Back from a GREAT national history conference

I returned from a 3-4 day AALSH conference in St. Paul, Minnesota the other day. Featured as one of the guest speakers was Garrison Keillor. There were 1,035 participants at the conference. Keillor revealed that this is the 40th anniversary of Prairie Home Companion, his famous radio show on NPR radio. Keillor has written 19 books of fiction.

GK started talking about Wabasha, a Sioux chief. He told the Europeans not to cross the Mississippi. Apparently the river was not wide enough, they crossed over. He was promised land and then a large sum of money for that land. There was the 1862 Sioux uprising and to him it was a great travesty. He went to Nebraska and died around the time of Little Big Horn. There is now a street named after him but GK thinks the Indian chief would have preferred the money.

GK said that Minnesotans try to be hospitable but people from St. Paul use a “preemptive sense of superiority” just in case people from else where don’t like them. He was asked by the AALSH to speak and at age 72 he believed he was old enough to be asked by a history conference to speak on history. He claimed that history IS local. He said there were other things going on during the rock and roll era of the 1950s, it was not just Elvis. The 1960s was the age of protests but not everyone was protesting. He said that the 50s and 60s was a large boom for education. It boosted people into the middle class.

GK looked back to the beginning of St. Paul and claimed that Pig’s Eye Lake was a half a mile away from where we sat listening to him. The man Pig’s Eye was really named Pierre Parrant and the French name sounds better but for ten years this area of St. Paul was called Pig’s Eye. He sold whiskey to soldiers at Fort Snelling in 1819. He was actually a French Canadian here before the Anglos came. There were other businessmen and they went up and down the trail in the RRV up to Pembina and back. The soldiers were innocent aliens from back East.

Mendota operated a still but they were kicked out and Fountain Cave was up river which operated a tavern. In 1840 a chapel was built and it was named after Apostle Paul. Then there was Frank B. Kellogg (not the corn flakes guy) who was a self-taught lawyer. He became Calvin Coolidge’s Secretary of State and he negotiated the Kellogg-Preon Pact which was signed by 62 countries in 1928 to not go into war again. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in Paris. He lived in a house on Fairmont Ave. People don’t honor Kellogg now, they don’t know about him but they remember Pig’s Eye even though he was a public nuisance with his whiskey. The Kellogg house is on Crocus Hill.

Now there was also the renowned John Dillenger in 1934 who showed up in St. Paul and holed up for safety with his girlfriend Evelyn. He got into a gun fight with the FBI on Lexington Ave. but was here only one month. Of course there was Mark Twain who showed up but he went everywhere. There was also Thoreau who came in 1861 and he took copious notes around the lakes but he only lasted a year, died in 1862 back in Concord.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in st. Paul in 1896 on Laurel Avenue. He was honored at the Fitzgerald Theater Rice Park with a statue and since he was only 5 foot 7 inches tall, he was given five more inches so people could look him in the eye. He was on Summit Avenue at a townhouse in 1911 and left St. Paul when his book was accepted by Scribners. He married Zelda in New York and Scott and Zelda were quite the sensation. He would get $4,000 a story for the Saturday Evening Post. Zelda became a psycho and in the 1930s and 40s ended up in Asheville, NC. Scott wanted to regain his prominence in Hollywood but died of a heart attack in 1940 at the age of 44.

People of St. Paul still remembered the scandalous stories of Scott and Zelda. He came back to St. Paul in 1921 with Zelda pregnant. They rented a place on Goodridge Avenue and he wrote “Winter Dreams” there only in one year. Apparently one Christmas Eve he came to St. John’s cathedral completely drunk and asked where he was during the service. Scandalous! The second hand memories are fading as the story tellers die. Scott was an amazing stylist and authors words live on.

James J. Hill house lived in his house on Summit Ave. for 25 year years, he died in 1916. The headquarters for Great Northern had been St. Paul until it moved to Fort Worth, TX. GK thinks that James J. Hill house is bare and dark. One time GK ran into a Great Northern janitor who showed him the old headquarters on 5th Street and Kellogg Blvd. it had been abandoned and left as is from 1910. The high draftsman tables were still there with stools, it showed the GN RR office for JJHill, a modest place above facing the street. It was a lonely piece of history.

