Exhibits, Donations, and Programs – Oh My!

Hello, all!  This is Jaimie, the curator at the Mower County Historical Society.  This is my first blog post and I thought I’d give you all a peak at what I’ve got coming up this summer!  So, here we go!

First of all, we have a new exhibit coming up next month (the third since January, whew!).  Beginning July 30, a traveling exhibit from the Minnesota Historical Society called“Minnesota Homefront” will be open.  At the same time, we’ll have a brand new exhibit about life in Mower County during the war called “Everyone’s War.”  If you’re interested in World War II and Minnesota history, these are the exhibits for you! 

These folks were promoting the war effort by rationing gas but still found an interesting way to promote a film coming to the Austin Theatre.

These folks were promoting the war effort by rationing gas but still found an interesting way to promote a film coming to the Austin Theatre.

While the battlefield is often the star of history, these exhibits explores the things taking place back home in Minnesota.  Both exhibits will be up through September 27.  MCHS is open Tuesday-Friday from 10-4.  Admission for the exhibits is $1 for non-members and free for all MCHS members.  During fair week, admission to these exhibits will be free for everyone!

I’ve also had quite a few new donations in the past months.  It is so wonderful to see other people dedicated to preserving Mower County history.  Although we cannot accept every single donation, we look forward to growing our collection with pieces that can help us tell the story of Mower County’s history.  I recently accessioned a collection of items from Catherine Crilly McCloskey.  Mrs. McCloskey graduated from Austin High School and went on to teach in Mower County schools for many years.  Included in the donation was a kind of “memory book” from her time at Austin High School and at the teacher training school in Austin, her wedding dress, and some of the textbooks she used in her classrooms.  They are all wonderful additions that will help us interpret the Excelsior School House and the life of rural, Mower County teachers.

Here is Catherine Crilly's school memory book from Austin High School.

Here is Catherine Crilly’s school memory book from Austin High School.

Finally, I will be co -teaching a class this month through the Community Education program in the Excelsior School House.  All students interested and entering Grades 2-5  can experience what life was like in a one room school.  We’ll talk about the different things they learned, what it was like to have all of the grades in one room, and, of course, have a little fun!  The program will be on Wednesday, July 17 from 9:00 am – 12:00 pm and the cost is $12 per child with lunch included.  Call 460-1706 or 460-1700 for more information or to register.  You can also register online at http://austin.revtrak.net.

We’re looking forward to the rest of the busy summer!  If you have any comments or suggestions or if you have a story to share about how you dig history, feel free to send me an email at collections@mowercountyhistory.org.  I’d love to hear from you!


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The Black Blizzard and a New Crop

This article was originally published in our Winter 2013 newsletter.  It was written by Research & Archives Manager Sue Doocy.

The drought of 1930s was the worst experienced in US history. By March 1934, three-quarters of southern Minnesota was in an extreme drought and for the next two month’s high temperatures and lack of sufficient rain would take its toll on livestock, crops and land. 

The Austin Daily Herald thermometer read 100 degrees on May 6, 1934 and not far off E. J. Greening recorded 98 degrees for the Federal Weather Bureau in Grand Meadow that beat the previous record set in 1895. 

The Herald reported the ten day dust storm covered the area in a rust colored mile high cloud and ended on May 11th, with clear skies that allowed the sun to continue baking the land and inhabitants.  The Black Blizzard, as it was called, began in the western plains of Canada and blew tons of soil, dropping it along the way to the eastern seaboard.  The high winds blew away seeds and top soil or cut seedlings off, leaving nothing to recoup the losses as farmers took out loans to pay for the seed.

On May 7th, there was little choice according to University Farm extension agent, as he advised farmers to take a chance on planting their corn and take a chance that it would rain.

Grand Meadow seemed to be blessed with timely rains, as .85 inches of rain fell on May 13th,  the most it would see throughout the summer, and Austin received ½ to ¾ of an inch, while light showers fell on other parts of the county doing very little to rejuvenate crops.

