History of one marsh is tale told for the future

The Big Marsh

In the overall list of worldwide environmental problems, draining one Freeborn County marsh more than a century ago is a blip.

Hundreds or thousands of marshes were drained in the western part of this region alone, because that area was once prime pothole country, perfect for waterfowl and other wildlife. The number drained in the rest of the pothole country of the United State and Canada, if known, would be staggering.

But to Cheri Register, that blip, the Big Marsh of Freeborn County, was personal because her great-grandfather, Elbert Ostrander, led the fight against the drainage.

In her book, "The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape," we learn the story of how political and economic powers rammed through the drainage at public expense, and what has happened since then. It makes a good historical read, a story about ourselves today and a warning about the future because of the damage from losing so many marshes. Fallout from their loss continues today.

In the introduction, she writes "The story that follows recounts one obscure but vital piece of Minnesota agricultural history: the drainage of an eighteen-thousand-acre wetland between Albert Lea and Austin."


Register uses old documents and newspapers to tell how her ancestors fought the drainage as an economic boondoggle. Back then, ecological nuances about the complex interplay between marshes, the land and ground water, weren't common. Her ancestors just instinctively knew they were valuable because of all they did when wet and that, and cost to taxpayers, were enough to want them to fight.

The book begins spelling out the glories of that land before a giant ditching machine did its damage. Register tells of how the land was settled and how her ancestors loved the land and fought for it.

But in the early part of the past century, many saw wetlands as wastelands. Not all, to be sure. It was wonderful to read that even back then, there were many people who understood the importance of keeping wild places around them, that not every acre had to grow money.

In the case of the Big Marsh, it wasn't enough. Powerful, moneyed, interests fought through the courtrooms and county board rooms to drain much of that marsh. In the end, they won and it was drained.

"I'm never surprised when the wealthiest people win," Register writes.

Once dry, the area did produce a lot of vegetables. Nearly a century ago, it was one of the nation's top producers of vegetables. But because it was peat soil, it needed water and decaying vegetation to stay fertile. Without the water, the area declined and 30 years after the first farmers came, they needed much more land just to make a living. Today, much of that land is in corn and soybeans, needing fertilizers and big machines.

Over time, some of that land was returned to wilderness and there's even a big wildlife management area there.

Register's final sentence in a book filled the cautionary of trying to force nature to bend to man's will is one of hope. "Mine is not, after all, just another gloomy story of rural decline, but a promising story of restoration as birds and humans find their way home."

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