MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Frontier history

Destination: Mackinaw City

On the south shore of the Mackinac Straits, the year is 1775.

At the top of the Michigan mitten, a little village has seen a lot of action over the centuries.

Iroquois war parties, French explorers and British soldiers passed by on the Mackinac Straits, which link Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. American traders, lighthouse-builders, ore boats and tourist ferries followed.

Then the continent's longest suspension bridge went up, a link to the Upper Peninsula and an attraction in itself.

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On the Iron Trail

In northern Minnesota, a rich deposit of ore brought the world running.

They would have preferred gold. But the iron made them rich, too.

In 1865, reports of gold brought a rush of prospectors to the shores of Lake Vermilion. What they found, instead, was red earth.

Those who didn't go home disappointed stayed to develop one of the world's richest deposits of iron ore into an industry that would give rise to dozens of towns, help the nation win two world wars and create a distinctive piece of Minnesota's cultural fabric.

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Lumberjacks and legends

Grand Rapids may not be the Emerald City, but its trees are green, and its lakes glitter.

In northern Minnesota, the logging town of Grand Rapids has produced many legends: prize lumberjacks, such as Gunnysack Pete and Tamarack Joe, but also an adorable little girl who became famous for her ruby slippers.

Loggers came first, and that era is re-created on the edge of town, on the wooded grounds of Forest History Center. On a summer day there, it may feel 80 degrees and sunny, but really it's a freezing day in December 1900.

Miss Minnie the "cookee,'' or cook's assistant, is showing us around the logging camp under the baleful glare of her boss, Miss Rebecca. We walk by a giant rut cutter, used to make grooves in the ice roads for the logging sleighs.

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Mourning the summer of 1862

150 years after a tragic conflict, a pilgrimage to the Minnesota River Valley yields facts but few answers.

In 1858, as Europe creaked under the weight of its impoverished masses, Minnesota was a place of opportunity.

It had plenty of land, and newcomers who worked hard could gain social standing as well as property, an impossibility in the old country. So the poor surged in, thankful for a future.

"When I consider my children, I think their futures will be very good, yes, much better than if I had stayed in Norway,'' my great-great-grandfather Rolf wrote home after his arrival in 1862.

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Road trip: Southwest Wisconsin

A 170-mile loop winds past lead mines, a famous grotto and a brewery town.

Scratch the surface in southwest Wisconsin, and you'll find treasure.

In the 1820s, it took the form of lead ore that early miners, to their amazement, found at the grassroots. Lead and zinc made this area bustle when Milwaukee and Madison were just getting started, and one of its villages served as the territory's first capital.

Today, visitors to this corner of the state — just across the Illinois border and up  the Mississippi bluffs — find a lode of history in a beautiful landscape.

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Life on the Grand Portage

Once, a corner of northeast Minnesota was the center of the fur-trade universe.

Long before Minnesota existed, Grand Portage was as familiar a name to many Europeans as George Washington.

As the American Revolution drew to a close in the East, traders at this Lake Superior outpost were busy minting the interior's first millionaires.

It was the crossroads of a continent, the place where voyageurs laden with goods from Montreal met voyageurs laden with beaver pelts from the Canadian wilderness.

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Still fighting the Civil War

At historic sites, battle reenactments turn history into flesh and blood.

After more than 150 years, the Civil War still inflames imaginations. What was life really like then, at home and on the battlefield?

You can find out at the annual encampments hosted by historic sites, where reenactors offer artillery drills, medical demonstrations and shopping at Sutlers' Row, where vendors sell period goods.

Many feature appearances by President Lincoln and include period balls, concerts and church services.

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Blasts from the past

Every September, the Civil War comes to an old stagecoach inn in Wisconsin.

The forest was quiet and the afternoon still. Unnaturally still.

Fifteen Union Army infantry units were camped around wagons in a meadow, near artillery and cavalry. Along a split-rail fence, a drum-and-fife corps pounded drums and blew trumpets.

Gunners began to load their muskets. The cavalry got on pawing horses. Then a Union skirmish line marched down the meadow, followed by a tight column of infantrymen.

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Scrappy Northfield

As outlaws discovered, this Minnesota college town is small but rarely sleepy.

Northfield always has been shaped by newcomers.

First the Yankees came to town, then the Norwegians. Each started a college, and the Yankees built mills, whose flour won international prizes as the Minneapolis mill were just getting started.

Missourians arrived in 1876 for a brief but memorable visit; the violent bank raid by the James-Younger Gang is called "the seven minutes that shook Northfield.''

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Hayward's lumberjacks

A northwest Wisconsin resort town keeps a frontier art alive.

One hundred years ago, the white-pine forests around Hayward were the domain of a special breed of man.

They were swampers, sawyers and skidders. They were deckers, chainers, undercutters and riverhogs. They were dwarfed by the colossal trees they had to wrestle out of the forest, and their lives hung on their own brawn, nerve and dumb luck.