A hot wind blew over the parched prairie on May 31st and a blazing sun forced the mercury even higher to 107 degrees in Grand Meadow, another temperature that hadn’t been seen since 1901.  Greening reviewed the records and found only 5.31 inches of precipitation had fallen the first 5 months of 1934. 

An agronomist suggested farmers consider planting soybeans, along with other crops to replace drought-damaged pastures and grain crops.  He claimed soybeans was one of the best emergency hay crops available, and if planted in rich soil, could produce 1½ to 2 tons of hay per acre. 

Federal and State government agencies scrambled to provide aid for area farmers. Washington promised to meet the farmer’s needs in the form of aid for food and fund shortages and to plan to prevent future food shortages by balancing good years with the bad.  They provided information for alternative crops that would produce fodder for livestock and the state corn-hog program committee lifted planting restrictions on land in Mower County allowing farmers to plant forage crops to feed their livestock.  A railroad car loaded with soybeans for Mower County farmers to plant arrived in Dexter on June 23rd, and farmers either paid in cash, signed a note that could be paid upon receiving their corn-hog money or in a few cases, “work out” for the cost. 

Another solution was to extend wheat production control contracts to give drought-affected farmers a chance to sign up for a benefit that paid a form of crop insurance.

The government was making plans to relieve the stress of starving livestock and aid financially strapped farmers by starting a wholesale slaughtering program that paid farmers for their cattle anywhere from $4 to $20 a head.  Unfit animals were destroyed and burned on the farm.  The processed meat was placed in tins and distributed to the poor. 

Grain crops were down ¼ their normal average according to the county agent’s threshing reports in the beginning of August.  Threshers usually worked one to two days on one farm, now they were completing 3 or 4 farms in a day, with only 3 to 4 bushels an acre.

By August 11th, feed conservation was stressed in the area, and experts strongly suggested that farmers harvest cornstalks, wheat straw, soybeans and any other roughage not normally used for fodder, and use it for livestock consumption.

1934 became a record-breaking year for drought, temperatures, and adding to misery, Mower County was plague with grasshoppers and a frost that caused  another round of crop damage.

Through active researching and planning, the United States set in motion a series of conservation practices and agricultural programs to help farmers and stockmen in need while improving the economic and natural environments.

Editor’s Note:  Information provided for this article was found in the Austin Daily Herald from June 20, 1933 to August 28, 1934.


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1860s Base Ball Coming to Mower County

This is what uniforms looked like in 1860. Each player is to wear black pants and black shoes or risk a fine from the umpire.

Baseball has changed a lot over time. Today’s players can be handsomely rewarded for a good season and now even have the advantage of replay to overturn some calls. This is a long way from the roots of the game. This weekend during the Meadowfest Sesquicentennial Celebration in Grand Meadow, the Mower County Historical Society is going to try and bring the game back to its roots with a vintage game played by 1860s rules. A group of locals will try their hand against the much more experienced Rochester Roosters from the History Center of Olmsted County.

For starters, base ball is two words in 1860 and is considered a gentleman’s game. According to local arbitor (or umpire as they are known today) Sir Fines A. Lot Bilderback, there were less than 40 written rules in this era of base ball. Major rules include no bunting, no sliding, no spitting, and no swearing. Some recognizable differences from today’s game are things like: a hit ball is considered fair or foul based on where it first hits the ground, all baseman must be within one step of the base, fair balls are in play anywhere in the field area, and a ball caught on its first bounce retires the striker (or batter). There are no balls, only strikes. Strikes only count on clean swings and misses, not foul balls.

As you can tell the terminology differs between 1860 and today. The pitcher is called a hurler, the batter is a striker, the catcher is a behind, and fans are referred to as cranks.

Here is Sir Fines A. Lot, umpire for the Rochester Roosters. He is fair in his rulings but not afraid as his names states to dole out fines to individuals.

The Grand Meadow Nine, as they are being called for the match, and the Roosters invite people of all ages to attend on Saturday. The match will begin at 6 PM on the south side of the Grand Meadow school. Bring a lawn chair and some quarters in the event that Sir Fines A. Lot deems it necessary for you “to see the tallykeeper”. The event is meant to be an entertaining experience for everyone involved and we hope to turn out many local cranks to root on the home team!

