Friday, December 30, 2016

Wendell Anderson and the Minnesota Miracle: A look back.

Learning from a major bipartisan effort orchestrated in 1971 by Minnesota governor
Wendell Anderson and joined by Rep. Martin Sabo and Sen. Stanley Holmquist.
Anderson died in July 2016 at the age of 83. 


On November 8, 2016, a political wave arose from a sea of resentment and urge for change and swept across the country. Whether the wave will roll on for awhile as happened after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, or will disintegrate after crashing into electoral rocks in just a few years, is anybody's guess. A look at some state history provides thoughts and ideas for coping with the current political turmoil in both major political parties.

The 1960s and '70s were also a time of bitter resentment and at times violent turmoil in America, with rallies and bombings against the Vietnam War, civil rights battles, rancorous abortion arguments, protests against high taxes, and demonstrations over environmental degradation in the forefront of political action. This was the backdrop in Minnesota in November 1970, when a statewide election signaled a wave of change forming in state politics and government. The 1970 election led to major changes in public policy that quickly sent fiscal and political shock waves throughout the state.

Democrat Wendell Anderson was elected governor of Minnesota in 1970, and fellow Democrats came close to breaking the long-standing Republican control over the Minnesota Legislature. I had the privilege of being a part of this as I was elected to a first term to the legislature in that election. One of the first things I observed was Governor Anderson's (or "Wendy," as he was commonly called) remarkable relationship-building and negotiating skills. Wendy brought people into government who combined long-term strategic policy and short-term tactical politics in a most impressive manner. Wendy gave his staff flexibility to suggest, create, and develop policies. Once he made a decision, he commonly turned the matter over to others for implementation. This approach also provided the legislature with some latitude to make changes. He was not afraid of compromise.

In his first legislative session as governor, Anderson needed bipartisan legislative support to bring about the major policy changes on which he had campaigned, and he claimed a mandate to "fix the fiscal mess" he had inherited. This 1971 legislative session involved a sharply divided government, with the Republicans barely retaining control over both the House and Senate. Anderson's relationship-building skills and flexibility paid off when Anderson, with strong help from then-House Minority Leader Martin Sabo (D) and Senate Minority Leader Nick Coleman (D), crafted complex fiscal legislation that gained the support of Senate Majority Leader Stanley Holmquist (R). This critical bipartisan leadership led to additional support from several of Holmquist's Republican colleagues. After a bitter political and protracted fight that lasted through the longest special legislative session in the state's history, the major fiscal overhaul passed with bipartisan support.

The interaction between the state and local units of government in this legislation illustrate an important aspect of the flexibility built into our federal system. In what became known as the "Minnesota Miracle," (most thought it a miracle that it passed), the state's fiscal policy was overhauled in a manner that changed the state for decades. State government suddenly assumed the burden of funding the lion's share of education and local government costs. State revenues, primarily from the income and sales taxes, were raised by a whopping 23%, and local property taxes were substantially reduced. The higher state funding was then redistributed through complicated but fair formulas to school districts and other local units of government. Such revenue sharing and other legislation which passed proved popular, and in 1972 the wave of change grew larger with Democrats winning control of both houses of the legislature. This was the first time since statehood that the Democrats controlled both the legislature and the governorship.

One lesson illustrated by the passage and workings of the Minnesota Miracle is the flexibility built into our federal system. It is helpful to think of this system as having three dimensions (federal, state, and local), each of which has constitutional, statutory, and historical restrictions on what it can and should do. Too often well-meaning change runs into constitutional or other legal impediments that could have been avoided with more forethought. Whether pursuant to constitutional mandate, federal or state laws, or longstanding policies, some actions are best taken at the federal or first dimension level, some at the state or second dimension level, and many at the all-important third dimension or local level. This critical third dimension is where most federal and state policies are implemented. Mechanisms such as zoning codes, location of sewer and transit lines, administration of schools, welfare and health programs, and the conduct of police and sheriffs’ personnel are vital to a successful policy and are local in nature. The thoughtful use of the second dimension in raising state revenues coupled with using the third dimension in the distribution of the new funds to school and municipalities was carefully thought out in drafting the Minnesota Miracle. This proved critical to both the successful passage and implementation of the legislation.

The second and third dimensions have also proved important for both progressives and conservatives during the recent years of gridlock in Washington. Several states and local governments have carefully used their power to bypass Washington and implement programs raising the minimum wage, providing paid sick leave for employees, allowing use of marijuana, establishing gun safety programs, and adopting critical environmental safeguards. Unfortunately, other states and localities have used their powers to try and restrict voting and cut school funding. While this dimensional complexity is the inevitable consequence of our federal system, it also provides an avenue for change. The 2016 election provides ample opportunities for thoughts on how this should and will play out in coming years.

Wendell Anderson understood the three dimensions of government. He invested heavily in relationship building in the 1970s and showed willingness to compromise. This knowledge and conduct paid off handsomely for the people of Minnesota for over a decade, as the policy improvements adopted during the 1970s lived on. Yes, it was a different time. But the Minnesota Miracle showed it can be done, even in unsettled times.


Tom Berg is a Minneapolis attorney who was a member of the Minnesota state legislature from 1971 through 1978. He later served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota. He is author of Minnesota's Miracle: Learning from the Government That Worked.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Ford Century in Minnesota: The Postwar Boom and Challenges


Excerpt from The Ford Century in Minnesota

Ascent of the Autoworkers
The Postwar Boom and Challenges

When [World War II] ended, there were about twenty-five million cars on the road, and most were more than ten years old. People wanted new cars and Ford was eager to meet the pent-up demand. Several hundred workers, including many returning veterans, were brought back to the St. Paul plant during the summer of 1945 to start the plant's conversion from military to civilian production. Ford shipped three hundred new 1946 model cars from Michigan to the Twin Cities to showcase its new lineup. After the new production equipment was installed, the new vehicles rolled off the assembly line, starting with school-bus chassis, followed by trucks and cars. The glass plant started up on July 6, 1945.

