It Is a Village, Though

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?

77 thoughts on “It Is a Village, Though”

  1. Actually, I’m more surprised at the things that have persisted that I would have expected to fade away: that there are still people arguing against evolution, that the medieval mind is still in evidence, that, to borrow from Carl Sagan, its still a demon-haunted world.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You are right, Bill, especially with the comment about a “demon-haunted” world. I’ve been thinking about some of these topics. I think people naturally fear change and (falsely) believe it is unnatural. People want to believe that things were right sometime in the past, and they are strongly inclined to believe that the changes they fear are due to the actions of bad people (bankers, illegal immigrants, foreigners in general, etc). Somehow it is easier to see losses (like the loss of certain occupations) than it is to see how the losses are balanced out with gains.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent post, Clyde: thoughtful and cleanly expressed. I can’t answer your question at this moment, but will try to later.

    I’ve been thinking about community. When Garrison Keillor retired last week, we lost our window on the evolving story of Lake Wobegon. Garrison built a career on the appeal of small town community, addressing audiences that mostly have never lived in a community like Lake Wobegon. This is a curious case in which Garrison peddled nostalgia for a world that people haven’t had and lost, for they have never actually known life in a small place where “everyone knows everyone else.”

    And yet life in such a place is near enough (historically near) that we can imagine it. My maternal grandparents lived their whole lives in such a small town. I grew up in a community that was much like a small town, even if it was too large to be called a small town. The Ames of my youth was small enough that people knew many of their neighbors, a place where some families had reputations that persisted through different generations. We even were small enough to have a “village idiot,” although he was more of a starstruck dreamy kid than an idiot.

    I have sometimes written about the romance of life in small towns. Friends who actually live in such places rushed to tell me it isn’t heavenly to live with people who know everything about you, or think they do. I counter by pointing out that it is not heavenly to live anonymously in metropolitan cities where many folks don’t even know their neighbors.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One of the things I like about Holly putting up Yellow Taxi is that it points out community is not only about small towns, or about towns at all. Big cities were once famous for ethnic neighborhoods, which were communities formed, I think,to build a sense of place, a home, and self-defense against those who hated them.
      I like the word commonweal, that sense of shared common purpose as opposed to selfish purpose. I think a community depends upon having enough and the right people with commonweal and not selfishness. I thought there was a sense of commonweal in this country. This campaign is making commonweal be about fear of others.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think if you live anonymously in a big city, you do so by choice. You may or may not know your neighbors, but chances are, unless you are a total hermit, you have threads of connections that in the aggregate comprise a community. Having lived in the Twin Cities all my life, when I go to any sort of social gathering, concert, art opening or literary event, I fully expect to see people I know or people with whom I have friends in common.
      I realize I am describing a sort of self-selected community and you might argue that such a community can be at the same time exclusionary. The thing about small towns is that, theoretically at least, you have to relate to people you would not otherwise choose and that would be undoubtedly salutary. I’m not entirely convinced, though, that even in very small towns there aren’t factions. It would be especially uncomfortable to be the “odd man out” in a small town.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I long lived in a community that was rife with factions, and thus it had a poor sense of commonweal. The only time I took a leadership role, head of a committee organizing a major celebration, I received little support and suffered many attacks. I observe community–other than self-selected communities which I think are as much communities and as important as regional communities–as mostly an outsider, a non-participant, a loner.
        Community and on-exclusiveness–now that is tricky.


      2. We probably disagree here. I have lived only briefly in a community where I was obliged to know people I would not necessarily have chosen as friends. In that sense, it was like living in a small town. In spite of being innately shy and private, I liked living that way more than I expected to.

        The anonymity of life in a metro area seems mostly unfortunate to me. While there are ways to escape it, modern life makes it easy–I would say too easy–to remain isolated.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This story is about the Da Range, which was long one big community divided into separate communities, famous for its sense of superiority.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice piece, Clyde. I really like your illustration at the top; I’m assuming it’s one of yours?

    The idea of commonweal appeals to me. I think it takes a concerted, on-going effort to maintain it. People are just not that tolerant of each others’ differences. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed communities come together to support one another during times of crises. I consider myself lucky to know a lot of people in my neighborhood who choose to take an active part in various neighborhood groups.

