Summer Road Trip: Great Plains and 10,000 Lakes


If there is a straighter stretch of the US Interstate Freeway System than I-90 across South Dakota I’ll eat my map. Heading east out of the Badlands, we pass through fields of blooming sunflowers stretching to the horizon and lose count of bikers riding the opposite direction to Sturgis.  

Before lunch we make our first stop: the Visitor Center at the US Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center. Just East of Sioux Falls, the USGS EROS Center operates the Landsat satellite program with NASA, and maintains the largest civilian collection of images of the Earth’s land surface in existence, including tens of millions of satellite images. Their Earthexplorer  website is a valuable tool for accessing some of the historical aerial and satellite imagery now held in NARA’s Cartographic Branch, including imagery previously featured here on the Unwritten Record

Back on the road, we’ve barely crossed into MN when D’OH! We have to pull over for a flat tire. Our spare won’t get us far, but luckily we can see the next exit just ahead. Looks like we’ll be spending our afternoon in Luverne, MN.  With time on our hands, we delve into the Special Media holdings to see what we can find about this corner of the Minnesota prairie.

Just North of Luverne, a bison herd grazes on the prairie of Blue Mounds State Park. This park was first developed in the 1930s with assistance from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The following films document the work of the CCC in other parks in Minnesota and around the country.

Cradle of the Father of Waters NAID 11652 Local Identifier 48.20

A Nation-Wide System of Parks NAID 11730, Local Identifier 48.99

Our next hits are on imagery from DOCUMERICA: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972 – 1977 . Among this program’s many assignments is coverage of life in and near a small city not far from here: New Ulm, Minnesota in 1974.


Detasseling Corn near New Ulm, MN


Polka Dancing at the Gibbon Ballroom in Gibbon, MN



This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Another film featuring Minnesota discusses the history of Swedes in America.

NAID: 11940 Local Identifier: 59.124

Inspired by our visit to the EROS Center, we move on to aerial photography.  Among the earliest series of aerial photography in the holdings of the Cartographic Branch are those created by the Soil Conservation Service, where we find a set of imagery for Rock County from 1936Such photography would have been used to create Soil Survey Maps, published with analytical reports, to help farmers, land use planners, engineers and others who need information about the soil. Record copies are filed at the archives, and scanned copies are available online through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. These historical reports date back over a century, well before the advent of the photogrammetry, and were critical to the development of agricultural science and to the growth of towns like like Luverne across the Midwest. 

Soil Map of Rock County, Minnesota

Soil Map of Rock County, MN 1949

We’ve got a new tire and a full tank of gas. Next stop Chicago!