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Digital Delights: Researching the Legislature in Minnesota Reflections

A monthly glimpse into the collections at Minnesota Reflections, a project of the Minnesota Digital Library

Robbie LaFleur, Director, Minnesota Legislative Reference Library

March, 2012

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Through several projects with the Minnesota Digital Library, the Legislative Reference Library has added photos of over 2000 legislators to our Legislators Past & Present database. The scanned images go back as early as 1907, when many more legislators had facial hair, like Representative George Laybourn.

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The photos in Minnesota Reflections lead the user back to fuller biographical information on the Legislative Reference Library’s website. See the record for Rep. Otis Doyle, an early legislator with great hair, in Minnesota Reflections and in the Legislators Past & Present database.

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Librarians at the Legislative Reference Library regularly advise people who are researching former legislators to check with local historical societies. State senators and representatives were prominent members of their home communities. The Faribault County Historical Society includes three portraits of Representative J.B. Wakefield. He may have had few plans to become a legislator in his first portrait in hunting clothes, posing with Jim Ohio Dog. There is a photo of him during the time he served in the state legislature, and a photo at the time he served in Congress as a member of the the U.S. House of Representatives.

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A portrait of Emil Julius Meilicke, submitted by the Cottonwood County Historical Society, shows him as president of the Farmers’ County Alliance. Also from the Cottonwood Historical Society is a portrait of State Senator Andrew C. Olson, along with a note that he was killed in a train-truck accident in June 1920. The Pope County Historical Society contributed a portrait of Ole Peterson, who served in both the House and Senate. (Ole "O" Peterson was one of sixty Petersons who have served in the Legislature, and one of three Ole Petersons.)

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Visitors to the State Capitol see the same walls and the same portraits as legislators from long ago. Stepping out the door, much has changed. Images from the Minnesota Streetcar Museum can help us imagine ourselves outside the Capitol in earlier days. This postcard looks up to the Capitol from St. Paul. The State Office Building is in this photo. A streetcar sits where yellow schoolbuses line up in front of the Capitol each spring. This shot captures streetcar wires well. These photos show the past – or maybe the future? Will the Capitol look like this with light rail?

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Images in Minnesota Reflections give clues to the lives of legislators away from the Capitol. Old legislative directories list the Ryan Hotel in downtown St. Paul as the residence of many legislators during session. During Clarence Bennett Buckman’s service in the Senate his house was blown away by a cyclone! Elmer Elsworth Adams, who served in both the House and the Senate, had a lovely home in Fergus Falls.

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Documents included in Minnesota Reflections illuminate the lives of legislators during their service and before. The handwritten senior thesis of Adolph O. Eberhart, Minnesota legislator and governor, was contributed by Gustavus Adolphus College. In Why Do Free Citizens Endorse Socialism?, Eberhart was worried. “It is therefore with a feeling of apprehension and anxiety that we view the present threatening clouds of socialism, as they gather on the social horizon, indicating a violent outburst of raging elements. What are we to do?” In contrast, the journal of Randolph M. Probstfield, written decades before he became a state senator, reflected the daily records and concerns of farming, like purchasing ponies or vinegar.

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Minnesota Reflections leads to an unexpected trove of legislative policy documents. The Minnesota Powerline Oral History Project includes audio and transcripts of interviews with Sen. Charles Berg, Rep. David Fjoslien, and Sen. Ed Schrom.

A binder of minutes from the Sub-Committee to Study the Feasibility of Establishing a Four Year State College Centrally Located in Western and Southwestern Minnesota in 1959-1960 sheds light on the decision to locate a new college at Southwest State.

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Artifacts can bring stories alive. Many people know the story of Joe Rollette and his abduction of the bill to move the Capitol to St. Peter, ensuring it would stay in St. Paul. (Detail on that story is here.) In our wired age, we can forget that early bills were handwritten. This one is thought to be a working copy of the 1857 “Bill for the Removal of the Capitol of the Territory or Future State of Minnesota, and for other purposes.”

Author's footnote: When I spent time delving into the contents of Minnesota Reflections I was surprised by the range of materials touching on the Legislature, not only images but documents and even audio. The collection will be of increasing use to legislative historians, whether it's a hunt for a relative or for serious policy-related information.

Robbie LaFleur, Director, Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, March 2012

Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, 645 State Office Building, Saint Paul, MN  55155