Soldiers, many without jobs or permanent housing, returned home to families they had not seen in years. Under federal law, veterans could return to their jobs at the Ford plant and keep their union seniority, receiving credit for their years in the military. Some of the women who had been working at the plant wanted to stay but did not have the same protections. There were only 1,800 job openings at the plant, down from the three thousand during the war. During the war, women were viewed as important contributions, portrayed as Rosie the Riveters, but demobilization abruptly changed this perception. Now they were seen as competitors to men for jobs in an uncertain labor market. According to polls taken at the time, most women wanted to continue working, but there was enormous pressure for them to return home. "All of a sudden, in every medium of popular culture," wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin, "women were barraged with propaganda on the virtues of domesticity."

During difficult economic times, there was resistance to women working. During the Depression, a number of states passed laws prohibiting married women from working if their husband had a job. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) had little interest in expanding employment opportunities for women, and on more than one occasion opposed women's participation. During the war, the government instituted protections for women, including equal pay for equal work. This sentiment, however, was not widely shared by autoworkers. Recognizing the problem, UAW president Walter Reuther said, "Industry must not be allowed to settle the labor problem by chaining women to kitchen sinks." Maury Maverick, a federal official at the Smaller War Plants Corporation, said, "Women have learned too much to go back . . . [they] will either be out hooting it up or doing something constructive so we have to be doing something to make it so they can work."

Most women at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant left voluntarily, but not Verna Welsch, who lost her husband in a car crash a month before their son was born. For her, the well-paying Ford job was a necessity. She was assigned a variety of difficult jobs after the war, which she believed were intended to force her to quit. In one incident she believed her rib was broken by a not-so-friendly bear hug from another male worker. She remembered one particularly difficult day, where "they put me down on body build washing floor pans. I had to get all the wax off so that the paint would stick and jiggle them apart and turn them over. It was hard." In another instance she was assigned to cleaning parts with chemical solvents that her coworker across the line splashed on her, causing an allergic rash. One day the men in the department were watching her closely, but they abruptly left, perplexing Verna. She assumed it was because they didn't want women workers, but when the men returned, one said, "That's not it at all. We went up and put our money down on a bet to see how long you would stay." Verna responded: "Seeing you were so nice to come and talk to me, I hope you put the largest amount because I'm going to stay here till they carry me out on a stretcher!" In 1946, Verna and a number of women were assigned to the instrument panel line, which was similar to their wartime work on the Pratt & Whitney engines.

Years later, Al Hendricks, a union official in both St. Paul and the International UAW in Detroit, acknowledged that "both the union and management made it so a lot of them quit, the way the guys treated them and the mentality that they were taking men's jobs that come out of service." When car production resumed, Hendricks encouraged women to apply for better jobs as they opened up. "Verna Welsch was a very bright woman. I told her, 'There's a stock status job open . . . Put your name in for it.'" Verna declined, believing she had little chance for the job, but Hendricks put her name in anyway. She came out on top in the test score and worked in that position until she retired in 1974. In 1957, the St. Paul Pioneer Press profiled the four remaining "Rosie, the Riveters." One who "stuck it out" said she received a good wage but the challenges she faced were very real, as the article stated: "They are vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts, some 450 to one . . . The present assembly line is not geared for employment of women, except in the jobs these four do."

During the war, women made enormous contributions working in factories. Those with families were able to place their children in nursery schools and day-care centers that had been set up with federal funding. After the war, Minneapolis mayor Hubert H. Humphrey lobbied to keep these programs in place until all veterans had returned and found employment. He also pushed to have the government fund housing programs to address the serious shortage.


Brian McMahon is author of The Ford Century in Minnesota. A trained architect, he has lectured and written extensively on industry, urban history, and architecture.

"The Ford Century in Minnesota tells the story of how Henry Ford's pioneering company arrived in the state and built its giant plant in St. Paul in the 1920s, how its workers became involved in the international organized labor movement, and how a variety of forces led to the plant's closure. Combining political, economic, social, and architectural history, this richly detailed, handsomely illustrated book will appeal to a wide range of readers."
—Larry Millett, author of Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury

"A substantial literary gift."
—St. Paul Pioneer Press

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Going Underground: Jim Walsh on his earliest memory of music writing.


Excerpt from the Introduction to Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes

My earliest memory of scribbling in a notebook while listening to music is New Year's Eve, 1974.

I was fourteen and then as now not a big fan of mean girls and boys, so that night I intentionally stayed away from the junior high parties and was happy to have my big brother Jay's bedroom all to myself. He was at work as a busboy and waiter at Anchor Inn, now Bunny's in St. Louis Park, where our Uncle Tommy tended bar for many years.

I can still see the view from Jay's window that accompanied so much of my marathon listening sessions those long-ago dreamy nights: a basketball hoop and our driveway, that still swishless nylon net alit by the Fifty-first and South Colfax–Aldrich alley lamp, and all those Minnesota stars as I hit the outer limits with Rod Stewart, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, the Monkees, America, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, John Denver, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Bread, Cat Stevens . . .

Jay had great taste, smart ears, a luscious glow-in-the-dark turntable, a killer stereo system, and all the good records, and he almost always indulged my hanging out in his room at all hours of the day and night, locking myself in his little vinyl church as I would at a time when my Catholic school education was fast being eclipsed (and augmented) by the real-time fire and mysticism I was mainlining via rock 'n' roll and singer/songwriters.

