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Minnesota’s political heritage is alive and well and living in hundreds of boxes on Kellogg Boulevard

Betsy Sundquist//July 7, 2010

Minnesota’s political heritage is alive and well and living in hundreds of boxes on Kellogg Boulevard

Betsy Sundquist//July 7, 2010

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
The Historical Society’s political memorabilia includes scores of campaign buttons like these McCarthy for President pins. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

In October 1933, the 21 members of the Constitutional Convention of Minnesota unanimously agreed that the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had established Prohibition 14 years earlier, should be repealed.

One of the members of that group was author and early women’s rights advocate Margaret Culkin Banning of Duluth. After a delay of almost two years, she — along with the other members of the convention — received a check reimbursing her for her participation in the vote: 310 miles at 5 cents a mile, plus a $5 per diem, for a grand total of $20.50.

Despite the long interval between the convention and the payout, Banning promptly wrote a polite, and witty, thank-you letter to then-Gov. Floyd B. Olson.

“Dear Governor Olson,” Banning wrote. “The compensation for my attendance at the Repeal Convention was the most unexpected cheque that I ever received and I shall apply it instantly on my state income tax, so it only goes out of one pocket of our treasury and into another.

“I am taking advantage of the acknowledgement of this money to tell you with what interest I read your public utterances and the general comment on them. You are one of the great national orators and I only wish I could agree more consistently with all that you say. Sometimes I do.

“Sincerely yours, Margaret Banning.”

That letter, along with many of the documents pertaining to the 1933 Constitutional Convention and a letter from then-U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull acknowledging the Minnesota vote, are an infinitesimal part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection of government records — documents that fill 90,000 boxes in a vast underground room at the Minnesota History Center.

And while it’s the flashier items — Jesse Ventura action figures, Eugene McCarthy campaign buttons and Paul Wellstone photos — that are on public display as part of the Historical Society’s popular MN 150 exhibit, it’s the items in these boxes, stacked on shelves reaching to the top of a 30-foot ceiling in a room that resembles the final scenes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” that tell the real story of Minnesota politics.

“This is the ‘holy cow’ room,” says Charlie Rodgers, government records specialist for the Historical Society, who acknowledges that yes, it does look like an Indiana Jones movie — “except we don’t lose anything,” he adds.

The items displayed upstairs in the MN 150 exhibit tell the story of many larger-than-life figures in Minnesota’s colorful political history: Ventura. McCarthy. Wellstone. Mondale. Stassen. Humphrey.

A painting of Ventura by kitschy ‘70s pop artist Peter Max hangs on the wall beside a case of Ventura action figures. Photos of Mondale as senator and vice president are displayed next to campaign buttons and Mondale’s Senate license plate.

A bust of Stassen, Minnesota’s 25th (and youngest-ever) governor and a nine-time presidential candidate, gazes impassively at visitors, and documents handwritten by Humphrey as vice president are protected by plexiglass.

It takes a little more digging, beginning in the Historical Society’s second-floor library, to find the less flashy stories behind Minnesota politics, and there are stories in every box patiently brought up from the basement by a library assistant.

One box includes a stack of posters listing instructions to Minnesota voters, issued and posted in polling locations between 1928 and 1936. The posters were printed in English, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, Bohemian (Czech), French and Finnish, and were all signed by Mike Holm, Minnesota’s secretary of state, otherwise known as statssekreterare (Swedish), statssekretar (Norwegian), secretaire d’etat (French), statni tajemnik (Bohemian) and sekretarz stanu (Polish).

Another box contains two petitions dealing with women’s suffrage.

The first petition, dating to approximately 1869 and signed by 605 men and women, asks the state Legislature to amend the Minnesota Constitution “by striking out the word ‘male’ as a requisite qualification for voting or holding office.” The signatures are neatly divided into columns: “Women’s names” and “Men’s names.”

But another petition from the same year, filed in the same box and signed by 128 women, takes the opposite view, arguing against women’s suffrage and listing seven reasons why the state shouldn’t consider such a plan.

“To the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Minnesota,” the petition begins.

“We, the undersigned women of the State of Minnesota, do hereby beg to present to your Honorable bodies our most earnest protest against the passage of that certain bill known as Senate File No. 59, pertaining to the extension of the franchise to woman, and respectfully solicit the opposition of each and every member of your Honorable bodies to the said bill.”

Among the reasons listed: “That woman has already a sphere of usefulness commensurate with her powers and strength, and that within that sphere lies the work by which we can best serve the State;” “that a large majority of women are of this opinion, and neither demand nor wish the franchise;” and “that reports from the four states where woman has had the franchise for from fourteen to forty-one years, show no such advancement over other states in either laws or social conditions as would justify emulation of their example.”

One of the more recognizable names on the anti-suffrage petition is that of Mrs. Alfred Fiske Pillsbury, the wife of the man who served as treasurer of the Pillsbury Co. until the early 1940s.

The patrons who utilize the Historical Society’s vast collection of documents, three-dimensional items, books, photographs and sound and visual records range from family genealogists to novelists to students to legislative researchers.

But the Historical Society’s politically related collections are particularly far-reaching. And while items such as the autographed boxing gloves that Muhammad Ali gave newly elected Gov. Jesse Ventura after Ventura quoted Ali’s “We shocked the world!” on election night 1998 get a lot of attention, Rodgers estimates that at least 90 percent of the society’s collections have never been publicly exhibited.

“I learn something all the time,” says Rodgers, a Baltimore native who has worked for the Historical Society since 1983 and still spends two hours a week working in the library.

If nothing else, the documents offer a valuable glimpse of an era in which people made grand use of the English language rather than using 140 characters to tweet about what they had for breakfast.

“To the people of Minnesota,” reads a proclamation dated Sept. 3, 1894, and signed by then-Gov. Knute Nelson. “Information of an official character has reached me that the villages of Hinckley, Sand Stone, Mission Creek and the neighboring towns and farms have been destroyed by forest fires; that hundreds of lives have been sacrificed, and suffering and destitution are on every hand; that the survivors of this terrible devastation are in immediate need of food, clothing, shelter and every thing that makes existence possible.

“This appalling disaster appeals to every heart of generous impulses, and the case is one that demands the immediate and liberal assistance of all good citizens of this State.

“Now therefore I, Knute Nelson, Governor of the State of Minnesota, in view of this awful calamity which has befallen our people, and by virtue of the authority in me vested, do hereby appeal to all liberal and public spirited citizens, to all municipalities and to all religious and benevolent institutions of this State, to take immediate action towards securing contributions for the relief of the prevailing distress.”

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