Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #052. First published in the St. Cloud Times Nov. 22, 2011

I usually adhere to the Times Writers Group guideline: Hook my opinion to a news peg and make it local. Let’s see if this month I can sneak past the editorial gatekeeper so he reads far enough to discover that though I range widely in both time and space, I bring it at the end to right here and right now.

As a historian, I have been trained to make sense of the past, which includes yesterday as well as 2,000 years ago.

Historians don’t have at their disposal the ability of the protagonist of the TV drama “Unforgettable” — a full record in memory of everything that has been experienced. We have to make do with a selection of what has been left behind, and what has been left behind is itself either arbitrary or skewed by the interests of the preservers. History is a judgment call.

Pritchard method

The late James B. Pritchard, an eminent archaeologist, had a clever scheme for teaching children how to become historians. When a school class came to visit the University of Pennsylvania Museum, he would turn the students loose on his wastebasket and ask them to reconstruct his life for the past several weeks.

They had to figure out what to make of coffee cups, scraps of paper, broken pencils, whatever. They learned stratification (what is deeper is earlier), and that there can be principled arguments about how to interpret a particular object.

My memory of Pritchard was jogged by a story a few weeks back in The New York Times, called “Stuff That Defines Us,” about an ambitious project undertaken by the British Museum, which houses more than 8 million objects. They decided to pick 100 items from the collection that would tell the history of the world. You can imagine the debates between the Egyptian and Victorian and Babylonian and Prehistoric and Chinese Departments.

The British Museum staff took four years to complete the selection. The conclusions were revealed in a series of BBC broadcasts in 2010 listened to by millions. The resulting book, “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” has just been published in the United States.

The New York Times article summarizes: “These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior. ... The underlying mission was to find a way for visitors to make sense of the museum’s vast holdings by taking a single object and putting it into a larger context, one that told a story that everybody could relate to.”

British Museum, history of the world — pretty far afield for a Times Writers Group column.

Local project

But here it comes home. We in the Times readership area don’t have thousands of years to delve into or whole continents to excavate, but we do have objects that can be put into a larger context and that tell a story everybody can relate to.

Let’s do this project: “A History of the St. Cloud Area in 10 Objects.”

Remember: History can go back a long way, to before “history” as written begins. It also includes yesterday, and everything in between.

I invite you to submit your candidate for one of the 10 objects that define us to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or by mail to 10 Objects, P.O. Box 324, Waite Park, MN 56387-0324. Items must be submitted by Jan. 31.

Your submission should include a picture of the object, your name and contact information, and 300 words or fewer that say why your pick deserves consideration.

If the item is already in the Stearns History Museum (well worth a visit!), you need to give your own reason why it should be in the “Top 10.” Limit is two entries per person or school class. And an “object” should be of a size to display in a typical museum. The St. John’s Abbey Church and Stearns County Courthouse are too big.

I will assemble the entries and lay them before a panel of historians. Their decisions will be revealed in the Times not long after the deadline.

A good time to start letting your imagination loose: when the family is gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table Thursday.


The story about the results of this proposal was published, along with photos, on Feb. 12, 2012

St. Cloud Times, Feb. 12, 2012, 5B-6B

10 objects that define us

The British Museum had the thought: Choose 100 objects from its 8 million to tell the history of the world. Scaling the plan down, I proposed in my November Times Writers Group column that Times readers be asked to submit objects that tell the story of our area, and a panel of historians would pick 10.

With thanks to all who responded, here are the “10 objects that define us.” Some of the wording is adapted from the statements that accompanied the entries.


Granite was the most frequently suggested candidate, from quarries to bridges to tombstones to countertops. Best representative of this 1.7 billion-years-old bedrock of the area and mainstay of its economy ("Granite City" is a nickname, after all) are the two columns that once graced the entrance to Zapp Bank, built in 1915, and that now stand beside the Stearns History Museum.

These columns, in the classical Ionic style, express concern for elegance and respect for the past, and appropriately frame the museum, the only one in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities that is nationally accredited.

  Granite columns from Zapp Bank (suggested by Doug Petersen)

Immigrant trunk

The story of immigration to this area, a story that continues today, is crammed into the immigrant trunk. Several generations of Europeans packed up what belongings they could afford to carry, and boarded ships for the United States. Many of them worked in the granite business. Others, such as Annette Olson, who owned this trunk and traveled from Sweden via Ellis Island, eventually came to this area to farm, on land that is now part of Camp Ripley. Her two daughters were graduates of St. Cloud State Teachers College, and taught in one-room schools. The trunk now belongs to Annette's grandson.

   Immigrant trunk (suggested by Edith Rylander)


If granite was and is a source of wealth, stones of other kinds were often the curse of those, like Annette Olson and her family, who farmed. The stoneboat is a simple horse-drawn (later tractor-drawn) sled that farmers dragged through their fields each spring to haul away the large rocks that interfered with planting and harvesting; it sometimes served as an animal ambulance. Eventually, the farmers understood that they needed to farm differently to prevent the erosion that brought new rocks to the surface. The virtual disappearance of the stoneboat reflects not only greater mechanization, but the emergence of an awakened environmental consciousness.

