Book Review: “Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State”

owothIn my work as a librarian, I have the extreme pleasure to curate my branch’s local history collection.  Since I took up that charge, Mary Losure’s Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State (U of M Press, 2002) has been staring me down, begging me to pluck it off the shelf and check it out.  I finally did and it did not disappoint! Our Way or the Highway chronicles one of the most dramatic protest events of Minneapolis’s recent history.

The story begins in 1998 with plans for the expansion and rerouting of Highway 55, also known as Hiawatha Avenue, which runs through South Minneapolis.  These plans meant demolition of older homes close to E. 54th St. and a reroute into the natural area near the Mississippi River, towards what is now known as Coldwater Spring.

A longtime homeowner grieved for the loss of her house, bought by the state, and a local pipefitter of Dakota heritage spoke out on behalf of four sacred oak trees; both stood in the path of the proposed expansion. Earth First! members took up the cause, along with local environmentalists and activists.  In the fall of 1998, with an occupation of the doomed houses, a late night police raid (the largest combined law enforcement action in Minnesota history), and bulldozers sweeping in to bring down houses after a swath of arrests, the Minnehaha Free State was born.

Map of camp, oaks, and 8 block stretch of old Hwy 55

Map of camp, oaks, and 8 block stretch of old Hwy 55

The Minnehaha Free State was the name given by protestors to their collection of tents, structures, and the sacred fire that comprised their occupation of the spaces they protected.  MFS began in a group of houses on the verge of demolition and then, after a raid and destruction of the houses, relocated to the space around the four sacred bur oaks near Coldwater Spring in the wide oak savannah next to the Mississippi River.  The group grew and shrank and its members came and went, but they held their ground solidly for over a year, ultimately bowing to the pressure of the state as exercised through many governmental agencies and the Minneapolis Police Department.

800 people protest the reroute in a field near the four bur oaks, March 1999

800 people protest the reroute in a field near the four bur oaks, March 1999

Mary Losure, a longtime MPR reporter for environmental issues, covered the unfolding drama of the MFS’s opposition to the highway expansion throughout its existence, and her intimate knowledge shows through brilliantly in her writing.  Losure uncovers all the personalities at play throughout the protest, including political forces, law enforcement, legislators, South Minneapolis residents, Dakota tribal members, lawyers, environmental activists, and impassioned individuals on both sides, for and against expansion.  Their motivations and interactions are described clearly but with a storyteller’s touch; Our Way engages readers with both content and style.

A protester holds forth from one of the few remaining branches of a soon-to-be-felled oak

A protester holds forth from one of the few remaining branches of a soon-to-be-felled oak

Our Way is a great read about highways and their impact on communities.  It captures the way citizens stand up to state power around issues of land use and infrastructure, both through the accepted political channels and via radical methods.  Losure’s book is an intriguing case study for planning and political nerds and an inspiring one for environmentalists and activists, plus a simply fascinating bit of local Minneapolis history.

Tipis and sweat lodge near the four bur oaks

Tipis and sweat lodge near the four bur oaks

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3 Responses to Book Review: “Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State”

  1. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig February 6, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    I remember that protest…even popped over to it one time when I was home on leave just to get an inkling of what was going on.

  2. Elliot Altbaum
    Elliot Altbaum February 6, 2015 at 5:03 pm #

    Great article, thanks. Adding another book to my reading list!

  3. hokan February 9, 2015 at 12:17 pm #

    I bought that books a few months ago. I’ll have to move it closer to the top of the pile!

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