The Minnesota State Capitol is considered one of America’s greatest feats of statehouse architecture. But only a handful of the people who actually built the structure are known and information about them is scattered among archives and family collections. The University of Minnesota’s research and media team, sponsored by the Labor Education Service, set out to discover who these builders were and share their stories.
The Who Built Our Capitol? documentary and website is the result of the research of the mostly volunteer team who uncovered names, occupations, and the work and community life of over 600 workers and contractors who constructed the building from 1896 to 1907. The descendants of builders were consulted and became primary collaborators as they provided stories, memoirs and pictures, and even artifacts for a Capitol exhibit. The project especially aimed to identify the six unnamed workers who died in accidents during the Capitol’s construction. Their newly discovered stories fostered the first public recognition of the workers at Workers Memorial Day ceremonies on the statehouse grounds.
Researchers strived for accuracy and carefully documented their sources as to lay the foundation for future scholarship on the topic. Work to further illuminate workers’ contributions continues as the website is updated with new contributions from researchers and builders’ families. To have lasting impact, the project sought to interest young people in the Capitol builders. A series of classes were piloted at a St. Paul middle school using the Capitol construction as a vehicle to teach broader social studies concepts.
Who Built Our Capitol? serves to spark discussion about many modern day issues. Rediscovering and publicizing the skills and sacrifices of Capitol tradespeople can help foster workplace and social justice through the assertion of the value of all people’s contributions. The documentary’s chronicling of turn-of-the-century construction dangers and burdens of injury and death on families provides historical context and rationale for safety regulations and insurance programs taken for granted today. The portrayal of the Capitol builders and their time provides an entrée to compare and evaluate the present and pursue a more equitable future society.