In the next half-century, from 1870 to 1920, immigrants took possession of the entire area from the Lake Superior district westward across the northern prairies and northern Great Plains to the Rockies—the part of the United States with the most extreme, continental climate and the location most remote from the coasts. They divided the land into more than 3 million parcels that ranged in size from 25-foot city lots to 20-square-mile ranches, from compact mining properties to vast forest holdings. By 1920 more than 5 million people lived in this Northern Heartland. The northern transcontinental rail corridor was established. A new network of railways and dirt or gravel roads spread across the region to link 3,000 cities, towns, and hamlets. The Twin Cities were the principal focus of the system, the heart of the Northwest Empire.
In the half-century beginning in the 1920s, people transformed the region in response to changes in technology and shifting national population patterns. The total population growth rate declined as net migration reversed from inflow to outflow. Meanwhile, farming became a highly capitalized heavy industry. Manufacturing, services, cities, income, and wealth grew at rates above the national average. The transportation and communication network was completely rebuilt, specialized, and modernized. The Twin Cities were still the main focus of the system. But some wholesale trade and services were decentralized to more than a dozen smaller metropolitan areas. At the same time, Twin Cities businesses had expanded much further into national and world markets. The share of the Twin Cities economy that depended on trade with the region had dropped from a little more than one-half to slightly over one-third. Yet there had been so much overall economic growth that the amount of business the metropolis carried on with the region, in constant dollars, was probably nearly triple what it had been in 1920.
Thus, there have been two main parts to this story of regional development: (1) a half-century of rapid immigration, population boom, and building of the basic settlement pattern; and (2) little more than half a century of slower population growth, net emigration, rapid economic growth, rebuilding, and dramatic population redistribution on the basic settlement framework. The region changed from an empire in a more segmented world to a neighborhood in a more integrated world. Though fully occupied, it remained one of the more thinly settled parts of the world's developed nations. A relatively few people are organized to use a very large amount of land. Warm communities and comfortable cities are woven into a varied fabric of natural landscapes and countrysides.
One theme runs through the century of development and transformation. That theme, in a word, is adaptation. People in the region have always been coping, monitoring, and adapting to global natural and human forces beyond their control, converting problems to opportunities. In the process of adaptation, a regional culture has emerged. It has had an unusual combination of vigorous individualism and close-knit communality, driving entrepreneurship and intense interdependence. To the extent that people in the region have coped and adapted successfully, they have controlled their individual and collective destinies. The same theme persists now into yet another round of adaptation to new conditions that are emerging in the 1980s.
I have tried to tell this story of regional development and transformation as an unfolding geography, relying heavily on the language of maps. Emphasis is on the evolving transportation network and the changing towns and cities at nodes in the network. The region's farms, forests, mines and waters form the background —the hinterlands —of the urban centers. From those centers people have organized and reorganized the region.
Time-series maps emphasize changing patterns of population in a setting of resources, places, and routes. In the brief period and the diverse region spanned by the maps, millions of lifetimes have been lived, each with its own ideas, emotions, hopes, and actions. Every place, every route, every change depicted on every map, every bit of narrative that interprets and connects the maps reflects the imprint of those lives upon the land.
Although this book is in one sense purely and simply the saga of a cast of people in a particular set of places, there is almost no attempt to detail either the lives of particular people or the internal layout of particular places. Libraries, bookstores, media, household attics, and personal recollections provide a deep reservoir and flowing stream of that kind of knowledge. Instead, my purpose is to provide a framework in which to place and relate the pieces of information that almost bury anyone who reads and watches the avalanche of material about history, business, and public affairs that affect the region. The book attempts to put America's Northern Heartland into perspective for someone who moves here or matures here and wonders about the remarkable array of activities, fixed assets, and organizations. I also hope to provide a base for a growing body of detailed research on future changes in the structure and functions of the region.
My hope is to capture the reality, the spirit, and the dynamics of the region. Even to attempt to do that would have been impossible without the vast available store of literature and statistical and archival records. Most of the maps in the book are my original compilations. To interpret the maps I have drawn upon a selection of mainly historical and geographical compendia and a very small sampling of the wealth of local studies, biographical works, and media articles.
But beyond the published sources, hundreds of people in all walks of life, all across the region, have shared with me their experiences, observations, and perspectives. The patterns on the maps in this book portray in part the imprint of those people. Hence conversations with them have helped uniquely to interpret the maps. Footnotes identify only a few of those Upper Midwesterners to whom I am so deeply indebted.
I owe particular thanks to Gregory Chu, director of the University of Minnesota Geography Department's Cartographic Laboratory, and his assistant, Carol Gersmehl, for their professional design and rendering of the maps; to Hee-Bang Choe, Philip Heywood, Sean Sullivan, Yeong-Ki Beck, and Don Pirius for cartographic drafting; to Kevin Anderson for his help in assembling statistical data and reference maps; to Judith Kordahl and Margaret Rasmussen for word processing. Support from the University of Minnesota has been unfailing and comprehensive. Assistance from the University's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the First Bank System Foundation, for the First Banks, made possible the statistical research and cartographic production. I am indebted to many colleagues both within and beyond academia for stimulation and guidance, but especially to Thomas Anding, of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, for a quarter-century of lively exchange on the problems and character of the region, to Professor John Hudson, of Northwestern University, and Professor Warren Kress, of North Dakota State University, for valuable reviews of the original manuscript. Most of all, I must thank Jane Willson Borchert for patient, critical readings of the manuscript, enthusiastic accompaniment on thousands of miles of field trips, and my introduction to the Upper Midwest community nearly half a century ago. Of course, omissions, faulty interpretations, and outright errors are my own responsibility.