At last…I finished the North Dakota oil memoir

11-williston-truck-water tanker driver

Friends, family, and readers far and wide:

Please help me celebrate the October 2014 publication of my new book

Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil

a memoir illustrated with black and white photos.

Join me for a reading and book-signing at:

Common Good Books

7 p.m., Thursday, October 9, 2014

38 S. Snelling Ave, St Paul, MN 55105

(651) 225-8989

This description from the Minnesota Historical Society Press will tell you more:

Basic CMYK

Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil

Lisa Westberg Peters

With the frenzied fracking boom in North Dakota oil, a family’s mineral rights become suddenly valuable, bringing questions and challenges to a daughter who cares about the costs to the land.

What does an environmentalist do when she realizes she will inherit mineral rights and royalties on fracked oil wells in North Dakota? How does she decide between financial security and living as a committed conservationist who wants to leave her grandchildren a healthy world?

After her father’s death, Lisa Westberg Peters investigates the stories behind the leases her mother now holds. She learns how her grandfather’s land purchases near Williston in the 1940s reflect four generations of creative risk-taking in her father’s Swedish immigrant family. She explores the ties between frac sand mining on the St. Croix River and the halting, difficult development of North Dakota’s oil, locked in shale two miles down and pursued since the 1920s. And then there are the surprising and immediate connections between the development of North Dakota oil and Peters’s own life in Minneapolis.

Catapulted into a world of complicated legal jargon, spectacular feats of engineering, and rich history, Peters travels to the oil patch and sees both the wealth and the challenges brought by the boom. She interviews workers and farmers, geologists and lawyers, those who welcome and those who reject the development, and she finds herself able to see shades of gray in what had previously seemed black and white.

Lisa Westberg Peters is the author of many children’s books, including several geology-related titles. Trained as a journalist, she now works as an academic writing tutor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.

$17.95 paper, available October 2014 240 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4, 40 b&w photos, notes, 978-0-87351-952-6

$12.99 e-book, 978-0-87351-953-3

Available October 2014 from Minnesota Historical Society Press

Pre-order on amazonbn.comPowell’s


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Until later…

Dear Bridge Number 9 readers,

A book project on the wild and wacky North Dakota oil boom (see photo below)

Oil worker near Tioga, North Dakota

is taking me away from my neighborhood musings for now. I hope to return to Bridge 9 in the near future.

Until then, hasta luego!



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The Stone Arch Bridge botanical garden

When James J. Hill finished his spectacular stone arch bridge across the Mississippi River in 1883, a writer for the Minneapolis Tribune declared the bridge “more solid than the ground itself.”

Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis

Those newspaper writers — they get so excited. The railroad bridge certainly was solid, but it couldn’t withstand the political forces that removed two of its arches in order to build a lock, or the 1965 floods, which scoured the river bottom so much the bridge started to sag.

Today a wide variety of plants has taken advantage of its many cracks and crevices.

I recently conducted a plant survey — that is, I leaned over the edge with a camera — then sent the photos to my nephew, Matthew Peters. Matt’s a native Minnesotan, but now works as an ecologist in Vermont. He prefers to see and touch the actual plants to identify them, but he offered tentative identification based on electronic images. His comments are below (I’ve added a few thoughts in parentheses):

Lady fern-Athyrium filix-femina. A slight chance it could be bulblet bladder fern-Cystopteris bulbifera. Great name, huh? Unfortunate for such a lovely plant, which has a particular fondness for limey areas.

Lady fern or bulblet bladder fern


Bittersweet nightshade-Solanum dulcamara. A common and widespread exotic, but not a serious invasive. (I looked it up, it’s native to Eurasia. Leaves and fruit are moderately toxic to livestock. Best to keep cows off the bridge.)

Bittersweet nightshade


These all appear to be new seedlings. Looking carefully, you can see the cotyledons, or seed leaves, at the base of each. The big one in the middle is a baby burdock, not sure about the other little sprouts.  Most likely it’s Arctium minus, the common burdock. (Burdock arrived here from Europe and can grow to five feet. I’ll check back on this ‘baby.’ The Minneapolis Park Board will probably whack it off before it gets too big.)



Cottonwood sapling-Populus deltoides. (I find it amusing that a tree is growing in the Stone Arch Bridge.)

Cottonwood sapling


Sumac. Can’t tell which one, smooth sumac-Rhus glabra, or staghorn sumac-Rhus typhina. Slight chance it could be an invasive called Tree of Heaven-Ailanthus altissima. But I don’t think it has made it to Minnesota yet, at least, I’ve never seen it there.