Six days a week they worked, dawn to dusk, all winter long. In spring, they'd roar into Hayward for whiskey and wild women; their brawling earned the town a reputation reflected in a train conductor's call: "All aboard for Hayward, Hurley and Hell!''

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Following the tall ships

Sloops and schooners still sail on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

On the Great Lakes, everyone loves to see a multi-masted schooner, white sails flapping in the breeze.

They're always the favorite guests at festivals, especially on Lake Superior, which usually sees only freighters.

On Lake Michigan, these magnificent replicas of 19th-century schooners and sloops are more common, offering tours and day sails from their homes when they're not appearing at festivals.

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Pike on the prowl

For better or worse, America's first emissary on the Upper Mississippi set history into motion.

In 1805, while Lewis and Clark were making history on the Missouri River, another explorer was heading up the Mississippi.

Sent by a general who was a double agent for Spain, 26-year-old Lt. Zebulon Pike was assigned to find sites for forts, determine the source of the Mississippi, make peace between warring tribes and stop unlicensed British trade on land just acquired by the Americans.

He did find a fort site on 500-foot bluffs in Iowa, but it was scrapped for a more practical site across the river in Prairie du Chien, Wis.

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River with a past

On the lush Minnesota, beautiful scenery comes with harsh history.

Around the world, people know Minnesota for its waters — source of the Mississippi, land of lakes.

But those are not the waters for which it's named. Those waters belong to a river whose cloudiness led the Dakota to call it "waters reflecting the skies" — the Minnesota.

It was more than a mile across at the end of the last ice age, when it drained glacial Lake Agassiz, the largest lake that ever existed.

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Little sod house on the prairie

A re-created pioneer home shows that life on the frontier wasn't quite as romantic as we think it was.

Sometimes, it comes as a shock to tourists, especially those who grew up watching the TV show "Little House on the Prairie,'' that life on the frontier wasn't all that fun.

Twenty miles east of Walnut Grove, the late Stan McCone always told it as it was. A farmer, he'd heard stories about the early sod houses. None remained, so he decided to build one of his own, using an old sod cutter.

"There were 13 sod houses in this neighborhood, and those are just the ones we know about,'' he said. "But with all those, there's zero recollection of them, and I know why — because of all the buried children alongside them. They had such hardship.''

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War of 1812

Yanks invaded Canada? Brits swarmed Wisconsin? It was the war no one remembers.

For its bicentennial in 2012, we heard about the War of 1812.

Now what was that war about, anyway?

Most Americans know only that it produced “The Star Spangled Banner.'' But Americans were the aggressors, looting and burning York — today, Toronto — in 1813.

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Scenes from the fur trade

At re-created forts, meet the adventurers who shaped the Upper Midwest.

Long before settlers plodded into the Upper Midwest, its rivers and forests were swarming with a more footloose kind of entrepreneur.

The Pilgrims still were getting a toehold on the eastern seaboard when Frenchman Jean Nicolet passed through the Straits of Mackinac in 1634 on his way to Green Bay, returning to Montreal with news of a vast interior filled with fur-bearing animals.

Traders wasted no time going after the pelts, and international commerce already was brisk by the time people in Salem, Mass., were whipping themselves into a frenzy over imagined witchcraft.

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Living like a pioneer

At day camps in forts, fur posts and frontier homesteads, kids go back in time.

It's the 21st century, but children still want to spend a day in Laura's world on the frontier — or Huck's world on the Mississippi, or Davy's in the woods.

Laura and Huck didn't have iPods or Xboxes, but they had adventure. In their worlds, people had to live by their wits, unaided by technology, and make what they needed with their own hands.

It's so romantic — and we're not talking Bella and Edward. If only these kids could go back in time to see what it was like . . . and as it turns out, they can.

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Civil War, up close

In the southwest Wisconsin countryside, expert reenactors bring the misery of war home.

It was a gorgeous fall day in southwest Wisconsin, and all we could see was heartache and misery.

"Welcome to Virginia 1862," read the sign at the gates of Norskedalen, where pioneer homesteads evoke the Civil War era.

Pushing open the door of a chinked-timber farmhouse, we encountered Nedda Blodgett, who was surprised to find strangers in her parlor but quickly welcomed us in a Southern drawl.

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Posse on the prairie

In Madelia, the Jesse James Gang met its match again.

In September 1876, a vicious gang of outlaws came up against some ordinary Minnesotans.

The outlaws came out on the short end. Twice.

The Civil War ended more than a decade before the James-Younger Gang rode into Minnesota. But it was far from over in Missouri, devastated by guerrilla warfare and still simmering with resentment.

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Missouri's memories

After 150 years, the Civil War still haunts the western part of the state, long terrorized by jayhawkers and bushwackers.

In April 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

The most famous battles that followed — Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh — were in the East. 

But after Virginia and Tennessee, the most fought-over state was Missouri, which suffered 45 percent of all casualties.

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