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Mower County Veterans: Zebulon Baxter

The United States has been engaged in multiple wars and conflicts in its short history. Men and young boys from across the countryside would pull together to form militias, walk hundreds of miles to enlist, or be forced into service through drafts. These days most people are focused on the names of veterans from the Civil War to the present. Many Civil War vets did come to Mower County to start their lives again after the war. But this is not a story about a Civil War vet. This man was called to action much earlier than the 1860s. Zebulon Baxter served during the War of 1812. He is one of seven such veterans buried in Mower County.

Zebulon Baxter was born on July 25, 1774 in Massachusetts to David and Keziah. His father was a veteran of the American Revolution and had rebelled against the government as part of the Shays Rebellion for which he would be later imprisoned. He married Lucinda Oglesby sometime before 1804. She would later pass away while they were living in Canada.

Naval battle on Lake Champlain, engraving in 1816 by B. Tanner.

According to his land petition from 1835, after living in Lower Canada for 12 years, Baxter returned to Franklin County, New York and enlisted as a Canadian volunteer on June 15, 1813. His term was for one year and he served as a Corporal in Capt. James Bradley Spencer’s Company of the 29th US Infantry. He would later reenlist in September 1814 to serve during the Battle of Plattsburgh. This battle was one of the most key battles in the later stages of the war, as the American victory cost the British the opportunity to lay claim to land during the treaty negotiations and ensured that America would remain the same as it had before the war.

This is the headstone of Zebulon Baxter at Cedar City Cemetery. It is located in the old section of the cemetery.

Baxter continued to live in New York until after his land petition was granted. Then he moved to Wisconsin and eventually came to live out his final years in Austin Township. Approximately 2 1/2 months shy of his 101st birthday, Zebulon died at the home of George Varco. Varco had married Baxter’s granddaughter. His body was laid to rest in Cedar City Cemetery where a simple flat headstone says nothing more than “Baxter”.

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Creating the Present

One of the most fascinating things we can discover by studying history is how the past has become the present. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and in the same way the life we enjoy today has been built upon what has come before. The creation of computers was followed by internet, and now incredible social networks and search engines that make life easier… sometimes. But my point is that ideas have to start somewhere and people create new ideas out of what they know, and soon we can’t imagine how life was before.

My favorite example of this is the washing machine simply because many of us can’t imagine life without it, and yet the washing machine simply does what we would have done manually. Over time people developed tools to make washing clothes easier including barrels to keep soapy water contained, washboards for scrubbing, and a washing dollie/dollie-pin that would loosen the dirt, much like an agitator in a washing machine. When the electric washing machine was introduced, it used the same methods, but it replaced manual labor with electric power.

Technology isn’t the only example of our world evolving, we also develop new ways of organizing ourselves and the things around us. If you go into a library, you expect to find the books you need because they are organized in a consistent way. Before the 1870s there was no standard for organizing books, can you imagine the confusion when the Dewey Decimal System was first used? Can you imagine the confusion if it was suddenly disregarded? Even when one system is in place it must be constantly altered to fit changing needs, the Dewey Decimal System is no exception.

For those of you who may not frequent the library, let’s think about something you may use more often, directions. Using a GPS can be extremely helpful, but before we had “global positioning systems” to find and direct us, a map could serve the same purpose. Either way you need an address to figure out where you are going. Today an address might look like this:

1303 6th Ave. NW

Austin, MN 55912

Now let’s see what information comes in an address. If you were looking at a map a zip code might not help you, but for an automated system, a zip code is the first piece that narrows down your location. The first digits indicate which area of the country your address is in. Before zip codes were used in 1963, the first place you could look is the state which would definitely narrow down the possibilities, but for a machine it is not quite as specific as a zip code. Then you might look at the city, hopefully you are familiar with Minnesota and have an idea of where to find the city. When Minnesota had fewer cities, a city and state was enough to find anyone. In time this method was changed to keep up with Minnesota’s growth.