That last night of 1974 as I plowed through my eighth grade favorites, in a bed heaped with shimmering black vinyl records laying out of their jackets and all across the bed and floor, I listened intently into the wee hours of 1975 and wrote about how the music made me feel, where I was in my life, how it helped give me perspective on all those as-yet out-of-reach adult ideas of love, desire, and the big mysteries of life. I quoted lyrics and doodled and wrote down questions and observations until 4 a.m.

Jim Walsh will read from Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 21, at the downtown Minneapolis Barnes & Noble location, 801 Nicollet Mall.

Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based writer, journalist, columnist, and songwriter and the author of Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes: Jim Walsh on Music from Minneapolis to the Outer Limits; The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History; and, with Dennis Pernu, The Replacements: Waxed Up Hair and Pointed Shoes: The Photographic History.

"Jim Walsh's Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes is as much a chronicle of the past few decades of the Minneapolis scene as it is a pitch-perfect memoir of what it means to live for music. A crucial read for anyone who has spent their days and nights tangled in the tether of a song."
—Jessica Hopper, author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas Trees + Beatrice Ojakangas's Pulla People holiday recipe.

Excerpted from Homemade

The Christmas season for us was marked by the beginning of Christmas tree season in October. Isä [Ojakangas's father] had discovered that he could make a bunch of money by cutting and selling Christmas trees. He would pile the cut trees onto the platform of his truck and deliver the trees to a Christmas tree lot in Minneapolis. In spite of his lack of education, Isä had also figured out how to make paint for flocking smaller Christmas trees that he would deliver along with the larger trees. He studied college-grade chemistry books and ordered the ingredients to make a paint that adhered to the three- to four-foot trees, which were actually the tops of larger balsam and spruce trees. The remainder of the trees were harvested later in the year as pulpwood.

Isä would flock the little trees with a fluffy substance after dipping them into all shades of blue, green, pink, and red paint. This preserved the trees so that they didn't lose their needles as quickly as fresh trees. The colored, flocked trees were packed into narrow boxes that he would pile on his flatbed truck and haul to Minneapolis to ready and eager customers.

All I remember is that the lot was run by a group called the "Wise Men's Club." Later I came to realize that the name was actually the "Y's Men's Club"—the men who ran the YMCA in south Minneapolis. They were professional men who dressed well and knew that my dad enjoyed his booze. So they provided it. The hired men who accompanied my dad were always willing to make the trip with him because of that.

The Wise Men's Club, knowing we were a large family, sent us Christmas gifts every year, beautifully wrapped and transported in big plastic bags. They were always a surprise. There were sweaters, coloring books, crayons, dolls for the girls, and little cars and trucks for the boys.

But when Isä came home, regardless of the bags of gifts, it was another story. After his happy trip to Minneapolis, the homecoming wasn't so happy. Mummy had been left with the farm chores all day (and sometimes all night) and could hardly have been called a happy camper. She was "pissed," as we would say today. I knew how much he had had to drink when I observed him take that first step out of the truck.

The memory, to this day, makes my heart thump, though I have tried hard to understand both sides of the story.



Mummy used to make little yeast-raised dough people for us at Christmastime. We called them gingerbread men—but of course, they weren't cookies and they didn't include any ginger. On top of it all, she didn't have a gingerbread man cookie cutter, so she used her all-purpose kitchen knife to slash pieces of dough to shape the legs, arms, and heads of these cute doughboys and doughgirls. Of course, if you have a large gingerbread boy cutter, use it! This dough is easy to handle because it is chilled, and chilled dough is really fun to work with!

2 packages active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit)
1/2 cup (1 stick) melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom (optional)
4 to 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten, for glaze
Raisins for eyes, noses, mouths, and buttons

In a large bowl, combine the yeast and warm water. Let stand for 5 minutes or until the yeast foams up. Stir in the butter, sugar, eggs, salt, and cardamom, if using. Gradually stir in 4 cups of the flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough is too stiff to mix by hand (which may be before all 4 cups are added). Cover with plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 4 days.

Lightly grease a baking sheet or cover it with parchment paper. Dust the dough with flour and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll with a rolling pin or flatten with the palms of your hand until the dough is about 1 inch thick. With a large gingerbread boy cookie cutter, cut out people shapes and place on the prepared pan.

Or, cut the dough into 12 equal rectangles. Roll each part into a 6- by 3-inch rectangle. With the tip of a knife or with scissors, cut out snips of dough where the neck would be, to shape the head of each. Then, to shape the arms, make cuts about 1 inch lower than the neck, making the cuts on opposite sides of the body. With fingers, smooth out the body of the dough person. Starting from the center of the bottom of the dough, make a 3-inch slash to shape the legs. Place on the prepared pan, separating the legs slightly so they will not bake together. Roll one of the little snips of dough into a round shape for the head. Make a little hole where the dough person's nose would be and place a raisin in the hole. Roll out the other snip of dough into a skinny strand and place it over the top of the head to make hair. Repeat with the other dough parts to shape a total of 12 people.

Let rise, covered, for 45 minutes or until puffy.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the dough people with egg glaze, then press raisins into the dough to make the eyes, mouths, and buttons down the front of each. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from the pans and cool on a wire rack.

Makes 12 pulla people.


Beatrice Ojakangas is author of Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food. She grew up on a small farm in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota–Duluth. Ojakangas is the author of twenty-nine cookbooks and was inducted in 2005 to the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame.

Ojakangas will be at Ingebretsen's (1601 East Lake Street in Minneapolis) on Thursday, Dec. 15, from 1pm – 2pm, to sign copies of her book.

