Minnesota Northern Scowl

I call it the Minnesota scowl. It is a little like a Minnesota “stern look” but the latter is wielded as necessary and on demand. The scowl is always there, as a gumpy resting face. You’ve heard of Minnesota nice. This is the Minnesota scowl. Same thing, just more honest.

As far as I know it is an up north thing, not a city thing. In fact, just the opposite. I used to live in South Minneapolis in a neighborhood where everyone had literally gotten together in a series of meetings and decided that they would always smile at each other and say “hello” when out walking. There were hand-outs for those who had not attended the meetings. They also decided to walk around all the time. This produced a somewhat odd, almost uncomfortable, effect, at first. But in the long run, once people settled into it, it worked out pretty well. It made for a neighborhood that seemed friendly. It seemed like if you needed something – if there was some kind of an emergency – people would be ready and willing to help out.

But up north everyone has this scowl. No smiles, no “hello.” Go north in Minnesota, at least one and a half hours out of the Twin Cities, and stop in at a gas station. Or go to some place to eat. Maybe a bait shop. A hardware store. Anything like that. People will be scowling. All of them.

There will be two kinds of scowlers. One is like this: the scowler sees you coming and stares, and scowls. The other is like this: the scowler avoids looking at anyone, but scowls to themselves. I’ll give you a minute to figure out why there are two kinds scowling, and this is the hint: it depends on who is doing the scowling.

I have a theory about why all the scowling. At the root of it, it is either a kind of guilt or a kind of belligerence that would be better if it was guilt but there is not enough spine to turn a bad attitude into a constructive emotion. And, likely, it is all subconscious.

The reason: many of the Caucasians who live full time up north either come down from earlier settlers, of the late 19th century through around 1950 or so, or they have adopted the culture previously established by those folks even if they can’t trace back to some grandparent or distant great uncle. These original settlers were involved in one or more activities of note that ultimately led to the scowl.

Some of them were involved in displacing or controlling Native Americans in the area. But not many, because that started out long ago and most of them were fly-by-night, Federal officials who came in, harassed the natives, then left.

Some of them were involved in the clear-cutting of all the forest in Minnesota. In fact, many of the ancestors of the deeper-rooted denizens of northern Minnesota come down from loggers. With the exception of a very small number of acres, the entire pine forest was cleared out by lumber contractors over a remarkably short period of time.

Some of them were involved in mining. There were probably a lot more people in lumber during its peak than mining during its peak, but mining was important from the late 19th century right up to the present, while logging came and went as fast as they could clear the entire state of its valuable trees. It will be centuries before all the minerals are extracted from northern Minnesota, because it is harder to do and takes more time.

There are some farmers up north, but farming is harder and less common than elsewhere in the state. (Latter day farmers were involved in the second phase of tree cutting, I mention here for completeness.) There are plenty of people involved in the tourist industry or the cabin industry (the latter being larger) who were not linked to mining or logging in their ancestry. But many of them, as noted, have adopted the local culture, including the logging/mining culture scowl.

Here’s the thing. If you live in a place and an age, like Minnesota right now, where people love the wilderness, revel in it, claim it as theirs, claim it as a good thing, and all that, but your ancestors were responsible for destroying it multiple times over, you might feel a little bad. It has been a long time since the clear cutting. The last big logging operation in Minnesota happened before World War I. There was a lot of restoration of forest after that, after Americans (thought not initially Minnesotans) discovered the idea of conserving forests (an idea that had been invented and deployed centuries earlier by their ancestors, but apparently forgotten). But the culture and reverence for those who tame nature is still very strong here. If, in a group, anyone can credibly claim a direct blood connection to an old logger or miner, they are given extra sway. You see it happen all the time at the local historic sites dedicated to either type of endeavor.

The logging was no small thing. The loggers wanted the white pine. Contracted crews were required to supply 16 foot logs of pine as the bulk of their product, at least 60% white pine and up to 40% red pine. Why the difference? Not any really good reason as far as the wood was concerned. People will tell you they like one or the other better for some reason, but the main reason the logging companies wanted either white or red pine was because it was one of the pines that was not that knotty (because the virgin red and white pines were very tall trees with no lower branches). The reason they wanted white over red is that white pine floated better, and was thus more easily transported down the rivers to the handful of lumber mills. There were other differences as well, but those were the main factors.

Anyway, the loggers cleared the state of its forests, cutting down almost every white pine that was not deformed. There were some white pines they missed by accident, and there was some white pine that conservationists saved. But those attempts at saving the white pine involved violent confrontations. Loggers and logging companies truly believed that they had the god given right to strip the landscape of all of its trees, starting with white and red pine. If you put all the acres of standing white pine that were not logged into one place, it would take up the land covered by an average size park.

