I hope Minnesota’s reputation for excellent education left us, our children and grands, well informed about the fur trade brought to our region by the French. Look at place names for evidence. Du-Luth and Allouez are neither Finn nor Latin. But was it a French army invaded the territory?

No. Was explorers, black robes and, most of all, traders playing alchemist out to turn pelts into gold. A superb educational system has made us aware of the successful early globalists known as East India, Hudson Bay and Northwest, etc.

Afoot, with pack animals, carts and ships of all descriptions there was trade everywhere. Why? Because people wanted things, especially better things to make living easier or more rewarding.  

Northerly areas produced the best, more desired, quality of furs, making our region and much of Canada prime territory. “The Trade” went on with gusto for generations before the Twin Ports sprung to life for another kind of trade. Couldn’t ship grain or iron ore before there were farmers and miners producing those things to ship and sell. By then the fur trade was old-old news, easily overlooked in the rush forward.

Nonetheless, looking in the records of the Bay Co. (the major but not only actor) shows staggering numbers of pelts moved and resources gone into victualing. No grocery store, you see, to stock up so as much fish and game as could be had was smoked and salted for food.

Imagine how flour or dried peas survived movement to the interior in cloth sacks. Use of local resources was essential. Natives and traders pounced on places food was found. Wild rice, ducks, fish were scooped up, getting while the getting was good. A fur trade post was also a victual center, employing coopers (an essential occupation pre-plastic container) and others to keep food to feed the workers.  

My high school health class missed the fur trade diet; salted meat kept in casks and heavy use of grease (lard-fat-etc. store well in cooper-made barrels). Lots of salt and fat made a heart attack diet, but when living meant laboring calories were needed, no matter the health cost.

Now with many people laboring less there’s a different health picture. Back then if a coronary or hernia got you at age 40 you were doing pretty well. (Today’s human animal often replaces labor with recreation, though in some cases eating appears to be an occupation. As life gets easier human labor is less necessary, as perhaps are we.)  

As Northlanders we have a rich and interesting record to examine. At the get-go Natives and traders were integral parts of global trade empires literally spanning N and S America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India and China as trade partners.

I say partners because, in our case and most others, seems to me, no one was forced to kill beaver for their fur, make clay piles, beads or chinaware. Trade was/is voluntary, though sometimes not lacking coercion. After 1776 (guess why) the Hudson Bay Co. (HBCo) began encouraging natives to exterminate wildlife along the border as a method of keeping competitive traders away.

In pay for so doing the HBCo vowed to support and feed the natives of the decimated lands. Take a guess how well that promise was kept. Do most of us consider for a moment the effect of environmental devastation from removing millions of beaver (and etc.) followed by an extermination plan?

You can learn things at the HBCo archives in Winnipeg, but be aware of essential leanings. The global fur trade was followed in time by an equally globally minded trade in ore and grain. As, so t’ speak, pioneers in the global game how’re we doing now? Hum? I’ve no words for it either.  

Despite my inability to explain things I think it’s worth the effort to carry on. Firstly, maybe the long-gone fur trade is too distant a place to start looking at the present day. But where to start? Hard to find perspective in the present. Have to step back. How far?

Remember the circus? A short day’s drive south of the Ports leads to the Circus World Museum at Baraboo. The German Ringling family settled there. After entering the circus business Ringling chose “home” for its winter quarters. Sensible because Baraboo was somewhat central in the US, but without rail the location would be impossible.

For all else could be said of the circus, it was a product of the rail system. No circus would survive long going by road pulled by horse or early trucks. Those were loaded on rail cars to be unloaded at a suitable railyard (another circus requisite) with a parade to the circus grounds to follow. Circus wagons pulled by draft horses at times aided work elephants pushing. Lots of spectacle.

But, lacking a suitable railyard and near enough circus field a town would not see the circus. Some among you might recall a few decades past when the last of the circuses reached the Ports via semi-truck before motoring on to Thunder Bay.  

The coming and going of things in our world/lives can tell a story. One of the few, there are daily in-season circus performances under the big top at Baraboo. Where else will you see a live strong-man, clown or animal act? (2023 is the last year with Elephants.) What’s it mean? You decide, but seems to me the circus was another form of seasonal activity not far different from logging or farming or fishing, etc.

One element of the circus survives independently, the side show (once had a different label). Former oddities (I hope that’s gentle enough) have thrived going mainstream and are now well established in any shopping mall you care to walk into. Certain of the big-box stores offer an ever changing sideshow panorama. You never know what you’ll have to see.

A campus is another of the venues. The eyes can take only so much shock. But, trying to be constructive, I suggested to the circus museum they might pass along any of their surplus clown shoes because there were plenty of needy politicians to wear them.