Homemade was included in Heavy Table's 2016 Local Food Gift Guide.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"I have spent a life in canoes."


Professor of communication and journalism, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN

“Everyone believes in something. I believe I will go canoeing” is a comment attributed to Henry David Thoreau, who could make a claim as America’s most famous canoeist. Regardless of whether he wrote it or not, I have understood what the words meant from about the time I was 10 years old.

Canoes provide their passengers with a story; this has never been more clear to me than in the weeks since the publication of Canoes: A Natural History in North America, the book I wrote with my pal Norm Sims. As I have made promotional appearances, I have discovered one sure way to get a conversation started is to ask “tell me your canoe story.” Everybody has one.

Most of the stories are about childhood experiences, often with dad or grandpa, usually on a northern lake. Almost none of the tales are particularly noteworthy, though they come with a smile or a chuckle and are universally happy memories. A high percentage happened in an aluminum canoe. (Aluminum canoes led the market in sales every year from 1951-1976 and I would bet most of them are still water-worthy.)

What usually happens next is that the person asks me about a canoe memory; I answer that I have too many to choose from because I have spent a life in canoes.

Then they will ask how many canoes I have owned, and which was my favorite? I answer that I have too many to choose from because I have spent a life in canoes.

In truth, I could never bond with either aluminum boat I’ve owned. Both boats were good for me at the time because I had to store them outdoors year ‘round. They had much to recommend them: toughness, low cost, stability in calm water, easy to care for, and I could padlock them to the gas meter. They were also hot in the summer sun, cold in the fall and spring, heavy, ugly, slippery when wet, and not stable fully loaded in rough water. But the biggest gripe I had with those canoes was that they were LOUD. I use canoes and canoeing for quiet, and quiet those boats were not.

Not coincidentally, I also use canoes for fishing. Every time I drop something in an aluminum canoe – especially something metallic like a pliers or a reel or a stringer – it makes a WHANG sound, echoes a couple of times, and scares all the fish to Canada.

Wood, or wood-and-canvas, canoes are quieter, and there is a warmth to the wood than does not exist in metal. It is dangerous to get too nostalgic about wooden canoes, however, because in the end it’s not the construction material in the boat, but the construction of memories from the boat that matters.


Mark Neuzil is co-author of Canoes: A Natural History in North America and professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of seven books and a frequent writer and speaker on environmental themes. A former wilderness guide and summer park ranger, Neuzil is an avid outdoorsman who began canoeing in the 1960s with his family. He is a past board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Friends of the Mississippi River.

"Canoes is that rare cultural history that manages to transport through its very subject: the North American canoe. This book is fascinating and thorough and wonderfully accessible. It’s also the definitive work on the single most important conveyance in this continent’s rich past. It’ll carry you away like a beautifully crafted cedar strip canoe."
—Peter Geye, author of Wintering

"A fascinating cultural and technological history that, with its hundreds of color and black-and-white images, including many by renowned artists, is a visual as well as informative feast."

Monday, December 5, 2016

A quiet life, a remarkable influence: On Bob Dylan’s English teacher, B.J. Rolfzen

Looking ahead to this weekend's Nobel prize ceremony, in which Bob Dylan, the 2016 laureate in literature, will likely not attend but will provide a speech.

President and executive director, Public Art St. Paul

When I looked at my phone in the early morning of Thursday, October 13, I was stunned to discover that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. During years of wondering whether this would happen, of reading arguments for and against, of hearing that each year bookies in England would wager the odds of Dylan winning, I had given up thinking about Dylan and the Nobel.

On that morning, I also thought of B.J. Rolfzen, Robert Zimmerman’s high school English teacher in Hibbing, Minnesota, who had passed away in 2009. He would be overjoyed that one of his students had reached this pinnacle of worldwide recognition—in literature. (Dylan, of course, already had reached worldwide recognition many decades ago.)

During the years of my Dylan research in Hibbing, I got to be good friends with B.J. He was in his 80s and still burned with the flame of literature. He would host visitors at his home—and there were many who made the pilgrimage to B.J. and Leona’s house just a block from Hibbing High School and a couple blocks from Dylan’s childhood home. The lucky ones were invited into his inner sanctum—his basement study—to read poetry and converse. He had built his basement refuge in the furnace room. A desk, a chair at the desk, another chair for a visitor, a bookshelf, and a CD player were about all that was in there, positioned around the furnace. Several good windows brought sunlight into the room, making it a pleasant if spare space.

I began my pilgrimage to Hibbing carrying the questions that so many have asked: How did Bob Dylan come from northern Minnesota?

What mix of circumstance, conditions, gifts, personal talents, and motivation helped form this remarkable artist who spoke to audiences around the world?

The minute I met B.J. Rolfzen, I knew he was a key to this puzzle. At Dylan Days 2005, the poet Natalie Goldberg introduced B.J. from a small stage at Zimmy’s, a Dylan-themed bar and restaurant. B.J. came to the podium. He was frail, white-haired, and mostly bald. And then he blew me away. He talked about “the power of words.” He talked about how he would bike to one of the town’s graveyards just to read the names of the immigrants who had settled there. He spoke their names to us in poetic cadences. He read some of his favorite poems by Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath. He was not what I expected.

I was taken into B.J.’s orbit. I introduced myself and asked to visit him at home, which I did the next morning. When I arrived, Leona greeted me and sent me to the basement study, where B.J. had settled after returning from Sunday Mass. He was sitting at his desk, reading Paradise Lost. He read to me that morning.