    I’m a firm believer in what Margaret Mead so eloquently expressed when she said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


    Liked by 5 people

    1. The idea of commonweal appeals to me as well, but commonweal has always been fragile. Communities have traditionally defined themselves by who and what they were not and the differences can be miniscule. Why otherwise would there be so many different flavors of protestant church?
      It takes a crisis or an other big enough to eclipse their differences to coalesce a commonweal. Even then they are usually ephemeral.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. im a recovering catholic where the elephant in the room allows you to pretend that what is happening right before your eyes is somethng others should decide what to do with . as for me i will live in my own hypocritical self justified version of how it ought to be and maybe the doctorine of that community will come around to my way of thinking sometime. if it doesnt , all the sadder the fact that the others dont get it
        i am grateful for the new pope and his complete undressing of the man behind the curtin. i was always surprised at the lengths that others continued to veil their eyes and pretend the odd /ungodly stances the church has championed were ok somehow. i am very surprised it was allowed to go on. i am surprised bankrupcy has been allowed. it should be contempt to offer it as a possible response to the problems and the fallout form the hstoric mismanaged misdirected leadership


    2. Drawing at the top: one early morning my daughter had to make an emergency hospital visit in Redwood Falls during a snowstorm. As she was driving down the street she snapped a picture. I turned her picture into this sketch, which was about the only visual image I had which comes close to the post.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Oddly enough, I thought The Pillsbury Company would last forever — especially when I worked there. It had a long, successful history — until it didn’t, and then General Mills bought them out. However, I bet the Bake-Off will go on forever. It has changed and mutated many times over the years, as well it should, to reflect changing attitudes and experiences around food and cooking.

    Here’s a few other choice items that will probably last a long time:
    1. Star Trek in all its forms
    2. Doctor Who (BBC Sci Fi series)
    3. Young people who believe they will never age
    Any many other beliefs — I’m sure you can think of a few.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Maybe it’s because this is the year of my 50-year high school class reunion, which I probably won’t attend, that I am mindful of this: Whenever I run into old friends I haven’t seen in many years, I am invariably surprised to discover they have aged. Rationally, I should anticipate that, but unconsciously I expect them to have endured as I last knew them. Unaccountably, it pains me more than my own decrepitude.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. I am not amused! I’d almost completed my personal story about community – or, in my case, a complete absence of such, when I checked for email and made it disappear. I rewrote the whole damn thing, then it also disappeared. I was about to write it a third time, but in a tiny corner of my brain, a question arose: had I shared this story before??? When this happens, I immediately email my brother to ask if I might be repeating myself. This time, I didn’t even finish my email to him before I remembered having guest-posted the story of my nasty neighbors!

    The universe works in strange ways. Like losing a meaty post twice when it’s a story already shared. Like most people, I very much dislike repeating myself. An update from the story about my neighbors is that last week, one of their trees did indeed fall onto my whole roof. This actually prompted the longest conversation with them in the 16 years I’ve been here, probably because they knew they’d be liable, though.



    1. Complete absence of community? I think not. I remember you writing about the supportive community of fellow dancers that spontaneously sprang up around you when you were battling cancer, Cb.


  8. I have an idea for a post about a village i hope to submit tomorrow. Thanks for paving the way, Clyde. Lovely post today.

    People here thought the oil boom would endure. They knew better, but still got fooled again, just like in the 1980’s. I guess what endures is denial and gullibility.


      1. Well, if they were oil workers, many spent their money as soon as they got it. Local ranchers and land owners with mineral interest were more cautious. There are numerous homes in foreclosure or rlse gor sale, and fancy boats and motorcycles gettind sold or repossessed.


        1. i meant the old dirt farmers who were slow talking and easy going then found out there is oil in them thar fields.
          the workers in the brothel buses i dont feel so bad for


  9. I thought my best friend and I would always have the same kind of close relationship we had in high school. We were the “dynamic duo”, and I thought that would last forever. Not realistic perhaps, but I have maintained close friendships with others from various locations… just not with her. Christmas cards and that’s about it.


