Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

WW I from a Steele County, Minnesota, personal perspective April 16, 2019

 

YOU CAN SPEND considerable time reading all of the information included in a World War I exhibit at the Steele Country History Center in Owatonna. But I am more a Cliffs Notes reader when it comes to museum-based history. I scan to gain a general overall understanding and then choose to focus more on content that interests me most.

 

 

 

“Fight the foe with the hoe.”

 

The “Over Here, Over There: The Great War” exhibit presents Steele County’s role in WW I, both on the battlefield and at home. It’s an incredible research project. Well done. Detailed and personalized. I’ve come to expect such historical accuracy and professionalism in homegrown exhibits at this southern Minnesota museum.

 

 

As I ducked into military and medical tents, listened to the sounds of machine gun fire,

 

 

 

 

took in the wall of nearly 1,100 soldiers’ names,

 

 

admired military medals,

 

 

pulled copies of soldiers’ letters from mailboxes,

 

 

observed blacklisted books of German poetry,

 

 

considered the sacrifices of Wheatless Wednesdays and Heatless Mondays, I contemplated how this war affected every aspect of life. Not just for those military personnel in battle, but for the everyday American.

 

 

And when I read the section on immigration, I contemplated how little has changed. How the issues of yesterday—back then the hatred of Germans—today has only a new color, a new ethnicity. I read: Mass immigration created social tensions. Many native-born citizens demanded assimilation and wanted less immigration.

I don’t intend for this post to spark intense discussion on immigration issues. But the immigration section of this exhibit certainly resonated with me. I am of German heritage. If my grandparents were still living, I would question them about issues they faced because of their ethnicity.

It saddens me to think how, still today, social tensions and demands for assimilation and hostility toward immigrants remain. Strong. Often hateful. As if we didn’t all come from immigrants. As if we aren’t all human beings worthy of love and respect and a place to call home.

 

 

 

All of that aside, I’d encourage you to tour “Over Here, Over There: The Great War.” There is much to be culled from this exhibit whether you read every single word or browse through the information. In history we learn. If only we’d retain those lessons so history does not repeat itself.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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