B.J., who taught Robert Zimmerman American literature in his junior year and British lit in senior year at Hibbing High School, was a person devoted to the power of words, the skillful and mysterious ways that writers could assemble something powerful from them, and the truths and meanings embedded in that creation. He told us how the young Robert always sat right in front of him in the middle front row. B.J. would get so fired up teaching that he would be dripping with perspiration. His suit (he always wore a suit and tie to school) would be covered with chalk dust from his vigorously writing ideas and words on the blackboard. He never sat at his desk. In the tough world of Hibbing with its iron ore mining, its lumberjacks working in the surrounding pine forests, it streets lined with bars, and amid the arguments among capitalists, communists, socialists, and Trotskyites, the young Zimmerman surely took inspiration from this teacher. B.J. was admired by hundreds of students who kept up with him over the years. They had learned that poetry and literature keep you in touch with the marrow of life, the aliveness, the quandaries, the love and heartbreak, unrequited love, and death. And Dylan knew that, too. In one visit back to Hibbing after he found success, the singer told B.J., “You taught me a lot.”

In the four years I spent visiting Hibbing and B.J, getting to know the town and its history, I found the answer to my question about Dylan. As a boy, he had a stable family life, was well-loved, received a good education. His parents tolerated his interest in music. Hibbing was, in many ways, a northern version of Appalachia, the region so central to the evolution of American folk music. The town was a crucible of capitalism with Eastern steel companies and local unions and socialist-leaning immigrants and the power dynamics of boom and bust mining. It gave him material, and an understanding of power and agency. It also provided enough friction to push Robert Zimmerman out on his journey. And then, Dylan had his own crazy and creative spark, something innate, that drove him away to find his destiny.

Over those years, my question changed from focusing on Dylan to B.J. Rolfzen, the man who actually was the greater mystery. What accounted for him and his love of literature? He hadn’t had the fortunate childhood of Robert Zimmerman. B.J. Rolfzen was born in 1923 in Melrose, Minnesota, a smaller town than Hibbing, located in the central Minnesota farmlands. He was one of 10 children. His father was disabled in his childhood from a self-inflicted injury, and his mother struggled through the Great Depression. By his own accounts, B.J.’s was a difficult childhood. He reported that there were no books in the house during his childhood. He didn’t own a toothbrush until he entered the Navy at the age of 18. The nuns at his school were the corporal punishment kind.

He discovered books and classical music in the Navy, and that opened a huge door for him. After the war, he went to college on the G.I. Bill, majoring in English, then earned a master’s degree in the subject. He taught in two small towns in central Minnesota before moving in the mid-1950s to a job at Hibbing High School, which prided itself on paying teachers comparatively well. Later in life, Rolfzen wrote an account of his childhood in a slim self-published volume, The Spring of My Life. How remarkable that this man had found such passion for literature.

On that October morning as I took in the news about Dylan, I was mostly happy for B.J., feeling that this award recognized Dylan’s teacher with his love of words and his belief in the truths of poetry. I recalled a memory of B.J. that made me laugh. I often laughed with B.J.—he was very funny, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. I remembered telling him that many people thought that Dylan should win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Wouldn’t that be amazing? Our boy from the North Country?” I asked.

B.J. was astounded that his former student would be considered for the award. And then, despite a lifelong aversion to alcohol, he said, “If he ever does win the Nobel Prize, I’ll drink a whole bottle of champagne.”

We laughed—at both the unlikeliness that that day would ever come and at the prospect that B.J. would break his drinking ban for such a dramatic event.

B.J., now is the time to pop the cork.


Colleen Sheehy is president and executive director of Public Art St. Paul. Her books include Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World (coedited with Thomas Swiss) and Cabinet of Curiosities: Mark Dion and the University as Installation.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sky Blue Water writers' seasonal traditions and Minnesota food experiences. (Part 2 of 2)

Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers is a one-of-a-kind collection of short stories that celebrate Minnesota's vibrant storytelling tradition. A rich and often under-appreciated part of this tradition is youth storytelling. This collection celebrates young adult and intermediate fiction from some of Minnesota's most beloved authors, emerging talents, and many more. In this two-part series, we feature short, diverse, meaningful reflections on various places and traditions, within and beyond Minnesota, by Sky Blue Water's contributors. Here are writers' reflections on place and tradition plus experiences with food and the chilly seasons. See also Part 1: Writers' favorite places to read, write (and not-write), and think.


I think my most unique dining experience in the greater Twin Cities area took place some years ago, when friends invited me to visit a Wisconsin "pizza farm" with them one Friday afternoon. We drove maybe 45 minutes until we crossed over "to the other side," found ourselves winding through various country roads and passing quaint towns, until we came to a beautiful and bucolic farm overflowing with people and cars. The food was so good there that people had come from two states (Wisconsin and Minnesota) to sample it! We spread out our blankets on a patch of grass, and then ordered our pizzas, whose toppings were all fresh ingredients from the farm, such as basil, tomatoes, mozzarella, and even bacon (Food of The Gods!). It took about 45 minutes to get our crispy, piping hot, wood-fired pizzas. Needless to say, they were gone in less than ten.


I remember my very first apple. We lived in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. My parents had gotten clearance for our little family of four and a large group of cousins to venture to a small provincial town. For many of us, it was the furthest we had ever traveled. Armed with just a few bills, their entire life savings in the camp, my mother and father took us on our faraway adventure. There, we saw a glistening red apple on a street vendor's cart. We'd never seen the fruit before. In the camp, the fruit we knew best were the ripe bananas that Thai farmers sold to the refugees from the gates. The apple was 100 baht, more than half of what my mother and father had in their hands, but my sister, my cousins, and I looked, we yearned to touch, we said we smelled flowers we had no name for emanating off the red fruit. My mother and father bought us the single apple. We all took a bite. I remember the mushiness and the guilt of eating the expensive apple. To this day, I cannot tolerate soft apples. It brings to mind, too clearly, the taste of our yearning.


