What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

When North Dakota Farmers Blew up Partisan Politics

By Focusing on Economic Cooperation, Early 20th-Century Small Landowners Pushed Back Against Crony Capitalism

By Michael J. Lansing
May 18, 2018

In a nation that envisions innovation as the domain of Silicon Valley start-ups, most dismiss North Dakota as flyover country. Yet the state’s history shows it deserves more credit as an innovator. A little more than 100 years ago, North Dakota’s farmers, challenged by economic hardship and indifferent politicians, invented a nonpartisan approach to elections that was as elegant and powerful as it was novel.

Today, Americans politics are partisan and polarized. But as a political movement made up of …

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The Minnesota Miners’ Strike That Brought Immigrant Workers Together

In 1916, Finnish, Italian, and Slavic Laborers Put Aside Divisions to Make a Historic Stand

By Gary Kaunonen
May 10, 2018

On June 2, 1916, 40 mineworkers from the St. James Mine in Aurora, Minnesota, walked off the job. The men, mostly immigrants, were fed up with the dangerous conditions they faced blasting and hauling iron ore in open pits and underground shafts, and with the prolonged abuses of mining company managers. The men had had enough. They fanned out across the almost 100-mile Mesabi Iron Range to entice fellow laborers to drop their work and join the common cause.  …

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The Elite Parisian Family That Educated Antebellum Kentucky

The Mentelles Brought French Enlightenment Values to the New World

By Randolph Paul Runyon
April 26, 2018

Sometimes in American history, immigrants deeply influence a place and its people not by fitting in, but by standing apart.

One such story involves a cultured Parisian family that found its way to Kentucky.

The story starts in 1790. Though France was not a leading source of immigration to the young United States, that year some 500 French citizens managed to found the town of Gallipolis in southeast Ohio, then the Northwest Territory.

These settlers were not aristocrats fleeing for their lives …

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Why Broadway Meanders up Manhattan’s Grid

New York's Most Iconic Street Grew Organically From Colonial Cowpath Into an Allegorical Strand

By Fran Leadon
April 23, 2018

I first saw Broadway from the air. It was 1990 and I was flying with my architecture class from the University of Florida up to Boston so we could learn about cities. Our silver Eastern Airlines plane flew low—alarmingly low, I thought at the time—over Manhattan and soared up the island south to north, the pilot alerting us to the view of the Big Apple below. I could clearly pick out Broadway because, as I had read, it didn’t follow …

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The ‘Messiah’ Mayor Who Believed in Cleveland When No One Else Did

Carl Stokes, the First African American to Lead a Big City, Was Both a Realist and a Showman

By J. Mark Souther
March 22, 2018

On June 24, 1969, the mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, Carl Stokes, held a press conference on a railroad trestle, one of two bridges damaged when an oil slick caught fire on the Cuyahoga River two days earlier. The coverage in local newspapers was minimal. The fire went out soon after it started. No one bothered to snap a picture. In fact, a Cleveland Press photo of the mayor standing on the tracks with reporters is as close as we can …

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Like Maple Syrup, Vermont’s Identity Is Complex and Messy

My Research on 'Sugaring' Connects Me With Stories of a Rustic, Self-Reliant State

By Michael Lange
March 8, 2018

When people all over the country think of Vermont, they think of maple. No matter the reasons that people come here—skiing and leaf-peeping are two—they often take some Vermont home, literally, distilled into a bottle of syrup.

How, exactly, did Vermont come to mean maple?

I live in Vermont, and I do research on the making of maple syrup. It’s called sugaring or sugarmaking around here, which is a throwback to the time when most of the maple sap collected was …

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When L.A.’s Recording Studios Ruled the Music Scene

The City's Irreplaceable "Temples of Sound" Were Customized With Hot Tubs, Personal Chefs, and Waterbeds

By Kent Hartman
March 1, 2018

It was 1962, and the rock and roll record business was on the rise after the multiyear slump that had followed the debuts of artists like Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. The industry’s savior, in large part, was a manic, diminutive, wig-wearing, Hollywood-based record producer (and future convicted murderer) named Phil Spector.

The mastermind behind such throbbing, multi-instrumental hits as “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “Be My Baby,” Spector was a gesticulating wunderkind on the other …

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The “Little Giant” Who Thought That Backing Slavery Would Unite America

Stephen Douglas' Push to Allow Human Chattel in Nebraska Lit a Match to the Civil War

By Graham A. Peck
February 15, 2018

One of the most ambitious attempts to unite America ended up dividing it, and altering it forever.

At the opening of the 33rd Congress on December 5, 1853, Stephen A. Douglas, the short, rotund U.S. Senator from Illinois, planned an ambitious legislative program of national expansion.

“The Little Giant,” as he was known, sought to establish a new territory—Nebraska Territory—fashioned from the immense tract of Indian-occupied land that stretched west to the Rockies from Missouri, and north to Canada. He desired …

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The Myth of Untouched Wilderness That Gave Rise to Modern Miami

Indians, Slaves, and Spanish Missionaries Settled the Area, but Marketers and Entrepreneurs Erased Their Legacy

By Andrew K. Frank
February 12, 2018

Miami is widely known as the “Magic City.” It earned its nickname in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shortly after the arrival of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad and the opening of his opulent Royal Palm Hotel in 1897. Visitors from across the country were lured to this extravagant five-story hotel, at the edge of the nation’s southernmost frontier. From their vantage point, South Florida was the Wild West—and Miami could only exist if incoming settlers were able …

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When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

Before Prohibition, German Immigrants Created a "New Rhineland"

By Pete Dulin
February 5, 2018

Located in the northeastern corner of Kansas, Doniphan County’s eastern edge is shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece, carved away by the flowing waters of the Missouri River. The soil is composed of deep, mineral-rich silty loess and limestone, making it ideal for farming—and, it turns out, for growing grapes and making wine.

California wasn’t always America’s winemaking leader. During the mid-19th century, that distinction went to Kansas and neighboring Missouri, where winemakers and grape-growers led the U.S. wine industry …

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