    1. My best friend from my high school years seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. The last card I sent to her last known address, a P.O. box in Wisconsin, was returned to me by the post office.


      1. my best friend is still around but has done a 180 in personality. he used to be a fun loving gregarious guy and then he got caught up in a case of beer a day for a long time before he took the cure. he lost all his teeth and wont wear his choppers and has a sunken spirit to go along with his sunken jawline . i see him and he is pleasant and says yes he will return my calls and we will do something but he doesnt do it.
        a loss i never thought id endure. i thought he and i would laugh together for years and years


  10. A print version of a daily newspaper – not completely gone yet, but seriously threatened. I have mixed feelings about the St. Paul paper, a constant presence for almost my whole life. Lately they charge me more and more money for the privilege of securing my permission to dump a pile of ads at the end of my sidewalk. I want to support the journalism that remains, and the features that I enjoy (Bulletin Board in particular). But I hate throwing eighty percent of the paper into the recycling bin as soon as it arrives.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Your comment reminds me, Linda, of the way the phone company used to have the right to dump phone books weighing many pounds at my doorstep from time to time. For many years we had to accept them, for there was no other way to get the phone numbers we needed. It was considered a progressive development when people won the right to refuse to accept phone books.


    1. You are forgetting that I grew up a child of the iron mining industry. I read a few books along the way of the early history of Da Range. I also worked four years around the Iron Range as towns were dying. This is not exactly the story of any one town, but I could take you to towns on the range that have many empty houses and are mostly left with older people. There is a bit of artistic license, not much.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. My daughter took her family to one of my children’s favorite places to go when they were children: Old Fort William, a living history site in thunder Bay. One of my stories is based on the Voyageurs before the English Northwest Fur Company was kicked out of Grand Portage to Thunder Bay. I learned the history I needed for that story at the OFW. The history of the Lakato and Ojibway peoples in NE MN I learned in part from visiting active archealogy sites in the Arrowhead. Over 10,000 sites have been identified in the Arrowhead, most in the BWCA, most campsites. The native peoples had quite a presence in that area before Europeans came along.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I dislike commenting on current issues of transcendent importance, for most people react to these events in entirely predictable ways. Their voices just add to the general cacophony without advancing our understanding of things. That said, I’ll admit to being crushed by yesterday’s events. There have been so many homicides involving police killing citizens, especially citizens of color, that I thought I was incapable of feeling outrage and shame again. I was wrong.


        1. Thanks for the question, PJ. I have often taken pride in being a Minnesotan, for this region is relatively civic-minded and progressive. The politics of the upper Midwest are clean. I’ve generally thought the region does better at discussing and taking action on difficult social issues. I’ve believed that Minnesotans generally believe that positive social action is still possible.

          Of course, we are talking in relative terms here. I’ve been pleased to think that Minnesotans handle many social issues with more civility and conscientious optimism than many regions of the country. Living on the west coast has reinforced my sense that Minnesota is better than many regions at using government constructively.

          And yet I have long felt concern and shame about the persistent racism and social distress in the Twin Cities black community. Minnesota’s black citizens do not fare significantly better than black citizens in other regions. Black Minnesotans might fear police a bit less than African Americans in other regions, but they still expect many cops to behave badly.

          I have allowed myself to think that police in this region would be more professional and less lethal than cops in other regions. I was wrong.


        2. As I heard the news and watched the commentaries unfold, I felt a lot of these same things, Steve. I wanted to believe Minnesota was better than that, but we really aren’t. In some ways we are worse – we are so smug about our civic mindedness and good schools and liberal-ness that it becomes all to easy to ignore the increasingly entrenched racism that we refuse to see or talk about. (Anna now steps off her soap box.)

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad. Thank you. This post did not merit two days. This is the last of these posts I will put up. Everything else in the set is too long.


      1. Clyde, I think some people are on vacation. I know for fact that Anna is, and it’s been awhile since we’ve heard from Wessew and Vs, so don’t attribute the lack of responses to lack of interest.


