Fun Facts and History: Minnesota

July 8, 2023

Paul Kay

GoGo2SlowGo has taken you all over the world in our posts. But maybe you want something in the USA? Are you looking for a day trip vacation? If you live in the Midwest, maybe you’d like to know more about some fun facts about Minnesota? Yes, it’s known as the land of 10,000 Lakes but it actually has close to 12,000 lakes and counting. Minnesota is home to the Mayo Clinic and the Mall of America. It was also known as the Flour Milling Capital of the World and it’s no wonder that General Mills and Pillsbury are well known Minnesota brands. If you love canoeing, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is for you. Minnesota never had kings or queens, but they had Prince. The iconic musician Prince was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1958. So, while Prince plays “Purple Rain” in the background, let’s go through a little history of this fair state.

Minnesota’s history with humans is well over 9,000 years old. In Browns Valley in 1933, human remains were discovered with tools associated with Clovis and Folsom ancestry.  Like so many states in the United States, the earlies inhabitants were American Indians or Native Americans. 

The Dakota (Sioux), and Ojibwe (Chippewa) Indians were the earliest settlers and may have been visited by the Vikings who were in the state in the 1300’s.   

Europeans visited primarily because of the French Canadians. France had claimed modern day Canada along with many other areas and they found plenty of game and particularly fur bearing animals in Minnesota.  As the French ventured into Minnesota in the 1650’s, they claimed the land south of Lake Superior for France. 

French and Indian War Map

The French had treaties with the local native Indians and frequently broke them. The French lost the French and Indian war in 1763.  The name of the war seemed to give you the impression that the war was between the French and Indians, but it was really between the French and the British.  In 1763, the British took over the eastern portion of Minnesota. This was somewhat short lived when the United States was formed, and the Revolutionary War began.  The British lost their right to the land, but other parts of Minnesota was still claimed by France.  In 1803, the United States purchased the rest of Minnesota from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase. 

Zebulon Pike

Minnesota was part of the United States as a territory and not a state. Thomas Jefferson sent out explorers including Zebulon Pike to see what was “out there.”  Zebulon’s primary goal was to find where the beginning of the Mississippi river was.  He never found it, but he did form an agreement with the Native Americans in 1805 for the land at the intersection of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers.   Fort Snelling was to occupy this site and construction continued between 1819 and 1825. The land east of the Mississippi was ceded to the U.S. in 1837. The United States Congress gave Minnesota its own territorial status in 1849.

By 1851, much of Minnesota was open to settlement.  The fort was an essential outpost for the US Government and allowed the establishment of the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  The cities were still lightly populated. Minnesota was a collection of territories that were loosely governed by other territories including Illinois, Indiana and several others.  Minnesota was admitted to the Union as the 32nd state in 1858.

There were several draws for settlers coming to the state and they included farming, logging and fur trading.  The Mississippi River was an ideal waterway to move goods including harvests and lumber.  The water was also used to run grist mills which were used to make flour. Saint Anthony Falls provided power for flour mills.

General Mills Golden Valley Minnesota

Flour was big business. The Minneapolis grist mills provided what became known as “patent” flour which was twice the price of the standard “bakers” flour.  Between what became modern day Pillsbury and General Mills, nearly 20% of the nation’s flour was being produced in the state.

Iron ore was discovered in northern Minnesota in the 1880’s.  The ore was harvested and transported a short distance by train and then by river barge.  The Mississippi River was essential to the growth of the state.

The state continued to bring in more settlers who wanted to farm. The economy was hard hit by the Great Depression but found a way to survive. After the second World War, there was a strong interest in industrial development and farm improvements became regular.  The University of Minnesota provided leadership as part of the Green Revolution.

Norman Borlaug University of Minnesota

Norman Borlaug received his B.S. in forestry in 1937 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He was very concerned about population growth and resulting famine.  After he received his doctorate, he left for Mexico to develop a high-yield and disease-resistant form of wheat. This type of wheat was considered a modern-day miracle. Mexico changed from being a huge importer of wheat to a net exporter.

Wheat yields doubled and tripled all over the world and Minnesota was a great place to grow wheat – particularly for the grist mills in Minneapolis.  Borlaug eventually won the Nobel Prize and was credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.  He also put Minnesota on the map as one of the breadbasket states.