Prior to zip codes, the postal service used zones within cities to help locate street addresses. This was first used in 1943 and looked something like this: “Saint Paul 1” or “Saint Paul 4E”. When the zip code was introduced, it could identify the state and region, as well as a set of addresses within the region, taking over the purpose of the zone number. The addition of 4 more digits in 1983 meant that the location was further specified before relying on street names and house numbers.

In earlier times or in small towns you might simply have be able to write the person’s name, city, and state, but as cities expanded and the population increased it became necessary to create more elaborate ways of organizing our space and locating homes and businesses. Over time we have added street names, house numbers, and zip codes but as we keep expanding and growing there may be a need for an even more specific system.

We are constantly adjusting to changes in our world. Sometimes things change because we have outgrown them, and other times it’s because we see a new way of doing what we have always done, whether this new method is more efficient, cheaper, faster, healthier, easier, it is different, and we adjust. Not only are our lives changed by new ideas, but we can take what we know and introduce new ideas of our own too. It looks like our world has come a long way, but there is much more left to invent and discover.

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Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Sometimes when looking into history it feels as though we have made incredible progress, especially in the field of medicine. In viewing this progress, we often fail to acknowledge that our ancestors’ ideas on health were quite valid for their time and even for today. Granted there are many things they did not know in the early 1800s, germs being one of them, but some of their methods remain. For example, camphor, an ingredient in cough suppressants, was used for the same purpose as early as 1820s. The simple remedies used hundreds of years ago have gradually become more complex and evolved into the medicines we use today.

To get an idea of this evolution, many of the townships have retained documents from the State Board of Health beginning in 1890. These documents were intended to inform people of ways to prevent illness and live a healthy life. They also carefully tracked and monitored the prevalence of different illnesses and their mortality rates. The illnesses of greatest concern to them seem somewhat minor to us today, a sign of how we have advanced in our ability to prevent and treat illnesses that were once deadly.

In some ways it is a relief to know that the concern over measles, pneumonia, cholera, scarlatina, and other diseases/infections has subsided. While these diseases and infections still exist, they are not nearly as fatal as they were. In the Public Health pamphlet for April 1891 the board reported 15 deaths from measles, 11 from scarlatina, 68 from pneumonia, and 114 from tuberculosis. They considered this rate to be below average. I must admit, I was shocked.

It took a moment to realize that their options where not the same as the ones we have available today. What could they do? Well, there are many things they understood about keeping illnesses contained so they did not spread. I’m certain that this was key to preventing others from becoming ill. They also knew that illnesses could come from bad water or wastes and planned out their homes and towns accordingly. I was impressed to read that they coated their walls with lime-water as a disinfectant. Although lime-water is not the first choice among household cleaners today, they did what they knew how to do.

I also began to consider the health conditions that we face today. We may have conquered the illnesses they suffered so to speak, but we have also added new concerns. Heart disease, cancer, and AIDS are all conditions that can often lead to death in one way or another. Today they seem insurmountable, but maybe one day they will seem as simple to us as treating scarlatina.

Whatever happens, there are simple ways of living a healthy life that people in the 19th century embraced and people in the 21st century seem to overlook. Their suggestions for a healthy life are valuable ideas even today. They write about the importance of lettings fresh air and sunlight into the house, of bringing the children outside and involving them in activities such as maintaining a flower and vegetable garden. They may not have had the same medicines, vaccines, and medical knowledge that we have today, but they knew small ways to improve their lives.

 “The summing up of the whole matter, therefore, is, abundant pure air, fresh water, and bright sunlight, within as well as without, the house, the essential foundation of healthy personal and family life.”

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Four Sets of Township Records are Available for Public Use!

We are proud to announce that the first four sets of township records are available for public use! The records of Marshall, Clayton, Dexter, and Racine Townships have been microfilmed to date with another set of four at the microfilmer currently. The final set of four records are being prepared to go to the microfilmer in a few weeks. This project has been along amazingly well and we are thankful for the interest and support from funders and the general public. We will keep you posted on when the next set arrives and is available for public use!

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