   Stoneboat (suggested by William Skudlarek, OSB)

Civil War sword

Shortly after Minnesota became a state, President Lincoln called for the defense of the Union, and Minnesotans, including many from this area, responded immediately. St. Cloud businessman Stephen Miller enlisted, and quickly rose to be lieutenant colonel of the famous 1st Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. The citizens of St. Cloud, when they heard of Miller's promotion, raised money to buy him a sword to take to war. The sword was with Miller as he fought in battles in Virginia in 1861 and 1862. Stephen Miller was elected Minnesota's fourth governor (1864-66), the only St. Cloud resident so far to occupy that office.

  Civil War sword of Stephen Miller, a St. Cloud businessman and Minnesota’s fourth governor (suggested by Winifred Anderson)

Library brick

A group of women, recognizing the need for literacy in a young riverfront town, "paid it forward" by creating a public "reading room" where books were available for free. The St. Cloud Reading Room Society was chartered by the state in 1882, the same year the prioress of St. Benedict's wrote about a hospital. The society bought the land for the Carnegie Library, built in 1902. The brick is from the second library, built in 1979, and the story continues with the magnificent new St. Cloud Library and the ongoing work of the society.

  Library brick (suggested by St. Cloud Reading Room Society)

Benedictine habit

Another sort of public service is represented by the Benedictine Sister's habit. The Sisters of St. Benedict's Monastery laid the groundwork for important local institutions. Thousands of citizens were taught by the Sisters, and the College of St. Benedict, which they founded, is nationally recognized. In an 1882 letter to "the Honorable City Council of St. Cloud, Minn.," the prioress expressed the Sisters' intention to establish a permanent hospital, beginning a tradition of excellent health care for Central Minnesota. The deed of transfer to St. Cloud Hospital Corporation in 1964 records the sum of $1. The Benedictine Sisters gave the hospital as a gift.

  Benedictine Sister’s habit (suggested by staff of Central Minnesota Community Foundation)

Moonshine still

Schools, hospitals, libraries — these were the public face of life in the area. In the 1920s and 1930s (and, truth be told, for quite a while afterward) a thriving industry developed, hidden in plain sight. In a delicious historical irony, Andrew Volstead, his name forever linked to the 1920 Volstead Act inaugurating Prohibition, was the U.S. representative for the district that included St. Cloud. Stearns County produced the only "branded" illegal liquor in the country, called "Minnesota 13" for the corn seed used to make it in a still, of which there were thousands. By most accounts, it was the best tasting and least lethal moonshine anywhere.

  A still (suggested by Elaine Davis)

MPR telegram

Perhaps once upon a time the Side Track Tap served Minnesota 13. There's a straight line from the Jan. 20, 1967, telegram authorizing Minnesota Educational Radio to the worldwide awareness of our area as Lake Wobegon, with its bar and cafe and churches and strong women and good-looking men and above-average children. Minnesota Public Radio, conceived at St. John's Abbey and University as an extension of the Benedictine tradition of supporting arts and culture, has become one of the most influential news and entertainment sources in the country. And in the era of tweets, the object recalls a time when "a telegram" was a big deal.

  The original telegram authorizing Minnesota Public Radio to start broadcasting KSJR 90.1 (suggested by Gary Osberg)


MPR takes us to the world. Interstate Highway 94, U.S. Highway 10, Minnesota Highway 23 and the Mississippi River, which intersect here, bring the world to us. St. Cloud is a natural crossroads of transportation, trade and commerce, industry and education. Given its location and dynamism, this area deserves North Star and renewed air service. Crossroads Center, which opened in 1966, appropriately recognizes in its name the drawing power of St. Cloud for shoppers throughout the region. And the entire area now stands at a crossroads, from which we can move forward and evolve into a community that reflects the voices and faces of all those who are here.

  Crossroads Center (suggested by staff of Central Minnesota Community Foundation)

Photo album

Fittingly, our assembly of 10 objects concludes with a Creative Memories album. This entire project has been grounded in the mysterious process by which history is reconstructed. The historian must exercise art, science and craft, with patience and imagination in the mix. Creative Memories has built a successful business, headquartered in St. Cloud, to help people figure out their own ways of holding on to memories and telling their story, for their sake and the sake of those who come after them. It might be fun at your next family gathering to ask, "What 10 objects tell our story?"

  Creative Memories album (suggested by Kristine Smith)

This is the opinion of Patrick Henry, who has lived in Central Minnesota since 1984 and is the retired executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical & Cultural Research. Look for his next monthly column Feb. 28.

From the judges

As we talked through the objects, we also reflected on the power of the past — whether in objects or stories — to shape us. For a long time Patrick thought he descended from THAT Patrick Henry (he doesn't); in my family story my grandfather ran away and changed his name to become a Catholic (not quite); Charlene told of people's emotional connection to the family objects they donate to the museum. History lives in us.

We hope these objects and their stories invite you, too, to think and talk about what history you contain and carry and carry on. In the meantime, watch for news of a display of the 10 Objects at the Stearns History Museum!

— Annette Atkins

The judges

» Charlene Akers, director, Stearns History Museum

» Annette Atkins, professor of history, College of St. Benedict and St. John's University; among courses she teaches is one on Minnesota Regional History

» Jeanette Clancy, author of "The Centennial History of the Avon Area"

» Patrick Henry, Times Writers Group columnist

» Bill Morgan, Times history columnist, professor emeritus of American Studies at St. Cloud State University


Bill Morgan casts his vote for 10 things at the Stearns History Museum while the rest of the panel discusses the nominations