Ernest Hemingway came in 1961 and had electric shock to treat his depression. He died in 1962 in Idaho. There was also Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. The Houdini came through and Gorgeous George. But Minnesota has its famous native from 1941, Robert Zimmerman who goes by Bob Dillon. In 1960 he left Hibbing, MN and went to NY and told stories of being from a migrant worker background. Actually his father was an appliance store owner.
Actually for GK, history IS local. His ancestor was in Rhode Island is John Crandall and another famous one was Prudence Crandall who was kicked out of some organization in 1833 because she believed in helping the black slaves.

Then GK talked about a book “Discovering Whota Heritage.” A 16 year old heard his mother was on a South Dakota reservation, he had never known his mother knew Lakota. Kids had been sent to mission schools to get education. She left her tribal family and married a Swede. This son had written a book and was giving a talk where GK went to listen, he was sympathetic to authors. During the Q&A time Clyde Bellcourt stood up and thought he was in a powwow, he talked on and on about something that was close to his heart from an Indian perspective. The young man who had written the book about Indians was blonde and white featured, he was not really speaking from an Indian viewpoint though he was empathetic because of his mother’s roots.

Yes, history is local for GK, the loyalists moved north to Canada in 1777 and that is where GK’s ancestors ended up. GK’s grandfather James Keillor went to New Brunswick and in 1880 came to Anoka to help his sister whose husband had died and left her with three small children. He stayed on until they were all grown up and then he married Dora Powell. They had eight children together. That is when GK quoted and sang part of the hymn “And Thou whose presence takes delight…My comfort by day, my salvation” His grandmother was 30 and his grandfather was 65. Their house burned down and the grandfather was raking through the ashes looking for photos. There was a sense of citizenship for GK, “My ancestors had come and stayed. They came in 1880 to Anoka.” He has visited his grandfather’s grave in the Anoka cemetery. He has also gotten a hold of love letters written by his parents. He had always thought of his father as taciturn but after reading these letters he thinks otherwise. There was poetry in them despite the common everyday things he wrote on like manure spreaders and crops on their 160 acre plot of land.

GK spoke about the Diary of Anne Frank when she lived on 6th street in Amsterdam at the age of 14. This is one person’s story over a mass of statistics. A girl’s diary which discussed many things that happened. She wrote about hearing the school bell that rang every day which was 100 yards away. GK said that he would like a biographer to write an emotionally generous piece on him. What he learned from a person who is at the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam that he was a student there while Anne was hiding so close by.

GK has 1970s cassettes of his early shows and he wants them destroyed, so many mistakes. He also has gone through his scrap books to find a very angry LONG letter to the newspaper publisher in St. Paul that made it into print. GK said that if you are going to write an angry letter keep it short, it was embarrassing to him that he wrote so much. He quoted from the hymn “Abide with me fast falls the even tide, the darkness deepens Lord with me abide.” A Friend of his was dying and those were the words he clung to, they had substance such as “change and decay.” That is the human element that is a real life experience. “Abide with me.” Is what we need, words with meat in them.

GK goes to colleges and high schools and the kids these days don’t know the words by heart of songs we take for granted like Battle Hymn of the Republic or Julia Ward’s hymns, “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, they have trampled….” They get their smart phones out and read the text from that. Kids these days do NOT know the words to beautiful poetry.

GK was being honored at his h.s. alma mater in Anoka and he was around 400 kids who were happy and cheering to chants he remembers. They did not know who he was, he liked being anonymous in this crowd. He ended his talk with Robert Frost’s favorite quote about life that can be summed up in three words, “It goes on.”

That was the last of what Garrison Keillor spoke on, that life DOES go on despite whatever we do or say. I have not followed Keillor for years but I actually liked what he had to say, he seemed to be historically accurate. The better keynote speaker was Marilyn Carlson Nelson, I’ll write about her in my next post.

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