In The Big Marsh, Cheri Register provides a personal meditation, grounded in historical research, on place and family history. Register tells the story of tiling, drainage, and the emergence of industrial agriculture in Freeborn County, Minnesota, as it intersects with her paternal family history. Indeed, it was an article written by her great-grandfather, Elbert Ostrander, in 1935 that led her on the journey that resulted in The Big Marsh, winner of the 2017 Minnesota Book Award in nonfiction. Register hopes to tell the story of a “landscape layered with memory” (p. 15). Located in south-central Minnesota on the Iowa border, Freeborn County is part of the prairie pothole region that extends from north-central Iowa to eastern Alberta. Indigenous people used sloughs and marshes to hunt, trap, fish, and harvest wild rice. Early government officials and military personnel made note of the abundant wildlife. As treaties with Indigenous tribes opened up land for Euro-American settlement, new farmers moved in and transformed the land into fields of grain. Register’s paternal ancestors arrived in the 1850s, settling on Turtle Creek next to the Big Marsh. Initial efforts to drain areas around the Big Marsh began in the 1890s, although the history of drainage in Minnesota extends back to early statehood. Encouraged by the local, state, and federal governments to “reclaim” the land for agricultural purposes, investors, like Putnam Dana McMillan, bought up land with the idea they would drain it and make money by selling the improved land to farmers. In the 1890s, farmers in Freeborn County regularly created drainage ditches. McMillan’s efforts to drain land on his Ricelawn Ranch enhanced his bottom line. In the early 1900s, the community became embroiled in controversy over creating a public drainage project that dragged out in court for years. Register’s great-grandfather Ostrander opposed the project. Proponents who equated drainage ditches with agricultural progress eventually won the day. During World War I, a Nebraska investor bought up Rice Lake (part of the Big Marsh) with the idea that it would be drained and become agriculturally productive. The result was the community of Hollandale, settled largely by Dutch Americans in the 1920s. Hollandale residents produced vegetables on the rich soil from the reclaimed land. Over time, however, the soil became less fertile and the farms larger, which brought Mexican migrant laborers from Texas to Freeborn County. By 2016, however, Hollandale produced largely corn and soybeans. Register did archival research at the Minnesota Historical Society and made extensive use of newspapers. For students, The Big Marsh highlights how newspapers can be used when writing history; scholars will find the local case study useful. Register has succeeded in writing a highly readable narrative that sheds new light on Minnesota history and the transformation of Freeborn County—ecologically, economically, and culturally. The Big Marsh is not a scholarly environmental history, although it is grounded in primary research. In many ways, it is unfair to judge the book in the same way as an academic book. While scholars will certainly find The Big Marsh interesting, it has some problems. For example, there is very little secondary context to situate the Freeborn County story into the larger body of work on land reclamation and agricultural production. Some might also find the speculation on family history off-putting. In the end, however, the strengths of The Big Marsh outweigh the weaknesses. The book’s subtitle, The Story of a Lost Landscape, might lead readers to conclude that this is Cheri Register’s Freeborn County elegy. And, in some ways, Register pushes readers in that direction. While tiling and drainage in south-central Minnesota are still widespread, in 2013 the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources showcased a new wildlife management area that included a small portion of the former Big Marsh. State and federal law have facilitated the process of restoring wetlands. In Freeborn County, most of these efforts have been outside the old Big Marsh, and the landscape is being transformed once again. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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