Beyond the Farm: Capitalism in North-Central Minnesota, 1880-1940

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Eli Rubin

Second Advisor

Dr. Lynne Heasley

Third Advisor

Dr. Edwin Martini

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Hilary Virtanen


Rural Midwest, capitalism, rural history


This dissertation explores the rural Midwest through the lens of capitalism. “Beyond the Farm” reveals that contrary to both academic and general perceptions, working in this region was not just about farming. Looking beyond the farm and examining the various economic initiatives encourages a more complex, yet far more accurate, image of the everyday lives of rural midwesterners. This research provides evidence that the labor systems of industrial capitalism dominated the lives of the people, even in this rural region of the United States.

By analyzing capitalism in north-central Minnesota between 1880 and 1940, this dissertation shows the significance of non-farming economic activities in this part of the Midwest. Farming was essential to the regional economy, but so were other industries like logging, mining, and tourism. Locals found agriculture challenging in this region, and therefore adopted an integrated economic approach that incorporated a variety of monetary and exchange activities. For most, this strategy was to be short term. Someday, they hoped their farm would become productive enough to be their sole source of income. This evidence shows that, in this part of rural America, the image of the independent yeomen farmer was never a reality.

However, others came not to farm but to work as wage laborers as loggers or miners. Thus, this dissertation also highlights that, like in rural areas throughout the United States, other crucial place-based industries shaped the local economy. At such logging and mining locations, workers endured social and workplace conditions that were, if not harsher, at the very least comparable to those found in urban factories. Working in the woods was a typical wage-earning job, and workers in lumber camps tolerated a harsh, disciplined regimen both while in the woods and in company-controlled bunkhouses and dining halls. On the Cuyuna Iron Range, miners and their families encountered a social and economic environment that limited their ability to improve their conditions. The Milford Mine Disaster, which claimed the lives of 41 miners, exemplifies miners’ social and economic environments. Finally, the tourist industry was, at first, a means by which farmers or other residents might earn extra income renting out rooms or by performing temporary wage-labor work during the summer. After locals determined that farming, no matter the effort, would never be as successful as in other regions of Minnesota, and the extractive industries raw materials diminished, many turned to tourism as a means through which they could remain in the area. By 1940, tourism had become the dominant industry in many areas of north-central Minnesota.

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