Archive for October, 2015

Researching has its perks

I feel privileged to teach composition to college freshmen. This semester my students are working hard to learn how to research the academic databases to find scholarly sources to back up what they write. Unfortunately, except for those students whose parents or grandparents attended the former agricultural high school, few know about the early background of this institution which started in 1906.  I would venture to add that most of these same students know very little about an important, historic place that is only 13 miles away from a university that is heralded for its education.

The place where a treaty was signed (and later broken) is just across the border from our county. A monument commemorates the treaty signed by the Chippewa Indians in 1855. Many students have never been to this historic place while a bigger city 23 miles away holds a far greater attraction. Most know nothing about the Chautauqua event that is held annually every September at this park to celebrate the Native American and Métis traditions. I daresay, most faculty and staff have not adventured across the county lines to witness this yearly event either.

As I was doing keywords searches to help look at the microfilm in the library, I looked at headlines having to do with WPA (Works Progress Agency), NWSA and other words. Fortunately, I stumbled upon articles that related to the two 16 x 22 foot murals in our campus auditorium.  I discovered an Aug. 11, 1942 article in the local paper that reported the painter John Martin Socha was from St. Paul, Minnesota. He had accomplished other large scale paintings on 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.

As I read the next article from Nov. 11, 1942, I understood that the murals in our auditorium were meant to artistically depict “Landing of the Norsemen in North America” and “The Signing of the Old Crossing Treaty.” I’ve learned that when researching with one goal in mind, inevitably it may lead you into surprise discoveries.  Before this discovery, I had just asked the downtown librarian who was helping me with the microfilm reader’s paper jam what he thought of the murals on our campus. He was noncommittal but said the artist should have done better on the costumes of the Vikings and the Native American Indians.  Since I grew up in the country of this same town and had attended many events such as lectures, plays and concerts at this auditorium, I told him that this artwork were in my blood.

Little did I know that after saying my strong connection with the art, I would be reading on the microfilm that my very diminutive aunt with her soft voice and gentle chuckle would have some notoriety in a November 1942 newspaper written about these very murals. Apparently blood does run thicker than the water of our town’s river. I read, 15 minutes after telling the librarian that the murals were in my blood, the newspaper account that reported the murals “have been formally presented to the Northwest School by the graduating class of 1932. Miss Eleanor made the presentation at the Parent’s day program Saturday. She read a congratulatory letter from Dr. A.A. Dowell of St. Paul, former superintendent of the Northwest School, who with Mrs. Dowell acted as counsellor for the 1932 class.” My own “Invisible Farmer” Aunt Eleanor who died several years ago in Arizona, was a part of this mural that started with the NWSA class of 1932. Wow, I teared up and wished at that moment that I had known about this when she was still alive. I would have asked her more questions about the murals.

The article went on to credit the two murals as a result of the efforts of the State Art Director, Clement Haupers, of the WPA (Works Progress Agency). Haupers had read Federal Art Project’s manual of procedure. It plainly stated that he was “to maintain and increase [art] skills.” Haupers, who for six decades had been an artist, teacher, and pioneering arts administrator also knew many artists during the Great Depression were out of work. According to another article I read, “finding these skilled artists was one problem. Finding homes for their work was another. The Federal Art Project intended that the artists’ work would somehow serve the public welfare.”

Haupers described much of his work as State Art Director as “public relations.” He had to develop receptive audiences for the arts in communities where many believed that art had to be Art — imported or certified by the ages. He not only had to find audiences, but he had to find sponsors -local institutions or community leaders who would bear the costs of a project. Clements continued, “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. And that’s rather important to remember.”

Of course, Haupers may have been the Paris trained artist and art savvy person who did the background work for the WPA project that graces our auditorium but it was John Martin Socha who did the actual large scale painting that was honored on Nov. 11th, 1942. That presentation happened a decade after this had been started with the class of 1932. It was also noted in the article that the granddaughter of Chief Little Boy, a signer of the treaty, Mrs. C.A. Smith of Grygla had a daughter named Myrtle who was attending the agricultural high school. They were present at this ceremony honoring the John Martin Socha’s artistic rendition of a time in history.

So, you just never know where your researching on one subject may lead you down a different path.  I better get back to grading my 35 students’ papers.

