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The Big Marsh

The Big Marsh

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The Story of a Lost Landscape

Author Cheri Register

Minnesota Historical Society Press (May 1, 2016)

A rural community is changed forever when moneyed interests conspire to transform a treasured wetland.


Under the corn and soybean fields of southern Minnesota lies the memory of vast, age-old wetlands, drained away over the last 130 years in the name of agricultural progress. But not everyone saw wetlands as wasteland. Before 1900, Freeborn County’s Big Marsh provided a wealth of resources for the neighboring communities. Families hunted its immense flocks of migrating waterfowl, fished its waters, trapped muskrats and mink, and harvested wood and medicinal plants. As farmland prices rose, however, the value of the land under the water became more attractive to people with capital. While residents fought bitterly, powerful outside investors overrode local opposition and found a way to drain 18,000 acres of wetland at public expense.

Author Cheri Register stumbled upon her great-grandfather’s scathing critique of the draining and was intrigued. Following the clues he left, she uncovers the stories of life on the Big Marsh and of the “connivers” who plotted its end: the Minneapolis land developer, his local fixer, an Illinois banker, and the lovelorn local lawyer who did their footwork.

The Big Marsh, an environmental history told from a personal point of view, shows the enduring value of wild places and the importance of the fight to preserve them, both then and now.

Winner of the 2017 Minnesota Book Award for Minnesota Nonfiction

Author information

Cheri Register is the author of Packinghouse Daughter, which won a Minnesota Book Award and an American Book Award. She wrote the pathbreaking book Living with Chronic Illness: Days of Patience and Passion (reissued as The Chronic Illness Experience) and two classic works for internationally adoptive parents, “Are Those Kids Yours?” and Beyond Good Intentions, plus other books, essays, and articles.

She taught creative nonfiction writing at the Loft Literary Center for twenty years and has served as a mentor and manuscript adviser for many other writers. Earlier, she taught in Women’s Studies and the Scandinavian department at the University of Minnesota.

Reviews and news

Winner of the 2017 Minnesota Book Award for Minnesota Nonfiction

In the Media:

Rochester Post Bulletin

The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA)

Iowa Public Radio

Prairie Public Radio/Mainstreet

Albert Lea Tribune

Star Tribune

KFAI's Write on Radio


Austin Daily Herald

Minnesota History


Q & A with Cheri on

"With impeccable research, in flawless, often gorgeous prose, Reigster recounts the history of the draining of the enormous wetland that once dominated the ecology of southern Minnestoa's Freeborn County."
Wapsipinicon Almanac

Advance Praise:

The Big Marsh is a remarkable book. As I read these pages, I felt that I was reading the mind of the land—probing its memories of a fecund, flourishing youth, cowering before its enemies, mourning its losses—and celebrating, as elders do, the loveliness that is left of its life.”
Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Riverwalking and Wild Comfort

“Cheri Register gives us here a lovely, loving, and smart environmental history and memoir showing how much landscape and historical context matter.”
Annette Atkins, Professor Emerita of History, St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict

The Big Marsh describes the glorious dreams, the grandiose schemes, the lies, the deception, the ignorance, the avarice, and the unheeded pleas of those who saw beauty where others saw a wasteland. Minnesota has lost more than 50 percent of its pre-settlement wetlands. In lyrical prose, Cheri Register tells us how this happened.”
Sue Leaf, author of Potato City and The Bullhead Queen

  • This title is also available at your favorite e-book vendor.
  • 288 pages
  • 24 B&W Photos, Notes
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • ISBN: 9780873519953

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