Minnesota also was a center of technology and research with Remington Rand establishing itself in the state in order to develop computers for the US Navy. The company morphed into Sperry Rand. William Norris left Sperry and he created Control Data Corporation (CDC).  Cray Research was also formed from a Control Data Corporation alumnus, Seymour Cray.

In the 60’s, there was a familiar term called the BUNCH in the IT world and it stood for Burroughs, Univac, NCR, CDC and Honeywell.  They all were headquartered in Minnesota or had major operations in the state.  

Pillsbury Doughboy

Today, Minnesota is still an important farming and dairy state. Wisconsin is famous for cheese, but Minnesota is one of the leading producers of milk in the United States.  Farming still produces plenty of wheat, soybeans and corn.  It’s not a surprise that some of the largest food producers are still in the state including General Mills, Pillsbury, and Land O'Lakes.

Target Stores are a nationwide company but came from their humble beginnings as part of the Dayton Hudson stores which were a combination of high-end retail and jewelry stores.  

Dayton's was founded in 1902 by George Dayton. In 1969, the Detroit-based J.L. Hudson Company merged with the Dayton Company to form the Dayton-Hudson Corporation.  In 1990, they acquired the famed Marshall Field’s store chain.  Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton is the great-grandson of George Dayton.  Target Stores started in 1962 and now is the 2nd largest retail store chain behind Walmart.  

Mayo Clinic entrance and sign

The famous Mayo Clinic can also be found in Minnesota. It was founded in 1864 and continues to be one of the leading research hospitals in the world.  It employs more than 4,500 physicians and scientists and 58,400 administrative and allied health staff.  It has expanded out of Minnesota and also has large scale operations in Arizona and Florida.

3M corporate headquarters building

3M is another Minnesota success story which started in 1902.  The company started in order to produce sandpaper products and they innovated themselves into a major company.  Today the company is known for a large range of products including optical film, software, medical products, adhesives, abrasives, laminates and many others.  Everyone knows of the 3M Post-It note and Scotch tape, but the company produces so many products and creates new markets regularly.  The company has over 90,000 employees and has operations in more than 70 countries.  The state is very proud of 3M’s success.  We’re very happy that our son works for the company!  

Minnesota is called the land of 10,000 lakes but has many more lakes within its boundaries.  The state has identified more than 28,000 different lakes, ponds and wetlands in Minnesota.  Some of these are very small and would be considered ponds elsewhere.  A more realistic assessment shows that there are 11,842 Minnesota lakes over 10 acres in size.

Recreation in the state is a big business and people are drawn to the state in the summer to enjoy the lakes and fishing.  People that stay in the state year-round also enjoy ice fishing which might be hard to explain to people in southern states.

It has grown to be a technology leading state, but it still has proud origins as the “bread and butter” state because of Pillsbury, General Mills and Land O'Lakes.

Minnesota and St. Paul

Facade of the Minnesota State Capitol Building in St Paul

Minnesota has a population of over 5.5 million people spread across the state.  The population was spread somewhat evenly between rural and urban areas.  It was said that the Twin Cities held about half of the population and the rest was “everywhere else.”  Today, the rural population shrinks and the urban continues to rise.  The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are the top two cities in terms of population.  Minneapolis is the largest of the two while St. Paul is the state’s capital.  There is a friendly rivalry between the Twin Cities with Minneapolis generally having newer construction and taller buildings while St. Paul retaining its old-world charm.  Minneapolis was settled with more Scandinavians whereas St. Paul attracted more French, German and Irish. 

Rochester and Duluth

The iconic Duluth Minnesota Aerial Lift Bridge with reflections on calm harbor waters at night

Rochester and Duluth come in third and fifth respectively.  Duluth was the primary shipping port for the state.  Because of its location, the city was the only port in the United States that could reach both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  The St. Lawrence Seaway connected Duluth and Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean.  Railroads connected Duluth to the Pacific Ocean. Rochester was initially just a stagecoach stop between St. Paul and Dubuque, Iowa.  That all changed with Dr. Mayo when he decided to establish his clinic.  Today, Rochester has more going for it than just the famous Mayo Clinic but there is no doubt that the clinic put Rochester on the map.

