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Was Burnsville in the Big Woods85 viewsLook out a nearby window and ask yourself “What did this view look like 175 years ago, just before European settlement began?”
Minnesota before white settlement was indeed a land of lakes and prairies and forest. But what about where you live? Or where you’re standing right now? Was it forest, prairie? What was it like?
Can we even know the answer? — so much has changed.
It turns out we can know, with amazing accuracy! This quest started at one of our monthly meetings. Our guest speaker was historian Larry Kortuem from Madison Lake, Minnesota. Larry has restored his family’s 1867 log cabin. Its huge logs were cut right there and dressed by hand, with ax and adze.
Those trees were part of “The Big Woods.” You can’t read Minnesota History without seeing references to “The Big Woods.” Yet, aside from the connection to Laura Ingalls Wilder, most of us don’t know much about this legendary forest.
Was modern Burnsville part of the Big Woods? 
 For the answers we owe thanks to an Austrian cartographer, the Minnesota DNR, the 
 U of Minnesota, and Wikipedia.
The DNR shows us a map! Shown at left, it divides
 the state into ecological “provinces” including in the 
 darker green, The Big Woods.
A big question arises: How could we possibly 
 know the extent of forests and grasslands 
 hundreds of years ago? After all, states like Ohio were totally forested, but you’d never know it from today’s view.
The answer to that wonderful question leads to work done by Frances J. Marschner, a cartographer born in Austria, who never set foot in Minnesota. Marschner worked in 1929 and 1930, producing the map titled “The Original Vegetation of Minnesota.”
Based on the notes of the Public Land Survey, 1847—1907, the Marschner map outlines just how much of the state once included wet prairie, oak openings, Big Woods, mixed hardwood, or any of a dozen other vegetative types that have been utterly changed by 19th- and 20th-century human habitation. It’s been found to be uncannily accurate.
It’s worth your time to read the DNR's article "The Mystery of a Map and a Man" http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteer/janfeb03/mystery.html (note: no longer available)
Finally, back to the Burnsville question. If you had stood at the location of Nicollet Commons Park in say, 1848, could you have claimed to be in the Big Woods?
Scrupulous attention to the Marschner Map suggests this answer: “No, but you could see it from there.” On the map the three-lobed orange blob (see arrow) is the heart of present-day Burnsville. It is designated an “Aspen-Oak Land.” The brown areas are “Oak Openings,” meaning the oaks are not thick. The lighter greens are prairie or marsh. The Big Woods are dark green.
The difference between “woods” and “openings” is sunlight. More than 50% and you would say the area is an opening. Sunlight gets through. In the Big Woods, not much light penetrated.
Just how thick and extensive could the forest be? The recent satellite photo above is of a remnant of the Big Woods in Wayzata. It’s the only remaining patch in the metro area. Nerstrand Big Woods State Park in Rice County is only 45 minutes away. It’s fun to still be able to see some Big Woods!
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Explore the south side of the River like never before - MInnesota Riverfront Park 201784 viewsThe City of Burnsville's newest park - Minnesota Riverfront Park - is 1.8 acres and is located at 600 Black Dog Road West.
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Arbor Day 82 viewsShirley Crane and Jane Allrich planting on Arbor Day. April 27, 1977 Burnsville Current.
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Wooded area near St. John the Baptist Cemetery (photo 2)81 viewsWhile at the cemetery the photographer found trees being cut for expansion of the cemetery. In his mind this was a reminder of how in the 1850s early residents found land off that same Judicial Road and chopped trees to build their first homes. Photo 2017.
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Trees being cut on property near St. John the Baptist Cemetery (photo 1)80 viewsWhile at the cemetery the photographer found trees being cut for expansion of the cemetery. In his mind this was a reminder of how in the 1850s early residents found land off that same Judicial Road and chopped trees to build their first homes. Photo 2017.
 
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