What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

How Crop Circles Saved the Great Plains

In the 1940s, Farmer Frank Zybach Invented Center Pivot Irrigation and Brought the Dust Bowl Back to Life

By Joe Anderson
September 10, 2018

If you live in the Great Plains, sooner or later you’ll get a question about those “crop circles” that can be observed from airplane windows during flights over the region. The answer is contained in the question: Put simply, they are circles of cropland.

The circular pattern, however, is different from the regular patchwork many people imagine traditional farm fields to be. The shape is the result of the center pivot irrigation, a development of the post-World War II era …

Read More >

The South Carolina Monument That Symbolizes Clashing Memories of Slavery

In Charleston, Blacks and Whites Have Viewed the Bronze Likeness of Racist Ideologue John C. Calhoun From Radically Different Angles

By Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle
September 6, 2018

In the center of Charleston, South Carolina, in a verdant green space that plays host to farmers markets, festivals, and sunbathing undergraduates, stands a monument of John C. Calhoun, the antebellum South Carolina statesman who famously called Southern slavery “a positive good.” His bronze likeness rises over 100 feet in the air, squaring off against its symbolic rivals, including the copper-shingled steeple of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, where a white supremacist brutally gunned down nine African-American parishioners in 2015.

In one sense, …

Read More >

The Weathered Tobacco Barns and Oyster Shucking Houses of St. Mary’s

In Maryland's Mother County, the Past Endures Amid Rapid Change

By Merideth Taylor
August 30, 2018

In 1634, 27 years after English colonists landed at Jamestown, a group of entrepreneurs and adventurers led by Leonard Calvert, son of the 1st Lord Baltimore, sailed forth on the ships Ark and Dove to establish the Maryland colony.

They named their new capital St. Mary’s City to honor the Virgin Mary. Catholics like the Calverts had experienced religious persecution in England, and soon they issued a proclamation extending freedom of worship to all (Trinitarian) Christians. This then-radical announcement established the …

Read More >

America’s National Parks Were Never Wild and Untouched

Montana's Emblematic Glacier National Park Reveals the Impact of Human History and Culture

By Adam M. Sowards
June 11, 2018

In 1872, Congress created the first national park, Yellowstone, so that its scenic features would be “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Other parks followed, including Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890, Mount Rainier in 1899, and Crater Lake in 1902. In 1916, Congress passed the Organic Act creating the National Park Service and directing it “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >

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.  …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >

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 …

Read More >