Except for those of my students whose parents or grandparents attended the place where I teach which ended in 1966, few know about the early background of this institution which started in 1906 as an agricultural high school. I would venture to add that most of these same students and many faculty know very little if anything about the Old Treaty Crossing, only 13 miles away just across the border of our county.
This was not always so. In his autobiography, Conrad Selvig includes a photo and describes the Huot Park monument that commemorates the treaty signed by the Chippewa Indians in 1855. And, Old Treaty Crossing is featured most prominently in the top right side of the historical 16 x 22 foot mural located at the front of the campus’ auditorium.
The murals in our auditorium are artwork. Art is exactly what they were meant to be. History shows that all of us, regardless of our origins, have many things in our past of which we are not proud. Most people claim that the study of history is to teach us not to repeat our mistakes. However, the murals are not meant to be a lesson in history, but rather they are an irreplaceable artistic expression of the Red River Valley’s agricultural heritage.
Because of the passage of time (and as an introduction about farming!), I believe it is worth giving some background to these murals. The murals do not represent a precise work of history – they do not depict the Indian wars for instance – but they are art, or if you like, poetry emphasizing, in part, new beginnings. The left mural represents Scandinavian arrival in North America, fur trapping, and cooperation with the Native Americans. The right hand panel depicts the events at Old Treaty Crossing, and then subsequent development of agriculture, last of these, a (perhaps little noticed) farmer on a tractor with a few other farmers.
Little did I know that my very diminutive aunt Eleanor who died just a few years ago, would have some notoriety in the historic presentation of these murals. A November 11, 1942 article of our local paper on the completion of the murals stated they “have been formally presented to the Northwest School by the graduating class of 1932. Eleanor made the presentation at the Parent’s day program Saturday. She read a congratulatory letter from a former superintendent of the Northwest School, who acted as a counselor for the 1932 class.”
The article went on to credit the murals with the efforts of the State Art Director, Clement Haupers, of the Works Projects Administration (WPA). Haupers found unemployed skilled artists and matched them with a place for their work. In a Fall 1979 Minnesota History article, Haupers was interviewed and said, “The program was predicated on community service. The government paid the artist’s salary, but the recipient of his work was the sponsor who paid all other than labor costs.”
WPA’s artist, John Martin Socha from St. Paul, did the actual large scale painting that was honored on Nov. 11th, 1942. Socha’s other WPA paintings adorned the walls of the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, the auditorium of the Winona State Teachers college, the New Ulm high school, other St. Paul high schools and St. Luke’s Catholic church of St. Paul.
That presentation happened a decade after this gift had been donated by the class of 1932. The granddaughter of Chief Little Boy, a signer of the treaty, had a granddaughter named Myrtle who was present and attending the farm school. They were present at this ceremony honoring the John Martin Socha’s artistic rendition of a time in history. Native Americans were involved in the NWSA’s early history. Selvig’s book published in 1951 shows a picture of an Indian chief from the Red Lake Chippewa Reservation who spoke at a commemoration in 1920.
Someone working away daily in an office cubicle may not see Socha’s kind of art on the horizon’s landscapes. They also do not know about the heavy manual labor that was required of those early settlers. As a farmer’s daughter, I grew up working on the tractor and driving truck, helping with harvest before school started in the fall. It was hard work. My dad, and uncle and three aunts were all graduates of this farm school. Both grandfathers were farmers and my Norwegian maternal great grandfather, as well as a female relative, Margit Olsnes, homesteaded. Homesteading was not for the fainthearted.
However, what we had to do was NOTHING compared to what my uncle, three aunts and dad had to go through during the 1930s. Here in the Red River Valley the threat of losing the farm and ending up on the poor farm was ever present in my family. Some families DID lose their farms when they couldn’t pay their bills. I’ve heard of instances where a farmer might sell out his cattle because he couldn’t afford the feed but when shipped down to St. Paul, they were not worth anything and he still had to pay for the freight shipping charges. The 1930s was a very tough time for many people in the Crookston area, businessmen and farmers alike.
All of my aunts and uncles attended this school but they could not board at the school like all the other farm kids. Instead, they had to go back home five miles away to do the chores so that they could pay for tuition for their classes. At one point, money was so tight that my one aunt who just had her senior year to graduate in 1934 was told by her parents that she would have to stay home and work on the farm instead. The money was not available for my grandparents to pay for her tuition to continue in school, there were two others after her that needed to continue their schooling.
As it turns out, Superintendent McCall got wind of this and telephoned my grandma and told her, “Ethel just HAS to graduate with her class….I’ll find her a job on campus.” So that is what happened because of the kindness of McCall, Ethel DID graduate with her class in 1934. In fact, she went on to work at a university in the Liberal Arts department in Northridge, California for many decades. Think if this one man had not stepped in to find Ethel a job in the school’s kitchen to help cover for her tuition?
I think of the many, many hours my Aunt Eleanor spent with the rudimentary equipment that they used in the 1930s. Such as swathing the grain, putting them in bundles, then they were put into rows and then picked up by the latest in machinery. The hours that my uncle and three aunts spent laboring to save the family farm. But it is Aunt Eleanor whom I respect the most because she reminded me most closely of my dear grandpa.
Long may the murals in the auditorium live to be the artwork it was meant to be. History shows us that we, as fallen creatures, have many things that we are not proud of. But the murals in the old campus auditorium are not meant to be a lesson in the history of this area but rather an artistic expression.
Some people may want to have a more inclusive rendering of other nationalities and of women in the auditorium. Indeed, they should raise funds to have a new mural painted in the Wellness Center that is presently being built that would show inclusivity and diversity of nations represented now on this campus. I believe the “Invisible Farmer” needs to be given his or her due. That is why I will be writing a series on the farmers from the past who started with a small and humble farmstead that has evolved into a 3rd or 4th generation farm or a Century Farm. I hope some of the farmers from the outlying area will come forward with whatever photos of old farmsteads or stories that accurately depict what these early settlers went through.