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 HeavenAilanthus 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?

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