Don’t know the lichens or moss, but it looks like nice limestone. (The exposed stone on the bridge is magnesium limestone quarried in Mankato, Minnesota, or Stone City, Iowa.)

Lichens or moss


Virginia creeper-Parthenocissus quinquefolia.

Virginia Creeper

(I didn’t even send the below photo to Matt. We all know who these guys are.)

Cliffbrake fern. Two possible species, purple cliffbrake-Pellaea atropurpurea or smooth cliffbrake-Pellaea glabella. I would need close-ups of the stems to tell. Cliffbrake is not uncommon in your area but very restricted to fissures of limey rocks.


(I had never heard of cliffbrake ferns. They prefer the shadier, upstream side of the bridge. The state Department of Natural Resources placed purple cliffbrake on a Special Concern list in 1984. The species has been found in just four southeastern Minnesota counties. Apparently they’ve been cut off from ‘essential ecosystem processes’ such as fire, and without those processes, the species could disappear from those areas. It might be safe to say we have the more common cliffbrake on our bridge, but I hope Matt will drop by some spring to take a closer look at these charming ferns.)

Thanks so much to Matt for his time and expertise.





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Who made those pretty red tiles? Part 2

Last month, I declared that a southern Minnesota tile-maker, A. C. Ochs, had probably made the 100-year-old Pillsbury grain elevator’s distinctive red tiles. I had my reasons.

Pillsbury Flour Mill complex from Stone Arch Bridge

Turns out I was wrong.

The brains behind, Vince Godon, wrote to me and said he thought the tile had been made by a different company, H. B. Camp of Greentown, Ohio.  He had some indirect evidence. I wasn’t sure that was enough.

I searched and searched for written evidence linking H. B. Camp to the Pillsbury grain elevator. I even asked the historical society in Greentown to search on my behalf. No luck.

Meanwhile, Vince and I both discovered that H. B. Camp had sold out to the National Fire Proofing Company in Pittsburgh well before 1910, which is when the Pillsbury elevator was built by Barnett and Record, the contractor. The fire-resistant qualities of clay tile were a big selling point in those days. Wood silos and elevators had a tendency to go up in smoke.

My searches switched from H. B. Camp to Natco, short for National Fire Proofing Company. I asked the Internet in every way I could think of, and pretty please, but nothing jumped out.

This Pillsbury worker looks as though he's waiting for me to figure out this mystery

It wasn’t until I searched for ‘hollow tile’ that Google finally revealed a digitized trade journal published by the tile-maker itself. Hollow tile was the type of tile used to build grain elevators.

I learned from the March 1913 issue of the journal, Building Progress, that Natco’s plant in Illinois was making tile for Barnett and Record’s grain elevators in Minneapolis and elsewhere. And the November 1913 issue listed all the elevators and silos made with Natco tile since 1900.

This list is the ‘smoking gun’ evidence (albeit screen-grab blurry) linking my neighborhood grain elevator to a Pittsburgh tile-maker:

November 1913 (Vol. 3, No. 11) issue of Building Progress published by National Fire Proofing Company, Pittsburgh

I was thrilled.

How can anybody be thrilled at nailing down the tile-maker for an old grain elevator? Maybe it was the thrill of the hunt. Or the fact that all of the people who usually know these things didn’t. Or maybe it was the fleeting nature of these tile elevators — they were soon surpassed by gray concrete elevators.

Whatever the reason, there’s something to be said for obsessing now and then about obscure things. It’s fun.

The image below is a stereographic photo of workers installing those pretty red tiles one layer at a time. The photo, now held by the Hennepin County Library, may have been taken by E. D. Mayo who worked for Barnett and Record.

Workers laying tile for the Pillsbury red tile elevator

Thanks to Vince Godon who obsessed along with me, and to Ian Stade with the Hennepin County Library for really speedy librarian work on my behalf.


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R.I.P., bur oak branch


My bur oak branch has been lopped off.

My bur oak branch is no longer

Here’s the same shot in February 2011, which is when I started tracking the seasons by following this low-hanging branch on the University of Minnesota campus:

I had just signed off on the branch after following it for a year. I no longer ‘needed’ the branch, but still, my mouth dropped when I walked past Eddy Hall recently and saw air in a place formerly occupied by branch. I probably looked stupefied, but the cool thing about looking strange on a college campus, nobody really notices.

The timing seemed too coincidental: I finish up with the branch; the university cuts it off. I wrote to Jan Morlock, director of community relations, and asked her: did you protect my branch while I was writing about it?

She wrote back: you give me too much credit! Perhaps to show her solidarity with oak trees, she sent along a link to an article encouraging people to plant native trees because the natives are much better than imported ornamentals at nurturing other species. Biodiversity. I’m all in favor.