Kiehle murals

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Acronym “TWWHADI” with board meetings

I heard this acronym of “TWWHADI” when we left for Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2008 to teach at a western university.  It meant that the person who shared it with us felt hand-tied in trying to get anything done because of the objection of: “The Way We Have Always Done It.”  There are people who do NOT like change and believe that they have a defense in saying that this is the way it is, DON’T change it!  This has recently come to my attention by talking with two board members who think I am going too fast with getting things done around the museum and the Carnegie building.   The one thing I heard several times as a kind of excuse was that with boards, things go slower.  I said that things were NOT changing fast enough because everyone was used to sitting on their hands and not getting anything accomplished. Perhaps it was the person’s way of getting off the hook or feeling less guilt about NOT doing anything more constructive.

I was also reminded of a Kazakh proverb that relates to this kind of inactivity. As a result, we are hurting financially at the museum. We do not have BIG donors because people don’t think we have a problem. We do!   Some may not be interested in history, rather some are all about sports or music. They find history boring. Anyway, the proverb goes something like this: “A place with noise, laughter and chaos is a home but a quiet, inactive place is a cemetery.”  To that effect we have people who are happy with leaving things just the way they found it.  There had been VERY active people who set up the museum about 30 years ago but it has stayed the same since then. Sadly, they have died and taken their good stories of our illustrious past with them to the grave. Also, these contrary people don’t want to hurt the feelings of those who have donated things to the museum.  As a result, we have 20 irons, 6 treadle sewing machines, about 5-6 pump organs and the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, our museum is NOT kid-friendly…or adult friendly for that matter. We have a plethora of material objects that has been given to the museum from grandma’s attic, simultaneously we are living in an area that has depopulated.  These days we don’t have as many children in our town.  Sadly, there is more activity in the cemeteries for the older generation than at the playgrounds for the very young people. This fits with the Kazakh proverb. Noisy Activity =  Life while Indecisive Inactivity = Death. We need to have a paradigm shift in the minds of those who are older and think that things should remain the same as they were 25-30 years ago.  They are NOT!    We live in the 21st century with new technology that helps with preserving the old, tried and true ways from yesteryear.

I liken this fosslized thinking with the bonanza farms that were in this area in the 1870s. There were many big investors from the East Coast and the bigger cities in those days grinding out a profit with the grain fields up and down our farming valley.  These bonanza farmers soon found out that you could not hold on to qualified workers for such tough seasonal work. People from my state acknowledged you were better off with the shift to diversified, family farms in order to make the soil remain tilled and cultivated.  The shift happened and now from smaller, diversified farms we have another shift to huge, family farms that are getting crops out of their 10,000-15,000 acres instead of a half a section or under 300 acres.

Some people on our board are admitting finally that we have a financial problem where our County Commissioners are only giving us $10,000 a year whereas they gave us twice that amount many years ago.  What has changed? Why do we not have the backing of the commissioners?  We are a big county and there are separate heritage centers in other smaller towns.  We do not actually represent ALL of our county even though that is our name of our historical society. Yet that should be our bottom-line when accepting items from donors.  Does this article of clothing, toy, household good, farm machinery tell the County story?  Otherwise, we are going to look like a hardware store full of the same items or appear like a antique dealership showing off how many of the same things available for sell. Although, in our case as a museum, we are NOT selling, we are just wanting to make sure we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings by NOT displaying it. You never know, you may have a relative that will come asking if grandma’s wedding dress is still on display or if the tractor grandpa donated is still working…

I realize that things take longer if you go through a committee but I have also found that you also get many good ideas and also cooperation to get the work done in less time. I have been on many committees and several boards.  It is wonderful to see how board’s missions which are articulated and followed can accomplish great things.  As a writing teacher, I see my students’ essays as either being clunky and not getting their message across or those students who know how to streamline their thoughts in writing and get the basic, simple story told.

Instead what we have is a LOT of redundancy (which is never fun to read if you want to see creativity in your students’ writing) and we have a resulting storage issue at the museum.  We need to be either displaying things that are vital to the mission of telling the County story OR store things in acid free boxes which costs money and takes up valuable space.  What we ALSO need to do is sell those things in a live auction so that other interested people can have some of the extra things that are clutter and not needed in our museum.  So, the very people who are concerned about spending too much money on wifi at the Carnegie or other necessary things for proper security or storage are also the ones who DO NOT want to sell things in an auction.

Another problem is that we are short staffed with willing and capable volunteers and we have no museum director because at this point we can’t afford one.  The roadblocks and obstacles that seem to be standing in the way seem insurmountable but I think I have been placed in this job for a reason…I will NOT give up. Hopefully those who are saying negative things about me will step down from their positions of “authority” and be replaced by those who have good ideas and are active enough to see them through.  I don’t see how you can be a “director” on a board if you are NOT directing anything.  Unless, of course, your direction is to be negative and be a naysayer about the person who is trying to get things done.

Okay, I think I will see what can be accomplished with grading my students’ papers.

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