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‘Joy in Minnesota’ becomes TV producer’s passion project to unveil truths about Twin Cities, Minnesota history

Historical perspective gleaned in 90-second Instagram videos is what makes “Joy in Minnesota” such a smart weekly treat, as it travels around Minnesota teaching its 10,000 followers quick-hit lessons.

“Joy in Minnesota” founder Joy Mulholland
“Joy in Minnesota” founder Joy Mulholland

In the aftermath of the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ recent win over the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Minnesota football airwaves were filled with hot takes and column inches, all trumpeting the Floyd of Rosedale trophy’s illustrious return to the U of M campus. But subscribers to Joy Mulholland’s entertaining and edifying Instagram account “Joy in Minnesota” were treated to this lede and perspective

“You may have heard that Floyd of Rosedale will return to Minnesota’s trophy case after the Gophers beat Iowa 12 to 10 last weekend. But did you know that the origin of the rivalry is actually rooted in racism?” 

Mulholland goes on to detail the tensions that arose after the Gophers beat Iowa badly in 1934, with the Hawkeyes complaining post-game about Minnesota’s intentional roughing-up of their running back Ozzie Simmons, who was Black. The incident led to Minnesota governor Floyd B. Olson making a bet with Iowa governor Clyde Herring around state hogs that year, and some nine decades later, Mulholland concludes, “It’s a fun tradition, but let’s not forget the more serious reason it started. Violent discrimination almost led to the breakdown of a relationship between schools, and as colleges and teams across the country continue to struggle with racial equality and inclusion, we all need to keep standing up for what’s right.”

That sort of perspective — gleaned in 90-second Instagram videos — is what makes “Joy in Minnesota” such a smart weekly treat, as it travels around Minnesota teaching its 10,000 followers quick-hit history lessons. 

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“Most of my posts are relevant to something that is happening today,” said Mulholland, an Iowa State alum whose family has “deep Gopher roots,” including her husband Steve, a former Gopher football player-turned-sports columnist

But her posts go way beyond football and have included stories on Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood, Dakota history, St. Paul’s Hidden Falls, and the history of Minneapolis’ Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. 

“I’ve done projects on racism and different things that are happening in the Twin Cities because I think people want to know the context and they want to feel that connection. They want to understand and, unfortunately, [legacy] journalism, they’re so hamstrung with either space or time they can’t get into a deeper context, and funders don’t want to pay for that kind of coverage and things like that. And I don’t have anybody that I’m answering to other than myself so I can talk about whatever I want to talk about,” Mulholland said.

On the Gophers-Hawkeyes rivalry, Mulholland said she wondered, “Where did this even start? How does a pig become a trophy?”

“I really thought it was just going to be about a pig farm in Iowa,” she said, adding that she also thought about the story of Jack Trice, a Black player at Iowa State in the 1920s who died of his injuries the day after the Gophers beat the Cyclones. “Do I love pointing out that ‘Hey, there’s this darker story to this fun thing that we have?’ Not necessarily, but I do think it’s worth knowing and it helps us appreciate how far we’ve come.”

The “Joy in Minnesota” story on the Minneapolis Athenaeum and the special collections library garnered 40,000 views on Instagram.
Photo by Joy Mulholland
The “Joy in Minnesota” story on the Minneapolis Athenaeum and the specialcollections library garnered 40,000 views on Instagram.
It’s what newspaper columnists and talk-radio hosts have done for years—provide a perspective and a voice, and “Joy in Minnesota” joins a growing Insta-trend of history and travel vlogs that attract audiences that most mainstream media don’t even know exist. (Mulholland is a big fan of Lakewood Cemetery’s similarly themed account.) Her clips are free of advertising and outside editing, and that DIY approach is part of the appeal, whether she’s reporting on the state’s number of lakes, the history of Longfellow Gardens and “Song of Hiawatha,” or herself.  

The entire production is professional, reportorial, and quick-hitting, and doesn’t rely on the personality-over-content ethos that so many social media influencers rely on. Rather, it’s nuts-and-bolts reporting boiled down to 90 seconds, and for the moment, Mulholland is happy doing it for free for her growing Instagram and TikTok audiences. Still, “Joy in Minnesota” begs for a wider audience, so much so that some smart producer of local TV news or “Almanac” should pick it up. 