I called Thomas Ritzer, campus landscape architect, to ask: Hey, why did you cut down the branch?

Just to spite you, he joked. No, no, he assured me, not really. Mr. Ritzer said he knew a lot about the university’s arborly goings-on, but not everything, so he couldn’t precisely answer the question.

I had worried from the start that my branch’s proximity to the sidewalk might make it a target for pruners who can get overzealous with their knives. They’re a little like hairdressers. Give them a pair of scissors and they don’t know when to quit.

If you’re squeamish about the graphic shots to follow, it’s best to switch to a more pleasant blog post on, say, how to make a chocolate cake. But if you need to see the scene of the ‘crime,’ here you go:

Ouch! Chain saw dispatches venerable old branch

And a longer view:

It was clear the tree trimmers were on a general pruning mission. Many oaks in the area had fresh cuts, and even my tree had two cuts.

I’d like to say that my branch has gone to the big bur oak cemetery in the sky, but it probably went into a shredder on campus. It’s probably mulch now and nurturing a new batch of oak trees, not the worst fate by any means.

I can’t argue that the loss of the branch has damaged the scenery in front of Eddy Hall, which still has plenty of red bricks and scratchy branches.




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Who made those pretty red tiles?

Not every neighborhood has a 100-year-old red tile grain elevator.

I’ve strolled past this Main Street landmark a million times and not really seen it. But in the right light and close up, those red tiles are very cool.

Much has been written about the historic Pillsbury A Mill and this elevator, but not much about those pretty red tiles. My geology-slanted mind wanted to know: Who made them?

I asked professional historians, amateur historians, a developer, a tile-maker, historic brick aficionados, and a clay expert. Someone suggested I check the elevator’s construction specifications. I found a crumbling copy at the Minnesota Historical Society’s library.

I learned that the Pillsbury company hired Barnett and Record to build the grain elevator. But the specs said nothing about the tile-maker.

Someone else referred me to old issues of the American Elevator and Grain Trade journal.

I learned that 100 years ago, editors were much more willing to describe the private, gruesome circumstances of a person’s death. The obituaries of millers in this trade journal made me flinch. But there was nothing about the Pillsbury tiles.

I discovered a lovely website devoted to the history of brick- and tile-making in Minnesota. The webmaster knows a lot about his subject, but not about this particular tile.

Finally, a University of Minnesota scientist, Larry Zanko, suggested a few possibilities including A. C. Ochs, a brick- and tile-maker from Springfield, a small town near New Ulm in southern Minnesota. The amazing thing about this company is that it still exists. It resides, appropriately enough, on East Rock Street.

The company has a slightly different name these days and it’s owned by a Texas company (and the very wealthy Warren Buffett), but Acme-Ochs Brick and Stone still digs clay out of the same clay deposit as it did way back in 1891.

In the old days, A. C. Ochs built some sturdy red tile silos in Midwestern farm country, and those tiles bear a strong resemblance to the Pillsbury tiles.

Photo from

Photo from

Phil Weller, the plant manager, told me that during the Depression, many of the company’s workers were farmers. They planted their crops in the spring, then worked at the brick company in the summer. The workers were paid in product credits, not cash. When a worker accumulated enough credits, the company would build a red tile silo  for his farm.

Ochs digs up clay that originally weathered out of ancient granite. The sediment sat at the bottom of a shallow sea (back when Minnesota was sloshy with seawater) for a long time. This clay is at least 65 million years old. Mr. Weller called it ‘fairly homogeneous.’ Smooth. This old clay is smooth.

As for the red color, I should have known. The clay is high in iron. The tile-maker didn’t have to add a fancy glaze when it fired these tiles. The clay turns from medium gray to several shades of red when it’s fired (or oxidized).

I can’t quite throw down the gauntlet and declare that A. C. Ochs was the tile-maker for the Pillsbury elevator on Main Street, but I can say it was very likely. Ochs made the brick for several University of Minnesota buildings at the time, so it was already doing plenty of business here in Minneapolis.

If anyone wants to disagree with me, they’ll have to show proof!

Next time you’re on the Minneapolis riverfront, stop and admire the transformation of plain gray mud into shiny red tiles that successfully contained tons of grain for decades.

I’m grateful to these people for their generous help: Bob Frame, Kit Richardson, David Wiggins, Larry Zanko, Richard Ferrell, Mike and Paul Pieschel, Doris Weber, Phil Weller, Malcolm Tilberg, and Vince of And thanks, too, to the Minnesota Historical Society for permission to run the photo of the elevator’s construction specifications.


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Waiting for snow…

What a winter.

