Wednesday, May 26, 2004

APRIL 21, 2004, cont'd

About twelve people gathered for my presentation about my memoir, Curlew:Home and the Vagabond project at the Emmetsburg Library tonight. Most were older women and an older man, there was Nathan Clark, the librarian, and there was a boy about ten years old and his mother. You wonder how a boy is going to endure two hours of talk about all the boring stuff adults talk about. Well, he did fine, he did just fine.

There was some concern expressed during the discussion about the fact that only old people seem to get interested in family history, genealogy, and local history generally. I think it is partly that we wait to get interested until our own experiences can be seen as part of history; and I think, too, that parents raising children, working, maintaining a house, and running kids to after-school activities just don't have much time to think about history and what it means.

I come to history by default. Certainly I didn't set out to become a historian. Yet if you are going to undertake a project to understand people as I have with my Vagabond endeavor, you have to look backwards at their experiences, and backwards even farther to their grandparents and greatgrandparents, to their immigration to the United States and settling into communities across the middle west.

As soon as someone starts to tell you a story, they are drawing on a real or imagined past, they are drawing on what can be perceived as history.

I do history as a poet would do it. I don't have the skills and patience to track genealogies, for instance. The people who can do that work are angels, in my estimation, and they have my highest respect. Nor can I trace the niggling little details of history - dotting the i's and crossing the t's. I am interested in the sweep of the story, in the color of the lives, in the motion of the forces marching through time.

And I recognize I could not do my work without the genealogists and those detail-oriented folks who preserve the essential nuts and bolts of our past. I could not do my work without the efforts of all sorts of people who have recorded community histories and family histories to the best of their abilities, unsung, unrecognized, and often unappreciated.

Here's a cheer for all the people intent on preserving our memory of the past. Bless them.


APRIL 22, 2004
Employees were on break when I arrived at the SNC plant on King Street in Emmetsburg at 1:30 p.m. this afternoon, as scheduled; and no one was at the front desk. John Davis, plant manager, whom I was scheduled to meet, I found out, was in the plant dealing with a balky machine. None of them looked like Superman or Superwoman, the folks I saw outside having a smoke as I came in, and none of those I could see at tables in the break room; they looked like ordinary employees.

When break got over, a woman came up front and found me waiting. She went back into the shop right away to let John know I was here.

It was a few minutes later that John arrived. We sat down to talk in his office for a while, and then he gave me a tour of the place. I tell you what: every man in the place is a Superman; every woman Superwoman. That, or they are true magicians. How they make those little electronic parts and transformers is amazing. I was awed.

John Davis is from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. SNC's home office and plant are in Oshkosh. The satellite plant in Emmetsburg was built in 1981. SNC had been making a part in Oshkosh for Allen Bradley; production went from 250 units per week to 2000. Allen Bradley asked SNC to give them a description of their process for making the part so they could find a back-up supplier in case SNC had any problems keeping orders filled.

"Why don't we another plant as a back-up for you?" SNC suggested to Allen Bradley.

"Where?" Allen Bradley wanted to know.

"Somewhere west," SNC said.

That was about 1979.

Potential sites for the expansion were narrowed to Storm Lake, Sheldon, Estherville, and Emmetsburg - all in Iowa. "I wasn't involved in discussions at that time," John said. "I only know that they decided on Emmetsburg after negotiations with the communities."

The "airport plant," as it is called, was the original facility built and is still in operation. The building John and I sat talking in is the second plant opened in Emmetsburg.

Even before the original building in Emmetsburg was finished, demand for the part had intensified and in response SNC in Oshkosh developed more efficient methods of manufacturing it in order to keep pace. The Emmetsburg plant opened with six employees and with an Emmetsburg man to run the place. As the new plant was coming on-line, John asked his superintendent in Oshkosh, "Do you need anybody to go out there and help?" Early on, they didn't think they'd need John to go to Emmetsburg to help, but as it turned out the new plant had problems. John was asked to go west and look things over.

His report back to Oshkosh was simple: "I can't believe what I'm seeing." He made a commitment to spend six months in Emmetsburg trying to straighten things out. He promised to stay there long enough to get some new equipment installed and production flowing smoothly.

Well, soon enough the plant added a second shift. An addition was put on the facility. The workload grew and grew. New product lines were added in Emmetsburg. In the course of all this, John found himself living in Emmetsburg. His wife wasn't happy about moving from Oshkosh at first, as she was leaving family behind. "But we liked the area," John said. "The kids adjusted well in school. Things were going well at the plant. I remember saying to my wife, 'I'll bet that in the next year we'll have forty employees.' 'You're crazy,' my wife said. Now we've far outstripped that."

To be continued....



This continues our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, and continued on April 29, April 30, May 10, May 11, May 13, May 14, May 16, May 17, and May 18, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

The divergence in viewpoints about wilderness (between Canadians and Americans), McGregor says, has "a lot to do with the conceptual difference between a northern and a western frontier, with one representing the limits of knowledge and the other the limits of endurance."

I'm assuming here that the northern frontier is the one that pushes the limits of knowledge and the western frontier pushes the limits of endurance. This may be precisely the difference in world view between McGregor's Canadians and my middle westerners. The land itself is neither one thing nor the other; it is our conception of it. The Canadian looking to the northern frontier imagines (images?) its unknown-ness, builds the fort in the wilderness. The middle westerner pushes on, endures, and finally finds a place that looks like home. The difference is between those who imagine the world is a place we cannot know and those who believe we can do whatever we need to do. Ultimately, pushed to its extreme, it is the difference between those who don't try and those who die trying

McGregor says: "Mind structures environment which structures mind."

My middle western sense of it is this: we shape our environment; our environment shapes us. I think I mean it in a more blood and muscle sense that McGregor does, however. It is not simply "mind" that shaped here. I think of father's hands, his fingers deformed by hard work. The shaping goes on in every part of our being, not only the mind. Further, the shaping goes on beyond the individual: place shapes the community, just as community shapes the place.


MAY 26, 1998

I saw the hawk Friday evening on my way home from work, the first time in a while I've seen it. It was circling above its grove. It was being harassed by two blackbirds. One of them was flying into its face, as if trying to peck at its eyes.

Can we speak about place without speaking of the people of the place? If we do not speak about the people of the place and their relationship to the land, then are we speaking about wilderness? There is an exchange between the land and the people on the land which tells an interesting part of the story about the place. We bend the grass and take down the trees and change the shape of the hills. The land feeds and sustains us. Isn't it wonderful that the fruit of the earth tastes good to us, nourishes us. Apples could just as easily have been bitter as sweet.

Think of the Sandhills of Nebraska, their harshness and the difficulty that Old Jules had establishing an orchard there. That piece of ground did not easily wish to give back. Old Jules wrestled with it and wrestled with it and even today, a century later, it is difficult to say man has won that struggle. It is still a bitter and harsh and lovely ground and the lives of those who choose to remain there are not easy lives.

The peonies in the back yard are opening, white. Those in front of the garage are still tight balls.

The first crop of hay has been taken already along Highway E north of town. Some rain on Sunday has helped the peas and corn and the weeds between the rows of corn.

Another baby donkey, wobbly-kneed and new, at the farm south of Five Corners. No one has worked the fields of corn stubble west and south of there.

School will soon be out. May is nearly spent, like a blossom that has dropped its petals.

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