Forgotten New Ulm legend subject of local historian’s first book
NEW ULM — After 13 years of learning, writing, and revising, local historian Terry Sveine has released his first long-form book.
The book is a biography, entitled “The Life and Times of Francis Baasen: From Luxembourg Immigrant to a ‘Most Prominent Man'” The book focuses on the history of Baasen’s life. This includes his birth and wealthy life in Luxembourg, his move to America after his father supported the losing side of the 1848 revolution, and his contributions to New Ulm and Minnesota as a whole after moving to town in 1855.
Sveine has focused on Luxembourgian history as long as he’s been a historian. He co-founded and was the president of the Luxembourg Heritage Society of Southern Minnesota, and currently serves as its co-treasurer. Sveine said doing this work initially brought Baasen to his attention.
“In 2010 I had picked the low-hanging fruit of topics to write about for the newsletter,” he said. “There’s a book [called] “Luxembourgers in the New World“. There was a short paragraph about Francis Baasen as an accomplished Luxembourg-American. He was from Luxembourg and lived in New Ulm. I [started writing] about him [for the newsletter]. I was looking and found more and more. I thought, ‘Someday it’d be nice to write a book; this guy could supply the topic. He’s got such a background, he’s such a publicly accomplished person, he could be the topic of a book.'”
Baasen is notable for several reasons. He was the first lawyer in New Ulm, worked on the Minnesota Constitution, and was the first Secretary of State for Minnesota.
He was a major force in forming the city of New Ulm. He served as a city councilor, county commissioner, and city and county attorney. He also helped form the New Ulm Battery and a Catholic Parish.
With these contributions, the book’s editor Daniel Groebner said his resume rivals prominent New Ulm settler William Pfaender. Despite this, he is not a well-known figure in New Ulm lore and had no definitive works on his accomplishments or legacy. With his book totaling 419 pages, Sveine hopes to bring all of this history into the spotlight.
“The reason Baasen isn’t more famous is after his wife died, no family stayed here,” he said. “Baasen is a lost family name [in New Ulm]. I thought people who enjoy reading and history in particular would enjoy learning about this guy. He was so involved. I would claim he’s the most publicly accomplished man in New Ulm history.”
The process of writing this book has been long but fruitful for Sveine. He said the main reason it took so long was his relative inexperience at the beginning of the process. He pointed to one crucial misstep as costing him time and energy early on.
“I didn’t keep notes,” Sveine said. “The first 30 pages, I had no notes, I’m thinking of something and putting it together. Paragraph following paragraph, no theme to it, no chapter division or anything. I didn’t know what I was gonna find. When it became apparent I was gonna find a lot I started organizing it into, if not chapters, breaks in the writing. But there were no footnotes, no bibliography noted. Nothing. And it took me a year after I was done with it [to say] ‘This thing needs notation.'”
Finding sources on Baasen’s life and times was the biggest challenge Sveine identified with writing this biography. Surprisingly, the internet had little information about Baasen or his life. Groebner said he even entered the name into ChatGPT as a test, and the AI was unable to tell him who Baasen was. Sveine said a lot of physical research was required to find information.
“To write this I used 57 newspapers,” he said. “The bibliography has 267 entries, different source books or publications. There are 32 pages of index. And each of those pages is full in two columns. And we’ve used footnotes on the bottom of pages where appropriate.”
Currently, Sveine is satisfied with the ground he has covered with this first book. He said he has used Baasen’s life to chronicle the first 50 years of New Ulm’s history. As for the future, he would like to continue covering New Ulm’s history through biographies of less well-known people from New Ulm’s past. Sveine said these plans are nowhere near set in stone.
“I have this thought of telling New Ulm’s history through the course of three people,” he said, “Baasen dies in 1901, taking us to that period. There’s a man named John Graff, who was a pretty influential person locally as well. He died in 1948. I thought of taking it there. And I’m thinking a man named Victor Reim, who was a lawyer in New Ulm. This might be the first in a series of books, [but] I don’t want to lock myself into [it for sure].
The book is currently available at the Brown County Historical Society Museum. Those interested in buying a copy can also contact Sveine directly by calling 507-354-1123 or emailing at email@example.com.