By this time last year, we had piled up some impressive stats:

  • at least 7 snow emergencies
  • about 70 inches of snow
  • the biggest collection of curses anywhere, which we flung at the windows each morning when we woke up and it was ($%*) snowing (!^&) again!

Last year’s Great Heap of Snow morphed into a Great Heap of Snowmelt and the Mississippi River thundered over St. Anthony Falls, cresting not once, but twice. At its peak on April 12, 2011, here’s how the river looked from the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis:

St. Anthony Falls, April 2011

This year we’ve had:

  • 0 snow emergencies
  • less than 20 inches of snow
  • very few chances to use our enormous collection of curses

To be sure, we’re piling up stats, but this time it’s for warm temps and drought. Here’s how the river looked yesterday in the late afternoon sun:

St. Anthony Falls, February 27, 2012

A year ago, the river was flowing at about 8,000 cubic feet per second. This year, much less. Yesterday, it dipped mysteriously and suddenly below 2,000 cubic feet per second, but rose again to about 3,000.

Not a lot of water for a river whose name appears on spelling tests around the country, if not the world.

However, low water levels reveal things not usually seen, such as river bottom,

Nameless shallow spot, now an island, downstream from the Stone Arch Bridge

and slightly less natural things as well. This bit of river detritus, captured by an enterprising photographer,

Underwater bicycle. Photo by Antonio Rodriguez

begs several questions:

  • What on earth?
  • Was the bicycle rider sober?
  • Was the bicycle rider testing some new bicycle-boat physics?
  • Does the bicycle mark the spot? Is there buried treasure beneath the bike?

As I write these words, I’m listening to the blues on KFAI and waiting forlornly for the six or so inches of snow that was predicted for today. It’s sort of raining right now, but maybe we’ll wake up tomorrow to several inches of the real thing.

Underwater bicycle photo is courtesy of Antonio Rodriguez.


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Viva los robles!

This post is a fond goodbye to my bur oak branch.

I photographed its dormant buds last February and marveled at its brand-new bulging buds in April and its robust growth in June. I witnessed the aftermath of insects feasting on its leaves in September and the surprise appearance of an egg case in October.

And now it’s February again. A few weeks ago, half the egg case had already fallen off (the lowest bump on the left is all that remains):

Here’s how the egg case looked last October:

This winter there is no evidence of the moths that laid the eggs, of course, but another consumer of oak products sat hunkered down in the tree’s upper branches.

Even though I plan to pick another plant to follow through the seasons, I might not be able to stop checking in on this oak tree. I’ll want to know if the rest of that egg case falls off and if the U decides to prune my low-hanging branch.

It’s clearly hard to say goodbye, and in a broader sense, I might not have to. Bur oaks are tolerant of, or resistant to, all sorts of invaders and hardships: drought, heat, cold, poor soil, insects, fire.  They have deep, wide-spreading roots, and just look at that bark — it’s like armor.

Some of Minnesota’s tree kings — spruces, birches, white pines — might be deposed as the climate warms up. But bur oak — quercus macrocarpa — is expected to do well.

As for this particular tree? Spanish language students no longer file past it to attend class in Eddy Hall. It has outlasted a lot — the squirrel that planted it, the human culture that surrounded it as a seedling, countless dry spells and blizzards, and it will almost certainly outlast me.

Here’s a humble haiku triptych for this durable old tree:

whiskery branches

rub against a smooth blue sky

no shaving cream today








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What am I breathing?

I don’t really notice air unless there’s something wrong with it. I just breathe it and go about my business.

But since moving to the middle of Minneapolis, I have lost my natural obliviousness to air and breathing. I don’t need to check the haze cam because I can see the haze hanging over downtown on hot, windless days. And year-round, my little deck gets very, very dusty.

I wiped off part of the railing to better show the dust

I started asking air quality scientists what might be in the dust that falls out of the air and lands on my deck. Naturally, I wondered whether it had anything to do with the University of Minnesota’s steam plant, which dominates the skyline in southeast Minneapolis.

University of Minnesota steam plant

But it probably doesn’t. The steam plant has modern pollution control equipment and now burns mostly natural gas, a relatively clean fuel. It used to belch black smoke, as you can see in this 1907 photo:

Hennepin County Library photo

The scientists told me that the sources of dust on my deck were probably mineral (soil) and vegetable (organic). Some of the ‘organic’ dust, no doubt, comes from the pesky finches that nest in our nooks and crannies.

As for the soil dust, maybe it’s kicked up by the traffic and the wind. This large-particle dust apparently isn’t a huge health hazard — the respiratory system removes it before it does much damage.

