Day #179: Minnesota Historical Society

I am grateful to the people, the planning, and the opportunities for education offered by our Minnesota Historical Society. We try hard to see each new exhibit and we have traveled to most of the installations around the State. I truly believe that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana) The people at our MNHS connect us to history. Thank you to the planners, the librarians, the docents, the exhibit managers, the gift shop personnel (they are awesome), the front desk staff, and all the people who maintain the facilities. My wish for every person who lives in or visits Minnesota is that they will avail themselves of these incredible opportunities to remember the past.

Minnesota Historical Society

Day #129: Lisa See

I eagerly anticipate each of Lisa See‘s new books because she’s a compelling writer and she fearlessly explores a history which is her own, but unfamiliar. From the very first, with On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family in 1995, to her most recent, The Island of Sea Women, I am grateful for her books because they open my eyes and my heart. (She’s also very good at getting the word out and building a community of readers.) 

Lisa See

Day #128: Historical photos

One of the best parts of the internet for me is the community’s contribution of historical photos. I enjoy the reminders of my own past, a look into a past I don’t remember, and the inspiration those photos provide. I haven’t taken many photos in my lifetime, so I’m grateful for the people who do. I often wonder what prompted someone to take a picture of something offbeat. The photo below? Dayton’s Oak Grill, no date. But look at the signage above the door: “Men’s Oak Grill: Ladies Admitted with Male Escort.” I had no idea.

Dayton's Men's Oak Grill

Day #115: Book Treasures

On a hunt through a used bookstore, nothing brings me more delight than finding a book I didn’t know existed that’s written by a favorite author. Many years ago, I discovered that Carol Ryrie Brink had written a book called The Twin Cities (The Macmillan Company, 1961).

Carol Ryrie Brink and The Twin Cities

You probably recognize her as the author of the 1936 Newbery Medal winner, Caddie Woodlawn. You may not have known that although she was born in Idaho, graduated from Berkeley, she lived in St. Paul for 40 years. Her husband, Raymond, was a professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota. She taught creative writing while she lived here. Hamline University named her as one of twenty-eight outstanding women of Minnesota in 1954.

This book is very much a time capsule and it’s fascinating to read for that reason. With a Euro-centric view of living in Minnesota, the chapters cover figure skating, the skylines and progress of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the indoor gardens, the Winter Carnival, the Minneapolis Aquatennial, the Old Log Theatre, the anticipation of the new Guthrie Theater … and many, many more tidbits. She includes several pages about the native American tribes, all of which have a 1950s lens. Those pages are uncomfortable to read but I appreciate having this perspective on where we’ve come from.

In the chapter “Dinner and a Show,” she writes, “I remember one Sunday when friends from New York tried to take us to lunch in Minneapolis. My husband and I, like our neighbors, were unaccustomed to lunching away from home on a Sunday, but we supposed that it could easily be done. We were as surprised as the New Yorkers to find that most of the restaurants were closed, and that cocktails were entirely out of the question. The only satisfaction that our thirsty friends got out of the adventure was the dubious thrilled of finding themselves in that incredible part of the world known to them as ‘the sticks.’”

She writes about “Jim Hill” in her chapter on the “Empire Builder.” Hill advertised for settlers along his railway so goods and commerce and supplies would flow. He built a fabulous art collection. He believed strongly in education, books, and libraries, so the Hill Reference Library at the St. Paul Central Library was planned shortly before his death. In 1910, Hill published a book called Highways of Progress, in which he wanted to see beyond the present to “anticipate the needs and opportunities of tomorrow.”

It’s tomorrow. We still live in the context of our history … although we’re striving to make forward progress. I’m grateful for the discovery of book treasures like this one.

Day #93: Roxane Orgill

Some books have a vivid place in my thoughts. When I read Dream Lucky, I time-traveled to 1936, meeting the Big Band leaders who are a part of my personal soundtrack. The subtitle for the book is “When FDR was in the White House, Count Basie was on the radio, and everyone wore a hat…”

Here’s the official blurb: The time: 1936-1938. The mood: Hopeful. It wasn’t wartime, not yet. The music: The incomparable Count Basie and Benny Goodman, among others. The setting: Living rooms across America and, most of all, New York City.

Dream Lucky covers politics, race, religion, arts, and sports, but the central focus is the period’s soundtrack—specifically big band jazz—and the big-hearted piano player William “Count” Basie. His ascent is the narrative thread of the book—how he made it and what made his music different from the rest. But many other stories weave in and out: Amelia Earhart pursues her dream of flying “around the world at its waistline.” Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., stages a boycott on 125th Street. And Mae West shocks radio listeners as a naked Eve tempting the snake.

I admire Roxane Orgill as a writer, researcher, and weaver of history. This book is storytelling magic, and it’s all true! Her picture book, Jazz Day, is astounding as a melding of verbal poetry, visual poetry, and real people. Her writing is so evocative that I feel certain I lived alongside those people, stood in their locations, and had that awareness of what was happening around me. I am grateful for Roxane’s skill in crafting books that aid my understanding of the world. I’m going to read Dream Lucky again this weekend.

Day #73: Factum Arte

If it weren’t for insects and lizards, archaeologist was high on my list of careers. The history, the discovery, understanding the connection between then and now. Today I am an armchair archaeologist, avidly following developments in the field. One aspect I could never align with my beliefs is removing items to a museum, oftentimes in another country. I am grateful to know that Factum Arte is reproducing artifacts without moving them, without endangering them, “accurate to one-tenth of a millimeter.” Their work is jaw-dropping, so be sure to watch the video. There are days that being a Luddite is highly appealing (except that I spend 12 hours a day on a computer), but Factum Art’s use of technology is a welcome advancement in archaeology.

Factum Arte workshop. Photo: CBS News

Day #51: Family History

I am grateful for having a deep connection to history … it’s a family tradition.

My grandmother subscribed to hometown newspapers in two states. She cut out tidbits about family and friends and pasted them with rubber cement into used ledger books and scrapbooks.

When conversation ensued on Sundays after dinner, with the day’s visitors, it was often about family history. I grew up observing the oral tradition of storytelling to keep history alive.

My mother picked up the responsibility for family history by updating a thick book with the births and deaths of my grandmother’s and grandfather’s families (they were related). My mother had 36 aunts and uncles.

Then she began to dig farther back. She subscribed to genealogy magazines, visited the Minnesota Historical Society, joined a German research group, and wrote many letters. She published a family newsletter in her own mission to keep history alive.

Imagine how pleased she was to learn that her great-grandfather’s house had been moved from its site to Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, Wisconsin. He constructed houses for a living and reportedly left Germany when the Navy conscripted all the available wood in his area. In America, he built Fachwerk houses and his own home was constructed as a model. He marked all the housing materials with Roman numerals to show how the home went together, a boon to those reconstructing the house.

We held a family reunion at Old World Wisconsin nineteen years ago. Family young and old were able to tour the house and realize they were part of a long line of interesting people, people who had hopes and dreams, who laughed and cried, who maintained lives that made our own existence possible.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” — Rudyard Kipling