New ebook tells the story of ‘Minnesota’s Geologist’

Enter Newton Horace Winchell, who explores the state by train, birch bark canoe, sailboat, horse-drawn cart, and on foot, writing volumes about the rocks, geological history, and the earliest peoples. Who was this man, what drove him, what was his story?

In her latest book, Minnesota’s Geologist, Sue Leaf writes about Winchell, how he got into the state and what he did. In connection with his travels, sufferings and successes, we also get to know the geology of the state because the rocks were so much part of its history. And Minnesota has incredible geological diversity, which Winchell reflected on in several reporting volumes and later wrote about.

I’ve read Leaf’s work before and I like her factual style. She doesn’t try to blind readers with poetic jokes, but will slowly close you off with good reporting and presentation. A glimpse into the life of a man who meticulously fielded some of the secrets of Minnesota’s geology is best possible without rapture.

While the postcard view of the state often consists of lakes, loons, and walleye, Minnesota has some of the oldest rocks in the world, as well as an infant geology. We see everything in the book, often when Winchell researched it and began to understand it for himself.

Winchell began exploring the southeast along the Mississippi River in Winona County for its tall limestone, sandstone, and shale cliffs that were born in warm tropical seas hundreds of millions of years ago. He would explore the south-west, with its history written by glaciers, and the north-west, with its incredibly flat terrain, which was created a few thousand years ago in geological time at the bottom of a massive, glacier-fed lake.

Finally, we come to the northeast, the Arrowhead, where Winchell would focus most of his work on rocks created by volcanoes underground or above ground a few billion years ago.

What made Winchell so special, Leaf notes, is his curiosity and ability to study subjects in depth. He wasn’t born a geologist, but soon developed what Leaf calls the “geologist’s eye”. He became an expert on rocks, much of which was self-taught, and was soon able to see things others passed, how rocks formed and how they resembled those hundreds of miles away.

His travels give us a glimpse of counties in southeast Minnesota. According to Leaf, Winchell especially loved Fillmore County with its deep valleys and creeks and rock faces to read for their story. Many of the towns in the county, including Chatfield, Preston, Forestville, and Lanesboro, started out because of waterfalls that drove mills.

I loved this man, although I would have liked Leaf to share some of his writings to see what he has reported in his paper. One thing I really liked was how Native Americans admired him for his strength and endurance in the wilds of the Northeast.

We also meet briefly with Dr. Charles Mayo, who performed prostate surgery on Winchell. At the time, Mayo Winchell announced that such operations had only a 4-5% chance of death but a 90% chance of success. The operation went well and helped Winchell move on to the next phase of his life. Although the operation helped Winchell, he was not completely cured. In 1914 he underwent a second operation in the twin cities and died the next day.

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