Today’s post comes from Clyde of Mankato
I have been thinking much about community–what it is, what makes it, how we lose it, why it matters that we lose it. Community has invaded my fiction without my permission. This is a vignette from my stories about Northeastern Minnesota.
A place. Only a place. Indistinguishable from much of the boreal forest covering Northeastern Minnesota and adjoining Canada. A place, only a place, unless you looked at this place with the masterly eye of the original people who first roamed in small bands through the forest thousands of years ago. A Place: a low hill rich in game, with a level area above a clean-flowing stream, ample supplies of firewood, and many young cedars for poles, baskets, and other village needs.
It was many times a Lakota village for a season or two.
It was a village only once or twice for the Ojibwe, who, forced west by the European settlement of the eastern Great Lakes, displaced the Lakota out onto the prairie. The native peoples had astounding geography skills, which allowed them to remember favorite locations for their nomadic villages, but they were weak at geology. They were unaware of what lay beneath the hill and how to use it.
It was never a village for the fur trappers, first French and then English. The stream had clogged up, making it of no interest to the beaver.
It was not a village for the five men who came prospecting for iron ore. With their geology skills, they found the hidden wealth. Five men focused only on rocks for one week do not make a village.
It became a village once again when the first two dozen men arrived to open up the mine and by necessity begin a town. Soon followed more dozens of men, some to work the mine and some to attend the men who did. The third wave of men, accompanied by women and children, helped establish the mining office, a store with post office, boarding houses, and a dining hall.
Ten years later it was a large village, complete with several hundred residents, seven stores, two banks, two law offices, one doctor’s office, three churches, and a committee of village leaders to incorporate it as a municipality under the statutes of the young State of Minnesota, allowing them to plat and try to maintain muddy streets, provide a constabulary with jail, build a pine-framed city hall, organize a volunteer fire department, and grant the mining company and railroad all the exemptions and privileges they desired. The committee named the town for an eastern wealthy industrialist of dubious integrity but who had a proper British surname, unlike eighty percent of the residents.
After another ten years it had grown to a village of more than fifteen hundred residents who, despite some strident objections, added a brick city hall with jail, a larger fire hall with better equipment, a hospital, a small pine-framed elementary school, and parks, which at first were no more than rocky, weedy empty lots. It was a village because people gathered for their commonweal by assigning or gathering in the various roles that a village needs. United they were despite being divided into different heritages with different cultural norms, into different brands of Christianity, into opposing political points of view, and into social strata based primarily on occupation and nationality.
As a village it struggled, like all villages do, to serve the greatest good of the greatest number of people despite the interests of a powerful few. The library was a telling point for the village, opposed by those who saw it as a waste of tax dollars or waste of people’s time and by those who feared books as sources of dangerous ideas. A few years after the first small pine-framed library was built in the alley behind the city hall, it was replaced in the town center by a large-windowed brick and stone building, funded, along with its oak shelves and books, by Andrew Carnegie, who had made himself wealthy beyond the village’s imagination by processing their high-grade ore into iron and steel. His wealth was built with his skill, his ill-use of his employees from his mines to his blast furnaces, his intimidation of those who dared oppose him, and his manipulation of Wall Street, which has never cared what makes a village.
It was a village because most residents knew most of the others, because they gossiped about each other, by which is meant, among other things, knowing and tending to each other’s needs. Through gossip they knew what to help celebrate or who to help grieve. As a village they wove the strands of the web that bound them together, the strongest bonds woven in the hard times, of which there were many. Through boom and bust it was a village parenting each other’s children and finding pride in landmark events, such as their first high school graduating class of only two young women and one young man, others of suitable age having gone to work instead of going to high school.
It continued to be a village as it grew to over 4000 residents who survived the disaffections and deeper divisions that come with larger size. It was a village proud of its new brick and granite grade school and imposing high school on the top of the highest point in town, donated by the mining company. More and more students were graduating, more and more were heading south for a better jobs or to add to their education for a fuller life.
It was a village united behind their sports teams which played other mining villages, united in elation when their teams were victorious over the teams from their rival town ten miles to the east or untied in dejection when the teams lost.
It was a village when it proudly and naively marched boys off to wars, stunned but united in grief when the sad telegrams began to arrive, and bound in relief when men came home.
It was a worried village when the ore of their mine began to dwindle. The population started to fall, more young people headed south, and businesses began to close. As a village it stood through it all, taking the loss as too-personal when their high school closed, sending their young to the rival school ten miles to the east. To the village’s relief, the grade school remained, but only for a few years until the population dropped back to a few hundred residents, most of whom were beyond the parenting stage.
It remained a village after the downtown closed and house after house was abandoned, a village whose residents drove elsewhere to bank, to shop, to visit the medical clinic, to treat themselves to a restaurant meal, and to hire lawyers to write their wills.
It is a village still, a village of mostly retired people, more women than men, who gather to mourn the impending death of the village and to pass around photographs of children and grandchildren who live in distant large cities where people have no sense of what makes a village and why villages matter.
© Clyde Birkholz 2016
What has not endured that you thought would endure?