Every ethnicity has dishes that can be traced back to the homeland, and many of them are ethno-specific in the extreme. Balut, for example.* Or chipolines.** Or lutefisk.*** If you’re from Minnesota you’ve heard of lutefisk, although most of you probably haven’t tried it. I hadn’t . . . until I wrote Opposite Land, which concerns lutefisk and its Scandinavian proponents. In the name of research, I partook. I will say this: it was a memorable dish that no amount of white sauce or melted butter could redeem. Perhaps, in fairness, I should try “lutfisk,” the Swedish iteration—but I think I’ll pass.

*A duck fetus boiled and served in the shell (Philippines).

**Fried grasshoppers (Mexico).

***Salted, lye-soaked, dried, re-soaked, and boiled cod (Norway).


There is something celebratory and festive about eating outdoors, and I try to indulge in this custom as often as the Minnesota summer will allow. I look for restaurants with patios and invite myself onto people's porches. I walk long distances in the heat in search of ice cream. One of my favorite outdoor venues is Sandcastle, an elegant shack-like restaurant on Lake Nokomis, where you can order food and drink at the little window, and then eat by the water with your toes in the sand. It is almost a requirement that customers at Sandcastle bring a dog along when they dine, so there are many silver bowls of water available at snout-level. Signs warn against feeding the many ducks, but the ducks are probably getting fed; otherwise they wouldn't be so aggressive. The dogs and the splashing bathing-suited children usually keep the ducks in check. All in all, it is thoroughly charming. I was thinking about Lake Nokomis when I wrote my contribution to Sky Blue Water.


Lutefisk gets a bad rap and it should. It's a horrible, horrible thing. Eating it is not a rite of passage. It won't earn you any Minnesota street credibility. Anyone who says different is a liar. When I was 12 years old my dad encouraged me to eat some at a Scandinavian buffet my grandparents dragged us to before a Christmas concert. Everyone cheered me on. How could I say no? This was clearly going to be a cherished family memory and I'd be the star! I should have known better. Just one year before my grandfather Warren had tricked me into trying some mustard-slathered chitlins and didn't tell me what they were made out of until it was too late. Grandparents may seem kind and innocent. They're not. I cut into the fish jello. I took a bite. Pain. Horror. Betrayal. Beware the lutefisk!


One of my favorite travel stories is actually about a trip that someone else took. Many years ago, a photographer friend was making plans to embark on her first trip to Iceland. Before she left, I shared with her a poem by one of my favorite Minnesota writers, Bill Holm, along with one simple challenge. It was a short poem about a single tree in a single county on the northern edge of the country. My challenge? To find that tree and photograph it.

Here's the poem:

A Grove in Kelduhverfi
by Bill Holm

Here in this almost treeless district
a single Rowan tree stands next
to the south wall of the farmstead,
almost grown into the house itself.
This old one is taller than the house
and seems likely to survive its ruin
when the farmer quits to move to town.
That tree was watered, guarded, humored
probably given a name and loved.
It was a forest of one tree,
and not another one for miles.
One is enough; you do not need
a jungle to teach you what a tree is,
or a teeming city to teach you what is man.

A quick Google search will tell you that Kelduhverfi sits between a mountain and a river in a region of Iceland that has been vastly transformed over the centuries by shifting tectonic plates. In particular, there was apparently a real wild stretch of earthquakes in the late '70s and early '80s. Now, one would think this might make finding a lone tree a bit of a challenge. Who knows? Maybe it was a challenge. All I know is that, sure enough, she found it. And she returned from her trip with this beautiful photograph.


I’m 100% a place kind of person, and my favorite place on earth is the Big Island of Hawaii. But it might be the North Shore of Lake Superior, in our own lovely state. And it might be western Nebraska, where I grew up. I can’t quite decide. What do all these places have in common? Space. Beautiful natural surroundings. A lack of people. A calm but intense energy. A distinct sense of being away from it all. Visiting cities is pretty great, too—I loved Athens, Istanbul, London, Dublin, New York, Los Angeles—but I’m always going to want to come home to the quiet peace of uninhabited land. There’s nothing more soul-nourishing than communing with oceans (inland or otherwise), trees, and hills instead of screens and people caught in the frenzy of the twenty-first century. Old-fashioned? Of course. But give me that rural life any time. Give me my nature. Give me my space.


I love the day I wake up and know that the ice on the nearby lake is walkable. Like discovering an amazing book or a secret room, I am allowed into a place that was formerly forbidden. It is full of clues to a hidden world: leaves, frozen in place; trapped bubbles; abandoned nests. The world looks different from this new perspective—the sky closer, and the shore far away. There is a delicious hint of danger as well—perhaps I’ve gauged it wrong and might fall through. So I walk slowly and carefully over the clear, black ice like a brave pioneer, thrilled to my boots.


When I was a child and my grandmother was alive, we celebrated the shift from fall into winter with a Hmong new year spirit calling ceremony. I have memories of seeing my older cousins, holding huge wooden pestles, pounding rice cakes in a communal bin in Uncle Chue's old, unfinished basement. My mother and my aunts wrapped the sticky rice cake in pieces of foil paper. We grilled them on hot pans. Ate the sticky off our fingers with the sweet taste of dark corn syrup. I can still smell the scent of incense throughout the house, leading to the open doorway and the stretch of Minnesota's gray dawn. My grandmother, her round, soft body, was the separation between our warm world and the cold outside. After she called out our names into the dark to return to the safety of those who loved us, we feasted on chicken drumsticks and bowls of steaming jasmine rice. We dipped the chicken into bowls of spicy Thai chili and fish sauce. The turn of the seasons still bring me back to those many years in America, where we entered from fall into winter, upon the call of our grandmother's voice.


