On Being an Amateur Historian
The lakeside region with some of the wealthiest and stateliest homes in the city of Minneapolis used to be a single 1400 acre cattle ranch. Owned by a newspaperman and one-term Congressman, it produced the world’s finest breeding stock of choice breeds and that ranch supplied meat for arguably the largest construction project up to that time in the world, the railroad across the West.
When talking with a homeowner in that area, I’ll say, “Did you know this land used to be connected in a single parcel which included grazing meadows and pastures all the way from Uptown to the Southern end of Lake Harriet?”
Within the conversation I’ll tell them why the boulevard is named King’s Highway and how the chapel at the cemetery was originally the family’s private worship building.
There are few things that get the attention of homeowner’s as completely as what went on with their land before they, or their family owned it. And often I’ll learn things about local buildings like offices, churches, and remnants that were included in other construction projects.
Will learning things like this help you in sales? Of course it will. Anything that sparks interest and conversation will.But more importantly, it’s fun to learn things about where you live and work. It’s good to round out your knowledge of the region and, in turn, you start to connect the families and their fortunes and you’ll see the same surnames pop up.
3M started right here, as did General Mill and Pillsbury.The Dayton Department Stores grew from the original trading post which supplied trappers and loggers while buying furs and lumber. That company grew and they opened a new kind of more accessible neighborhood department store and that was how Target started. My closest Target store happens to be Store Number 1.
“Did you know?” is a great way to start a conversation with a potential client. But conversations are 2-way and be sure to listen because very often they know as much or more about the city than I do. It’s fun to connect the dots and piece together a living history of the region.
“Did you know that the Lakota used to camp right there on the South side of the Mississippi? The river was so wide and shallow that they walked across to hunt game where downtown is now.” It’s important to take your knowledge back as far as you can.
I’m also fascinated by the myriad different types of windows that we encounter here in the Twin Cities. The two big companies are Marvin and Anderson, but in my reading and questioning I found that a lot of craftsmen and milling houses were purchased by those two companies over the years. Whitney windows are a fascinating style of french panes that slide side to side in curved wooden tracks. When I’m lucky enough to find a house with them I can tell the homeowner about the shop that used to be over on Franklin and how they used some of the most beautiful hand tools to create the swooping tracks and unions that have lasted for a hundred years and could last a hundred more with just a little care.“What happened to them?” I’m asked.“When Mr. Whitney retired he sold his business to the Anderson company and his team went over there to help build one of the best window companies in the nation.”
“Those storm windows were installed in the early 70’s,” I’ll tell a homeowner. “You know they only came with a 25 year warranty, don’t you?”
That will strike up a conversation and I can give some recommendations for who can replace them.You see, every time I find a new storm window style I go to my collection of old catalogues and call friends until I track it down.Then next time I’ll be able to discuss it and the era it came from pretty accurately.
For me it’s not as rewarding to just hustle up jobs, I’d rather learn and gain expertise in the work I do and the city I’m in.
When they clear-cut the Northern Forests, those logs were floated down the Mississippi to the Twin Cities and from there they were milled and shipped back East where there was an insatiable appetite to build. This put my metro area in a unique position of being a gateway to what we thought of as the wilderness. Later, when farms replaced forests and prairies, the largest grain mills in the world took over opposite sides of the river and used its tremendous power to grind wheat into flour and corn into meal.
My city is the result of this economic explosion and it hasn’t stopped. The Carlson Company which started as grocery stamps and is now the largest private equity company in the world, United Healthcare which is one of the largest insurers, and Medtronic a massive medical device company are just a few of the powerhouses which employ my homeowners.
But isn’t every city and town unique with a rich, vibrant history of development?Yes, and that’s my point.Go out there and become an expert on where you live and what you do.
Oh and don’t google it. When it comes to local knowledge from more than 25 years ago, Google isn’t your friend. Go to the local museums and information centers. Find the library and ask for old catalogues, newspapers, and books about and by local people. Look at business journals and the business listings from long ago. It’ll start to paint a picture that will answer a whole lot of questions you never knew you had.
Who has time for that?Well, you do.That’s part of the beauty of having a seasonal job.
I’m here if you have questions.
- Rick Wren