After virtually all the white and red pine were cut down, the state caught on fire, and hundreds of people died. This is because the top, branchy parts of the trees were left on the ground, along with the stumps and whatever non-pines got wiped out during this process. That material, the slash, would easily catch on fire and entire towns full of people burned up with the slash. In some cases, a third of the people in a given town were permently displaced by fires that burned every single home to the ground, and a third of those “displaced” were actually burned to death. It happened again and again, always caused by the logging practices which were known to be dangerous, and every time it happened, people were surprised.

If you were part of of the group that was responsible for burning down these towns and burning these people to death, you might not look at other humans with a normal face. You might have some kind of scowl or some other look going.

Several thousand men spread out across a vast wilderness and utterly destroyed it in the most irresponsible way possible. One of the “great moments” of logging in Minnesota was the year the loggers cut the most trees ever cut in one year by any group of people, but because of the rainfall patterns that year, could get very few of them to market. Putting this a different way, a double-digit percentage of the state’s standing white and red pine trees were cut down all at once and then left to rot. If you are part of the group that did that, or their descendants, you might not want to look people straight in the eye with a normal face. You might have to perpetually scowl.

The mining is similar, but different. The early mining in Minnesota was underground, shaft mining. I’m pretty sure the miners were pretty hard workers who produced a necessary product that, because of the constraints of the method they used to acquire it, was less damaging to the landscape. But eventually the mining industry discovered that a different kind of ore – one that was much less pure but much cheaper to process — could be mined right off the surface over a large area of the northeastern part of the state. So, they proceeded to strip mine the wilderness just denuded of its forest. They don’t call it strip mining, for some reason, but that is what it is. It is still going on to varying degrees. In this case, the Minnesota scowl may arise from something other than personal guilt of killing hundreds of millions of stately organisms (and a couple thousand people) with reckless abandon, ignoring time honored sustainable methods developed centuries earlier in Europe (where these logger same from). Rather, it might include a large part of chagrin. The embarrassment of having the proverbial wool pulled over your eyes, again and again, by the mining companies, must be tough to take. Scowlworthy.

So, what about the two kinds of scowls? The eye-contact stare-scowl vs. the quiet brooding self-scowl?

The former is the one you get from people who actually live in the north. They either grew up here, or, as is the case with many, moved here from “The Cities” and then fell in line with the local culture.

The others are the visitors, the tourists, the cabin people, those passing through, me and my family, whatever. We all just scowl because if you smile and say hello the locals probably say “hey” back, but then they just stare harder and, if you are really unlucky, say something you don’t want to hear. Like, tell you a story about some guy who drove around in an open Jeep Wrangler for a week with a five dollar bill taped to the rear view mirror to prove that everyone up north is not a criminal, like down in “The Cities,” or some similar yahooish yarn.

So we just keep our heads down and scowl protectively.

Minnesota Loggers will smile for the camera if they are having a good, cold year!
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4 thoughts on “Minnesota Northern Scowl

  1. Re “logging came and went as fast as they could clear the entire state of its valuable trees.”

    Coincidentally, I was recently reading about the sack of Constantinople by part of the Fourth Crusade. They weren’t as complete in their devastation as modern industries but I’m sure they did the best they could.

    It seems to me that loggers and fisherfolk are the biggest whiners about their heritage and lifestyle being attacked when some agency and/or environmental groups tries to limit the damage while, ironically, it is the economically-driven harvest-it-all activities of the loggers and fisherfolk themselves that pave the way for the extinction of their way of life. Too many people in America seem to be still imbued with the 18th & 19th century concept of a virgin land to exploit just over the horizon when they’ve finished with where they are.

    It seems we may see how many times people can be fooled by the same kinds of companies/corporations discussed in Greg’s post now that the person pretending to be a president, our president has decided that coal is our energy future and the incoming new head of the EPA is reputed to be an ex-coal industry lobbyist.

  2. After virtually all the white and red pine were cut down, the state caught on fire, and hundreds of people died.

    That is a theme — I’m sure you know about the Peshtigo fire (same time as the “great” Chicago fire), the most deadly in US history. The estimate for number of deaths is broad, from about 1200 to 2500. There were also three big fires — all in areas that had been logged off — in Michigan: near Holland, near Manistee, and near Port Huron, all on the same day as the Peshtigo fire. The best estimate for the three MI fires is 600 to 1000 dead
    total. Those were all October 8 1871 — is that the same time as the fires you refer to?

    1. Dean,

      Right. To some extent, you can trace the spread of logging activities across the country based on when the large fires happened (though it is a bit more complex since some of the big fires are not directly related to logging, and some of the major logging burns didn’t occur as a single large fire, but rather, as a decade of constant burning across a huge area.)

      The Minnesota fires are from the first couple of decades of the 20th century, during the peak of logging.

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