As an adopted Minnesotan, I noticed a winter ritual right away when I moved here in 1992: winter itself! My favorite thing about this state (aside from our exceedingly beautiful nature) is the fact that Minnesotans go outside, in all weather, even in the winter. I have joyfully participated in our winter party since I arrived. In fact, the first package I received from my dad at my new Minnesota address was a pair of Cabela’s long johns (I still have them!). Though I’m not as brave as people who bike to work in February, I own a pair of snowshoes and a pair of skis, and I use them as often as I can. I do refuse to take a vehicle on a frozen lake—that’s a firm boundary—but I’ll do just about anything else outside in the winter. It’s too gorgeous to stay inside!

Part 1: Writers' favorite places to read, write (and not-write), and think.

The writers here are contributors to Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers, a collection that embodies passion for fostering literacy in young readers. Sky Blue Water celebrates young adult and intermediate fiction from some of Minnesota’s most beloved and award-winning authors to emerging talents and many more. Featuring primarily never-published stories, this anthology beautifully captures the essence of Minnesota adolescence in twenty short stories and poems. A portion of the proceeds from Sky Blue Water will go to the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, a Twin Cities organization offering free tutoring and writing assistance for students ages six to eighteen.

"This mother lode of short stories by talented Minnesota writers offers vivid glimpses into the cultural life of the state through the eyes of its youth. The authors get into the heads of their young characters through their spot-on use of dialogue and genuine senses of innocence and wonder."—Kirkus Reviews

"A high-quality anthology full of classroom potential, sure to inspire budding writers and hook casual readers, too."—School Library Journal

Sky Blue Water writers' favorite places to read, write (or not write), and get inspired. (Part 1 of 2)

Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers is a one-of-a-kind collection of short stories that celebrate Minnesota's vibrant storytelling tradition. A rich and often under-appreciated part of this tradition is youth storytelling. This collection celebrates young adult and intermediate fiction from some of Minnesota's most beloved authors, emerging talents, and many more. In this two-part series, we feature short, diverse, meaningful reflections on various places and traditions, within and beyond Minnesota, by Sky Blue Water's contributors. Here are writers' favorite places to write, read, and get inspired, whether outdoors, at home, or at the library. See also Part 2: Food and seasons.


I was stuck. I was desperate. I had some serious revisions to do but couldn’t see my way through the tangle of words. I longed to get away from the computer to a place of seclusion, peace, and beauty; but where? I was in the city and couldn’t go far. Without much hope, I googled “waterfall, path, Minneapolis, secret,” and up popped “Hidden Falls Park.” It looked like just the thing, so I packed up lawn chair, snacks, and manuscript and headed out. Half an hour later I was comfortably wedged between a rock wall and a tree growing on the edge of a cliff. With an enchanting view over the cliff, to my right, the gurgling waterfall a few feet ahead, and a shifting, leafy, light-filled green all around, I sat for a full hour just listening and watching, the pen slack in my hand. The tangle started to relax. After a time the thread of an idea came clear, and I wrote it down. Then another came, and another. A few minutes into the second hour I was scribbling page after page, and by the time I had to leave, many hours later, the writing was in a completely new place.

Lynne Jonell's writing space.


I have loved two libraries, one like a husband and the other like a lover. The Arlington Hills (St. Paul) branch in the old Carnegie building was solid and strong and it was close to our house so it was where our father usually took us in the old, maroon Chevrolet Caprice—a former cop car he had found for cheap. The other: the Rice Street Public Library, its building younger, its brick newer, its contents more mysterious because we only went there once in a long while. At one library, I was myself, a thin Hmong kid with straight bangs and arms full of books that I was interested in. At the other, I dressed up in some cleaner version of myself, my moves more hesitant toward the shelves, my selections limited to only the books that I knew I would read. I grew up with a husband library and a lover library and they both were good to me.


I grew up going to the Carnegie library in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and my favorite library today is the Carnegie library in St. Anthony Park in St. Paul. Like many Carnegie libraries, it’s a beautiful, symmetric building, and this one’s even more stunning as it sits on an angle to the street. Like many Carnegie libraries, it became too small and in 1999 an addition was put on. This was the marvelous round children’s room that was placed behind the building in order to preserve the architectural integrity of the original library. Pay a visit to this extraordinary building. Check out the beautiful gardens in front in the summer. Ascend the stairs and walk into this peaceful space. Notice the big windows that allow light to stream in. It’s a temple of books, of words, of the world. I feel fortunate to live in the land of Sky Blue Water, a place that values libraries and has so many beautiful ones for us to use.


Of course, the Hopkins Library on 11th Avenue had books. I remember the spinners of paperbacks from which my mother always found the most interesting novels to read aloud to me. I remember low bins at waist height where you could flip through the picture books in the same way adults looked for albums at the record store. There were shelves of fiction alphabetized by author’s last name (Aiken, Cleary, Cooper, London, Paulsen, Wilder). Yes, there were books.

But there was also the bathtub. Tucked into the children’s area, this old-fashioned (even in the 1970s and 1980s) cast iron tub was prime real estate for curling up in while your mother finished browsing in the mysteries. Lined with orange shag carpeting, the tub was often filled with other kids waiting for their own mothers and fighting over the few flattened pillows (or maybe it’s ratty stuffed animals I’m remembering). When you were small you had to figure out how to scale the tub’s tall sides with a book tucked under your arm. Once your legs were longer, it was easy to maneuver in with a stack of Anne of Green Gables. Eventually, the bathtub fell victim to what I can only guess were bureaucratic choices or liability fears (head lice, anyone?), and the children’s area no longer includes an orange-carpeted tub.