Not so the tiny-particle pollutants spewed out by trucks and cars. Air quality experts don’t waste time inventing euphemisms. They come right out and call those particles air toxics. Air toxics don’t settle out on deck railings. They tend to stay in the air.

I decided I’d better stay focused on dust. I called the city of Minneapolis to see if they had anything to add to the conversation. Jennifer Tschida suggested I test it for lead because Minneapolis soil typically contains lead. I hiked over to her office, and she loaded me up with the testing paraphernalia.

First I did an “instant” test developed by 3M. I rubbed a swab on my deck. The fluid inside was supposed to turn pink or red if it detected lead. It didn’t. It stayed yellow.

Then I rubbed some of the dust onto a wipe,

folded it up into a tube, and took it back to Jennifer. She beamed it with a lead analyzer that looked like a radar gun. It took all of thirty seconds.

Again, the dust came up negative. A good thing.

After this minor exercise in citizen science, I had to remind myself of the big picture. We all breathe easier because of the Clean Air Act, and the new mercury standards are a huge step forward. If you look at the national air quality trends, they all seem to be going in the right direction.

Still, there’s a lot of dust on my deck. First, I should shoo away the finches, see how things look, then perhaps file a complaint with the city. The form is easy to fill out, not as easy as breathing in and breathing out, but pretty easy, which says to me they care about the air in my neighborhood.

One last image: blue skies, the kind I like, over downtown.

Environmental scientists who generously answered my questions or steered me in the right direction: Gregory Pratt (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), Dylan Millet, Julian Marshall, and Emily Peters (University of Minnesota), and Jennifer Tschida (city of Minneapolis).


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Top ten things to do with an old swimming pool

Why do people fill in swimming pools? Several predictable reasons: they don’t want the expense or the work of maintaining them; they consider the pools dangerous; they don’t swim; they do swim.

The more interesting question is: What if you didn’t bust up the concrete with a jackhammer, haul in a bunch of dirt, and fill up the hole? What if you did something else with your old swimming pool?

I ask the question because the University of Minnesota just knocked down Norris Hall on the east bank campus,

Norris Hall. University of Minnesota photo.

and Norris Hall had two old pools. I used to swim in one of them.

Norris Hall pool. University of Minnesota photo.

I watched wistfully the other day as dump trucks delivered dirt, and backhoes pushed the dirt around,

Demolition of Norris Hall

and I wondered whether there wasn’t something more interesting than turning old pools into “green space,” which is the university’s plan.

Top Ten Things To Do With an Old Swimming Pool:

  • 10. Set up a fish farm. Tilapia, for example. Or in the university’s case, turn the genetic engineers loose and develop a new kind of fish.
  • 9.  Turn the pool into a bunker. I won’t even provide the link to the survivalist websites that suggested this option.
  • 8. Create a rainwater collection pit. The university’s gardeners could draw water from it for nearby thirsty plants. So ecological!
  • 7. Leave it alone and advertise it as a subject for photographers. I am inclined to photograph old, rusty stuff, but abandoned pools — I was a little surprised to see this idea rattling around the Internet.
  • 6. Create a greenhouse. A great idea, especially for a university with so many ties to the world of horticulture. Sure, most of those folks are on the St. Paul campus, but they could take the campus shuttle.
  • 5. Switch back and forth: swimming pool in the summer, skating rink in the winter. If they can do this in New York, we in Minnesota can do it better.
  • 4. Turn it into a sunken garden.  Why should St. Paul have all the great sunken gardens? Time for Minneapolis to step up.
  • 3. Take a deep breath and turn it into a skate park. If this isn’t immediately obvious, think of the ramp from a pool’s shallow end to deep end. Perfect.

Norris Hall pool. University of Minnesota photo.

  • 2. Turn it into a giant ball pit. If this seems more appropriate for little kids than college kids, time to rethink:

And my favorite thing to do with an old swimming pool:

  • 1.  Make a water lily pond. I truly love this idea despite its lack of pizazz. There is a shortage of ponds on the east bank campus. This would have been a lovely spot for water lilies and frogs, so close to East River Road and overlooking the Mississippi River. Many people have successfully turned pools into ponds, but I was especially taken with the down-to-earth, down-under tale told by an Australian family. Their old pool had the usual baggage — too much work, too much expense, nobody swam. But the problem of what to do with it “sat in the too-hard basket for several months.” I have baskets like that. They finally succeeded. Check out their story. I would love to visit that family and see that pond.

P. S. I have written several times about the sand dredged out of the Mississippi by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The city of Minneapolis told me that the sand was good for filling demolition holes. You guessed it.

Lisa Peters photo

The university filled up a pool I used to swim in with my sand.

I swear, I didn’t plan this.








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