“That would be the dream,” said Mulholland, whose day gig is as a producer with chef/restaurateur Andrew Zimmern’s cooking show on the Outdoor Channel. But when COVID shut down the television industry, she started making history videos on her own. Now her “hobby” has “taken on a life of its own,” with story ideas and tips coming from friends, family, and complete strangers, all of whom appreciate her work as a reaction to a certain pervasive strain of shallow reporting. 

Mulholland: “I wasn’t getting that deeper insight, that deeper understanding of, ‘OK, that’s beautiful, but what happened there? Who lived there? Why does it matter?’ And also, ‘Why are we protecting these places, these historical landmarks? Why are these places more valuable than other places? Just give me more.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’m not finding it. I’ll make it myself.’ And the information is there. We are blessed with the Minnesota Historical Society, which has been around since before we were even a state. We have vast resources of research and archives and so many things available to look at to find the history, but it is work and it’s work that people don’t necessarily have time for in their everyday life. So, I’ll do it.”

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Mulholland hopes her hobby will someday become paid work, though she still wants to have the freedom to report on what interests her. 

“I don’t want to have a sponsor that’s telling me what content I can and cannot do, or that I have to make a mention of a product that I maybe don’t like,” she said. “But if I can find Minnesota companies, Minnesota products, or Minnesota businesses that I can lift up, that makes sense, that have a history, that have a legacy, that have a reason behind them that I think connects to an audience, that would be amazing. I don’t know where to go, though, without giving up some of that freedom and autonomy and honesty.”

Mulholland’s love of history was cultivated by her father, who was a jazz drummer in Chicago clubs, and whose lessons led her to major in music history at Iowa State. “Joy in Minnesota” has tackled business, arts and agriculture history, and the episode on the history of the Minneapolis Athenaeum garnered 40,000 views. One of her first and most popular posts was “Can a Rock Be Racist?,” on the Pond brothers, who wrote the first [Christian] history of Minnesota and whose first home sat on the shores of Bde Maka Ska. 

“Here I had been living less than a mile away from it for five, six years, and I had no idea about that story,” she said. “And I think for a lot of people it’s the same thing: They pass by monuments and landmarks all the time and have no idea the history behind them. And I don’t blame them, but when you discover it, it just makes you feel like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve lived this. I’ve lived this rich history right in my backyard.’ And even if it’s not necessarily a bright history, or heroic history, it’s still history. And then when you meet other people, and they maybe know the story or you tell the story, then you feel connected to that person by sharing that story, and it’s just amazing how those connections happen.”

All in 90 seconds.

“Yep, I gotta cram it all in in 90 seconds. I do try to follow up on my blog with a more fleshed-out version. I want to give people the references, I want them to know where my sources are, I’m not just making this stuff up, it’s legit. You know, I go back to the original sources as much as I possibly can. But yeah, just to fit it into 90 seconds is quite a challenge.

“Joy in Minnesota” delivers quick-hit deep dives into Minnesota landmarks like St. Anthony Falls/Owamniyomni.
Photo by Joy Mulholland
“Joy in Minnesota” delivers quick-hit deep dives into Minnesota landmarks like St. Anthony Falls/Owamniyomni.
“Each person has their own connection to it. When I look for stories, I sometimes have in mind my brother-in-law who is not from Minnesota, he’s a transplant from New York State who’s lived here for the last 20 years. He appreciates it because he doesn’t know any of this; he doesn’t know ‘Why is everything named after Hennepin, or what’s up with Summit Avenue?,’ and it’s fun to hear feedback from people who are discovering the state — and people who’ve lived here their whole lives.”

A combination of COVID lockdown, DIY media technology and widespread skepticism about institutions and history has fueled a new interest in history, and “Joy in Minnesota” is leading the renaissance here.

“I don’t know when it started,” Mulholland said. “I don’t know what the impetus was, but I do feel like there definitely is this growing distrust of what we were taught growing up and what was in our history books, and people are craving honesty and craving the unvarnished truth. Not in some sort of judging way, but just, ‘Tell me the facts, take away this propagandized handed-down history, and tell me the real facts and let me make a decision myself about how I feel about it.’ 

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“History is written by the winners, right? But these days people are more questioning of history and want to know more. I have a massive list of stories that I want to tell, and the hardest part is deciding which am I going to do right now? Whether it’s relevant, it goes by so fast, gotta get it out there, but I gotta pay the bills first. So I try to squeeze in as much as I can — like, yesterday, I recorded five videos, just trying to keep up, like with any hobby.”