Luckily, the books are still there.


Alhambra Civic Center Library (California) was the very first library I visited in America. It was there where I learned and was fond of the English learning language collection. It was there that I dreamed to become someday the Lady in Square Glasses and White Ruffled Blouse sitting at the circulation desk. I don’t know why she always looked serious. Two decades later, I became the first Vietnamese librarian in Minnesota and currently work at the Augsburg Park Library, my hometown and favorite library, where I meet library users from all walks of life. It is there that I have dedicated my time to helping new immigrants transition into life in America. I believe that my work has inspired others to also pursue their dreams and a good education. It is there when I hear kids unexpectedly say the darnedest things that make grownups around them laugh or be embarrassed, from Do you fix cars? to Why do you have an extra long tooth? to Why is there a portable toilet on the library roof? to Why does the snapping turtle visit the library? Believe it or not, all these questions have been asked and I have answered them all accordingly. Most of all, our library staff have refined and learned new skills to meet new needs and expectations. Boys and girls, go ask Librarian Phước Trần for the recipe of her birthday cake baked in the refugee camp and the instructions how to make a lucky charm. Augsburg Park Library is located at 7100 Nicollet Ave S, Richfield, MN 55423.


Every place is a good place to write when you’ve got something that needs to be written. That being said, I do have two favorite writing places. In Duluth it is my “little house in the backyard,” a 10-by-12 shed outfitted with a little woodstove, a little desk, and a big window overlooking Tischer Creek. My other favorite place is the screen porch of my cabin, which is where I am now. It overlooks a north woods lake and the surrounding woods.

Probably the reason I love these places so much is that they offer so much in the way of distraction. Really, they are both wonderful places to not write. There’s so much else going on: a ballet school of mergansers come clattering across the lake, executing chassé in their underwater toe shoes; a pileated woodpecker instructs Junior how to jackhammer beetles out of a rotten log; a red squirrel scolds everyone in French (I presume, given the way he rolls his r’s) . . . there are hummingbirds on surveillance missions, chattering kingfishers, and this morning three baby raccoons that trundled up the wrong tree, causing no end of parental consternation. And every day there is the lake itself, undergoing constant scene changes.

Really! How’s a person to get any writing done?


Birds of a Feather

In late August loons flock up on northern Minnesota lakes before heading south for the winter. Similarly, I meet about the same time of year for a weeklong island retreat with other writers of children’s and YA literature. Incredibly, this ritual has been going on for the past 25 years.

Many of these retreats have taken place on Mallard Island, also known as "Ober’s Island," so named after the early environmentalist Ernest Oberholtzer. More recently, we’ve been meeting on nearby Atsokan Island, with an occasional cruise on the island’s restored yacht, Virginia. (Islands and boats find their way into my YA novels, Frozen and Ice-Out, though I rename them.)

An island retreat is the perfect way to shut out the daily patter of life and sink wholly into one’s own work. Temps on the last retreat dropped close to 34 degrees one night, yet the sun warmed the sand beach and rocky shore to the mid-70s during the days. Along with taking saunas, jumping into brisk water, napping, and hiking, our retreats are built around writing on our own, usually in separate cabins, and gathering toward evening to share what we’re working on. In a semi-circle beside a fire in the lodge’s stone hearth, we read from our work-in-progress. Over the years, we’ve left our light fingerprints on each others’ works through critique questions, but always, we respect the work-in-progress as the author’s to revise as she must.

Now I must wait for our next retreat, but I’m grateful it’s on my calendar. I wouldn’t be where I am as a writer today or have published nearly as many books without these annual retreats and the nurturing friendships of other dedicated, amazing writers.

We writers are pretty solitary, but like the Minnesota state bird, there are times when we need to flock up again before setting off toward our next destination.


When I write, my dog just stares at me. His face is filled with despair, like he's pretty sure I won't come up with anything worthwhile today or ever. I should just give up, close my computer, and rub him behind his soft, sweet ears. "I'll prove you wrong, Bruce Valentine!" I tell him. It's very inspiring.

Bruce Valentine.


I am so proud and just tickled to pieces that for two years in a row my children's books Powwow Summer (Minnesota Historical Society Press) and The Farmers Market: Families Working Together (CarolRhoda) have been chosen for the Floating Library project on Twin Cities-area lakes. Sarah Peters, artist, writer, and arts administrator, is the creator of this public art event. "This project draws on the common past time of beach reading and the inventive thinking of artists working with the form of the book to provide context-appropriate and uncommon reading material to people who are already gathered on the water."

Part 2: Ruminations on place, tradition, and uniquely Minnesota dining experiences.

The writers here are contributors to Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers, a collection that embodies passion for fostering literacy in young readers. Sky Blue Water celebrates young adult and intermediate fiction from some of Minnesota’s most beloved and award-winning authors to emerging talents and many more. Featuring primarily never-published stories, this anthology beautifully captures the essence of Minnesota adolescence in twenty short stories and poems. A portion of the proceeds from Sky Blue Water will go to the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, a Twin Cities organization offering free tutoring and writing assistance for students ages six to eighteen.

"This mother lode of short stories by talented Minnesota writers offers vivid glimpses into the cultural life of the state through the eyes of its youth. The authors get into the heads of their young characters through their spot-on use of dialogue and genuine senses of innocence and wonder."—Kirkus Reviews

"A high-quality anthology full of classroom potential, sure to inspire budding writers and hook casual readers, too."—School Library Journal