Mall of America Bloomington Minnesota

You may wonder who is fourth in the population since we already have 4 of the 5 listed.  The missing town is Bloomington which is really a southwest suburb of Minneapolis. Bloomington is widely known as the home of the Mall of America which is the largest mall in the USA with over 5.6 million total square feet of space. I’ll tell you more about the MOA in a bit. If you look carefully at the picture, you’ll see the Cray building which has 375 Twin Cities employees working on Cray supercomputers.

Blue Lake in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota on a bright autumn morning

Tourism in Minnesota is not a big business, but it is growing. Tourism accounts for over 30,000 jobs or about 10 percent of employment. Minnesota attracts over thirty-three million visitors as compared to Las Vegas with 43 million visitors.  Comparing a state to a city puts things in perspective.  Many visitors only come to Minnesota during its all too brief summer period and enjoy the lakes and sunshine.  If you are hardy enough, Minnesota offers plenty to do in the winter as long as you have the right clothes and equipment.  Skiing is available around the Twin Cities and in the northern part of Minnesota.  There is also ice skating, sledding, cross country skiing, snowshoe trailing, etc. 

One of the most well-known tourist locations in the state is the Mall of America.  It is conveniently or strategically located very close to the airport so it’s hard to miss.  It is the largest shopping mall in the United States but the very idea of it came from the state’s northern neighbor – Canada.  The largest mall in North America is in Alberta, Canada.  If you have come shopping for clothes or accessories, Minnesota might be the right place to be since the state has no state sales tax on those categories.  The tourism boards are well aware of this and regularly promote shopping trips from neighboring states to draw in the shoppers even if it is for a day or perhaps a few.

A box of Honey Nut Cheerios breakfast cereal form General Mills

I lived and worked in Minnesota for many years.  I worked for General Mills initially and was keenly aware of the proud history of this great company.  I visited the Betty Crocker kitchens and did my share of purchasing General Mills products.  My son and daughter grew up with Cheerios.  I was raised in Chicago and the advice I received when moving to Minnesota was that Minneapolis had roughly a foot more snow than Chicago each year but in Minneapolis – it didn’t melt!  Everyone talked about the beautiful summers in the state, but they were all too short. 

Winter plug-in for cars

My first shock was to learn what winter plug-ins meant.  When I joined General Mills, I saw all of these electrical posts in the parking lot and had no idea what they were.  They were providing electricity for block heaters. The block heater is installed in a car, and it warms the engine and particularly the oil so that you have a good chance of starting it again.  I’m not a car mechanic but I got a little worried that my car wouldn’t start without it.  Of course, it all depends on the temperature. In the Twin Cities, the temperatures are generally not as cold as the northern part of the state.  International Falls calls itself the coldest place in the United States.  However, at least two other cities claim to be colder.  Both Embarrass and Tower claim the honor of being colder – at least occasionally.  I was near Tower, MN with a friend on a snowmobile on January 20, 1996, when the town recorded the lowest temperature ever in the state.  It dropped to 57 below zero and that is without any wind chill rating.  A spotter for the National Weather Service, Roland Fowler, says unofficially it was 64 below, but his thermometer broke. That’s the reason Tower holds the state record of 60 below.  We were out in the snow on our snowmobiles, and it was cold but not that cold.  The snowmobiles have heated seats and hand grips. However, we both noticed it was getting colder and colder. We lost our bearings for a bit but managed to head back to town where we had hot chocolate by a fire.  We still had to ride a number of miles back to the cabin.  When we arrived, the dishes in the sink were frozen since we left dishes with some water after breakfast.  The house temperature was -35F.  It took about 6 hours to get the temperature back to the 60’s with two log burning stoves going full blast.  The cabin didn’t have central heating or air conditioning – after all – this was northern MN and you don’t need those things, right?  That was certainly a wake-up call to what Mother Nature can do when you aren’t watching.  

Today we have a son, daughter and two granddaughters still living in the state. We regularly come back to see them and to all the friends we’ve made while we lived in the state.  We like to visit during the warmer months. We enjoy visiting the snow, we just don’t want to live in it!

So, for all you tourists that haven’t experienced Minnesota – maybe now is the time.  There are plenty of reasons to visit the state and enjoy what Mother Nature abundantly supplies.

  1. This was an excellent post :). I enjoyed reading it!
    your daughter, Andrea :))))
    Love you, Dad!!

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