past, a similar global wind system prevailed. But temperatures fell enough that in the cool, snowy northeastern province the snow accumulation in the longer winter became more than the sun and rain could melt during the shortened summer. For thousands of years the accumulation deepened, compacted, and began to spread. The spreading sheet stalled when it moved south of the major jet streams into realms of warmer or drier air, or both. Thus the same location in the global air flow that creates Upper Midwest weather patterns today created the glacial patterns that left their imprint on so much of the land in the ice age.

The global flow of water takes the moisture delivered from the ocean surface by the atmosphere and returns it to the oceans down the Missouri and Mississippi, the Columbia, the Red, and the Great Lakes (Figure 11). But in the interim, like the flow of air, the flow of water differentiates the Upper Midwest into contrasting realms. Rain water and snowmelt partly soak into the soil, partly run off directly to the nearest stream. The soak-in first nourishes the cover of crops, range, and forest. Whatever remains fills the ground water reserve and seeps through springs to the streams as indirect runoff. If none remains, then no springs or streams flow in the long periods between annual spring melts or infrequent severe summer storms. If there is not enough soak-in to support a forest, there is no forest. Thus the vegetation cover and the stream flow reflect the rainfall, snowmelt, and water budget of the region.

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Figure 10. The Upper Midwest's Position in the Flow of Air across North America. Low pressure centers that follow the northern paths of the atmosphere's jet stream swing their procession of fronts across the Upper Midwest, with accompanying clouds, rain, and winter snow. They draw air from three of the world's most contrasting source regions. Source: note 10.


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Figure 11. Flow of Water in the Upper Midwest. Runoff from the land is a measure of the sustained annual supply of water available for direct human use. Some of the runoff is stored for days or centuries in the ground and in lakes and wetlands. Rivers carry all that remains to the sea. For comparison, municipalities in the Twin Cities metropolitan area use about 75-100 billion gallons per year equal to the average annual runoff from an area about 30-35 miles square in the Mississippi headwaters country, or 4-5 percent of the river's average flow at Minneapolis. Sources: Mark W. Busby, "Annual Runoff in the Coterminous United States," in Hydrologic Investigations Atlas (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey, 1966); supplementary data for several small basins from USGS annual Water Resources Data.


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In early spring the Baptism River pours 20,000 gallons of water per second, from a 1,000-square-mile drainage basin in northeastern Minnesota, over the escarpment along Lake Superior's north shore. Photo, David Borchert.

 

In late spring the Powder River brings a few hundred gallons of water per second from a 20,000-square-mile basin on the Great Plains. Pine-edged buttes rise above the dry grassland on the horizon in southeastern Montana. Photo by author.


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In a dramatic expression of the conjuncture of global forces, the forested Rockies rise above the treeless plains on the region's western periphery in central Montana. Photo by author.

 

 

The cool, moist northeast and the western high mountains are also the realms of forests and lakes and the sources of large, dependable rivers. The subhumid, somewhat drought-riskier prairies east of the Hundredth Meridian are also the source of smaller rivers and a land of fewer lakes. The semiarid western plains were clothed in only a shortgrass prairie; today they support only more drought-resistant crops and send out only meager, widely spaced rivers.


    Even the gradual flow and heaving of the
earth's crust are reflected in the giant folds, faults, domes, and basins of the western mountains; in the massive subcontinent of ancient rock that forms the Canadian Shield; and in the mineral veins injected into fissures during eras of great crustal disturbance (Figure 12). Crustal shifts are also reflected in the broad basins, filled with miles-deep layers of sedimentary rock, which lie beneath the plains of Dakota and eastern Montana. Some of those rocks are oil- and coal-bearing and provide the large reserves of the Powder River, Knife River, and Williston basins.


People have set the stage and changed the scenes with comparable drama 預nd also through processes as inexorable and evolutionary as nature's. Suppose you were to talk with the people whom you inevitably would encounter if you were to go out to look at the different natural environments of the Upper Midwest. Loggers in the northern Wisconsin forest might talk about their forbears who were Chippewa Indians living in the region when white explorers, missionaries, traders, then loggers, townspeople, and farmers arrived. Taconite mill workers on the Mesabi Iron Range could tell you about their Finnish forbears who migrated to the Lake Superior district when the Czar was imposing a tightening tyranny on their homeland in the early 1900s.

 

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Figure 12. Upper Midwest Mineral Resources. The deposits reflect the history and location patterns of the gradual flow, heaving, and fracturing of the earth's crust through geologic time. Sources: James Turnbull, Coal Fields of the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey, 1960), sheet 1; Oil and Gas Fields of the United States (Penn-Well Publishing Company, 1982), note 9, Gerlach.

 

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Farmers in the Iowa Corn Belt might tell you about their German grandparents; a Red River Valley family, their Norwegian and French Canadian backgrounds. One family on the Missouri Coteau in North Dakota could talk about the Russian-German settlement there in the 1890s, and another in the Montana ranching country might recall their great grandparents' stories of their trek from Missouri after the Civil War. An exurbanite couple in a Montana mountain cabin might discuss their real estate business in California and their parents' immigration from Italy to New York.11

The varied settlement map of the Upper Midwest reflects flows of people whose individual decisions have been motivated and constrained by massive migrations, social and political movements, conflicts, famines, and tyrannies in many corners of the world. At the same time, of course, their individual decisions and actions added up to these very same movements, migrations, and conflicts. There-suit has been a continuing avalanche of events with tumbling momentum and lives of their own. Mean while-within the world's established networks of settlement, transportation, and communication-streams of information, inventions, goods, and capital constantly flow to and from the region and within it. Those flows continue to change the maps of the region's population, employment, income, and connections. The environment is dynamic. The region is a product of the convergence of global natural and human forces.

Little more than a century ago the Upper Midwest region was an embryo. Most of the land lay beyond the American frontier. In a century it became a prosperous, integral part of the world economy. The region today is a complex network of farms, small towns, cities, metropolitan areas, and connecting routes.

 

So, those who pose serious questions about the region seek to understand that remarkable transformation. What accounts for the Upper Midwest's location, shape, and look? What has been the anatomy of its initial development? Of its adaptation to dramatic national and worldwide changes? Why and how much has the region's identity persisted amid so much change?

One way to try to comprehend the process of change is through geographical snapshots of the region's settlement at different times. Three times are especially critical. Around 1870 American Indians sparsely occupied the land. The white invasions of the Upper Midwest on a large scale had just begun. The growth of the United States as a major steel producer and the steel rail era of transcontinental railroad building had just begun. By 1920 the occupation of the region by whites was essentially complete. The Northwest Empire had been created. The era of the automobile, airplane, cheap oil, and electronic communication was just emerging on a large scale. In the 1970s and 1980s, products of the era that began around 1920 are in place: industrialized agriculture, metropolitan settlements, highway-air-electronic networks. The empire has become in many ways a neighborhood in an increasingly unstable, intense, worldwide circulation system.12

In the 1980s we are now entering a stage of unprecedented growth of awareness of the worldwide system and its complexity.

 

   Those three widely separated times frame two major epochs for understanding the Upper Midwest: an epoch of development and rapid population growth between 1870 and 1920, and an epoch of great adaptation and economic growth between 1920 and the 1980s. The two periods, in sequence, also provide some background for us to think about further change and adaptation in another period, beyond the 1980s.

 

 

 

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