Random Memories of Minnesota

and

My Childhood in the Red River Valley

Prof. Michael Rustad

11 Dec 2001

 

I was raised in the rich black loam soil of Glacial LakeAggasiz. The

loam soil is rich that it has a texture unknown in otherparts of the

country. If the climate was not so harsh, the soil alonewould make the Red

River Valley a most desirable garden place. I must confessthat I did not

appreciate N.W. Minnesota growing up. I envied other partsof the country.

I was ready to trade the rich black loam soil for mountainsof the Green

Mountain State of Vermont or any other state for that matter. The N.W.

corner of Minnesota is as flat as any place I have seen. As a boy I

associated flat with boring and dull. When they call theRed River Valley,

they mean it. I grew up longing to leave the flat land. I always thought

being a flat lander was somehow second rate to living inthe mountains or the

sea. I was a discontent farm boy. I did not really appreciatethe golden

fields of wheat or the endless fields of sunflowers whichinspired Van Gogh's

impressionism. I have grown to appreciate Minnesotans,the land, and the

history over the decades. I have learned that there wasa great deal to be

said about being raised in Minnesota.

 

As a boy growing up in N.W. Minnesota, I developed a loveof the

history of Minnesota largely through the inspiration ofmy sixth grade

teacher, Dale Finney Miller. Mrs. Miller was an extraordinaryteacher who

was fond of teaching her charges all about Scandinavianmyths. I remember

her stories of Red Loki and other mythological figures. I also remember the

Alexandria ruinstone and the questionable theory that theVikings traveled in

our part of the country. Mrs. Miller would be pleasedto know that a number

of her charges in the 6th grade class of 1960-61 becamehistory buffs. Ralph

Giffen has had an interest in the Civil War so developedthat he has visited

many Civil War battlegrounds. In the Spring of 1999, Ralphand I visited

Manassas, Virginia which was the site of the great battleof Bull Run. Ralph

and I often share memories of how we were first inspiredto study history

through our teachers at Humboldt-St. Vincent High School. I know that our

1967 classmates, Jan Armstrong and Marlys Diamond, too,have a great interest

in history. I learned the value of learning from my teachersin Humboldt,

Minnesota.

 

When I was a third grader, Minnesota celebrated its Centennialas a

state. I remember well the ox cart that traveled throughour area. Ox Carts

were a key to the Red River Valley fur trade. Minnesota: A History by

William Lass notes that the ox cart to Minnesota and itssqueaky sounds was as

import to the northern movement as the covered wagons wereto the west.

Kittson County was named after Norman Kittson, a key playerin the settlement

of the Red River Valley. It was Kittson who developedthe fort at Pembina.

He was the fur trader who moved fur trades from Winnipegto St. Paul.

Kittson was a free trade advocate and a counnter-hegemonicforce to the

Hudson Bay monopoly. (Kass, Minnesota: A History: WilliamE. Lass, 1976).

I thought that our teachers did a good job of explainingthe history of

Minnesota and creating an interest in learning about ourroots.

 

Minnesota became a state in 1858. However, the state reallydid not

begin to develop until the Homestead Act. Professor Kassnotes documents

that by 1880, 62,000 claims covering 1/7th of the statewere developed.

Another important institution in the development of ourRed River Valley was

the railroad. My Grandfather Rustad purchased land thatonce belonged to

the railroad. My hometown of Humboldt in N.W. Minnesotawas settled by

Prince Edward Islanders attracted by cheap land sold bythe railroads. Teddy

Roosevelt and the trust busters criticized the railroads.However, I do not

believe that Minnesota would have developed without therailroads. Our

corner of N.W. Minnesota was a wheat producer that neededrailroads to get

their product to market. Farmers in Minnesota sent theirwheat to be milled

in Minneapolis. It was a harsh existence for early farmerswho were the

victims of grasshoppers, rust, and other almost insurmountableconditions.

 

I learned a great deal about literature which had its rootsin

Minnesota in my elementary school classmates. Mrs. Millertaught us about

Longfellow and the Song of Evangeline and of course, theSong of Hiawatha,

which has Minnesota roots. I was first exposed to HenryWadsworth

Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha in Mrs. Miller's class. Decades later I

visited Henry Longfellow's home in Cambridge Massachusetts,a few blocks from
Harvard Square. I learned all about Longfellow in Humboldt and was inspired

to later learn about his life. The reason Longfellow worea beard was that

he was severely burned in a house fire. His wife's dress(made of highly

flammable chiffon caught on fire) and he was burned tryingto help put out

the fire. His wife died despite his noble efforts. Longfellowwas a

contemporary of many literati called the transcendentalists. Mrs. Miller

instilled a great interest in learning that has been afeature of my life

that persists to this day.

 

I find much common ground with my childhood in Minnesotain my

teaching law classes in Boston. I currently teach lawat Suffolk University

Law School in Boston. As I have noted in prior essays,I frequently make

references to N.W. Minnesota in my lectures. I am fondof making references

to agricultural scenarios. For example, in torts, I assignthe case of

Vaughan v. Menlove. This is an old English case in whicha haystack

improperly cured caught on fire because of spontaneouscombustion destroying

the neighbor's property. I use the case to illustratethe objective theory

of negligence. The standard of care in negligence is objectivelymeasured.

We are all held to the standard of the reasonable personand Vaughan held

that it was no defense that the farmer did not understandthe risks of

combustion from uncured hay.

 

The standard of care is objective and every farmer is presumedto

understand the risk. This example or case illustrates thecommon sense of the

common law. I often mention how my Dad would tell us tolet the hay cure

before placing it in the hay rick or loft. When I talkabout curing hay or

raising sheep, I always mention that I am from N.W. Minnesota. In the Fall

of 1997, I was teaching a sales and leases class and toldthe class about my

Red River Valley Roots.

 

When the class ended, a student introduced herself andtold me that

she was from Thief River Falls, Minnesota. She also toldme that she was the

great granddaughter of Ole Rolvaag, author of Giants ofthe Earth. Rolvaag's

novel about life in Minnesota was a book I first learnedabout as a boy and a

favorite of mine.When the student from Thief River Fallsgraduated, I met her

parents and had pictures taken with her family. Eventhough I left

Minnesota and the Red River Valley, I find that I havedeep roots in the land

and people. I do not leave my past behind in Minnesota. It remains a part

of my life in the law.h her family. Eventhough I left

Minnesota and the Red River Valley, I find that I havedeep roots in the land

and people. I do not leave my past behind in Minnesota. It remains a part

of my life in the law.