      2. Thanks for the compliments. Nor was I indicating an issue with responses. I think many of the responses were inciteful. The discussion on religion and the verities was thought provoking. Response stimulated me through two days of heavy pain, or I should say distracted me I am fairly proud of this vignette. I finished up the set of stories this week. The last one was one of the first stories I started. Hours of work on it. It took off on me and then again and again. Somehow my stories in this set keep going back to cross-generational friendships, as did that last story, of which I am proud. I guess I think the reduction of cross-generational contact is an issue, a part of loss of connections and community in all its forms. As I have been working on these stories I keep thinking about Eudora Welty and her genius for stories about people in a community, just people and not that much drama. I may do a blog about those writers who create a communities–Welty, Faulkner, Keillor, Tom Bodette, who else?

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Fredrik Backman (A Man Called Ove) writes such delicious stories, two of which are about people trying to escape from others but end up surrounded by a quirky community.


      3. too long is not a problem in this case clyde. thee are wonderful pieces.
        it is going to be two days plus no matter what it is these days with the way we have progressed and grown into a new phase of existence. we can take half a day to read it if its too long. no hurry here on the trail these days. its a bit slower but the spirit remains true.

        thanks to dale for allowing us to continue


  12. I’m back from a few days in the Resort Country of the Brainerd Lakes area. If there is something you thought would endure that is slowly morphing over time it is the (small) family owned resort. There are a few dotting the lakes – but I will admit that we stay at one that was once small that has grown and absorbed other resorts over time. It is still family owned – though one day, probably soon, it will not be, at least not in the same sense. Cragun’s resort was started in the 1940s and is still owned by the son of its founder. As I understand it, Dutch and his wife do not have children and have set things up so that long time employees will inherit that stretch of lakeshore and its amenities. Cragun’s still has a lot of the feel of a smaller resort – they folks there will bend over backwards for the guests (see also: Anna and Daughter’s Friend get rescued by Marina Guy from the shallows where seaweed had choked the little propellors on their very manual water bikes making it impossible to peddle back to the dock). I could do without the number of speed boats making noise and wakes on the lake, but I recognize those boats bring in the dollars that keep places like Cragun’s open. The resorts with 5-10 no-frills cabins are much harder to find.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. i never stayed in one of those but the relatives from first wifes wisconsin family stayed there and knew the ocal fish boil on fridaynights and where to go fror a beer and a bump after.
      i like those 10 cottage deals with a rental speed boat for water sking.
      craguns is great bt i never thought of it a small family operation. it always looked like breezy point form an outsiders view. great gold course.
      i love that brainerd lakes area or maybe get a little further out like toward longville or grand rapids even.
      people today dont care about pristine they want wifi access. its a shame to see nature go by the wayside and the love of things natural be a thing we talk about instead of do together. you can drag em into the woods but you cant make em learn how to start a fire and pick berries and wonder at wildflowers when they are snap chatting and taking selfies and checking sports scores. i think linda is a dragon boat fest this weekend. good luck what a nice weekend for it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Anna, you make a wonderful point here. Our family used to spend two-week June vacations in a little family-owned resort near Park Rapids, a place called Edgewood. I’ve occasionally tried to find words to express my happy memories of resort life back then. They are the sweetest memories I have from a childhood that was almost perfectly happy.

      After my mother died, my father was consumed with grief. He asked me to help him go back to spend a week at our old resort. It was his almost desperate effort to wash away bad feelings. But things have changed, and Dad was assaulted by the changes: jet skis, lakeshore development that replaced natural areas with expensive homes, discouraging fishing. Dad finally couldn’t take more of that. He asked me to take him home when we still had two days to go on the week he had paid for.

      I think nobody is to blame for these changes. Small, simple, affordable family resorts spring up at a certain time in the development of an area like that. Several things have to be right for such resorts to flourish. Now families seeking recreation have more demands (TV, WiFi, electronic game rooms). Land values are so high that resorts can’t charge enough to pay taxes. The ideal moment for the resort experience you remember came and went, and now is difficult to find. All my life I’ve enjoyed thinking that I could always go back to Edgewood Resort. But I was wrong.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Reading a book called Meander by an English author who canoes down the Meander (Menderes) River in Turkey. It is from the river we get the word meander. He says that in England the term meanderthals has been coined for people who dither around and plug up waking areas for the young and in rush.

    Liked by 1 person

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