But I need to include one more discovery. That’s the posting of kindness messages on several street corners. I have no idea who posted them or how long they have been in place. But I appreciate them. They gave me a really good impression of this Crow Wing County community on the Cuyuna Iron Range.
Perhaps more are displayed around town. Even if not, this trio was enough to uplift, encourage and give me pause. Now, more than ever, kindness needs promoting. That seems a bit ridiculous to even write. Kindness should come naturally. Sadly, in today’s ever divisive world, kindness is elusive to many.
So what exactly is kindness? It’s being nice. You know. Using nice words. Doing nice things. Smiling. Caring. Listening, especially listening. Putting others before yourself, eliminating the me-centered thinking which pervades too much of society.
Kindness, too, is thinking before you speak or post something mean or untrue or uncaring on social media.
Kindness is empathy and understanding and compassion. It is all that is good and lovely and wonderful.
A TIME EXISTED WHEN I PAID minimal attention to water towers. They all looked the same. Simple silver metal structures rising on leggy supports above prairie towns, dwarfed only by grain elevators.
Through the decades, those standard water towers have mostly vanished, replaced by more modern holding tanks. I understand the need to upgrade, to improve, to advance. Communities grow. Needs change. My city of Faribault is currently planning a new water tower, which will be visible from Interstate 35. If Faribault ever housed a simple metal tower, it was long before I moved here.
But in the small town of Deerwood in Crow Wing County, a vintage water tower still stands, by a city park with picnic shelter and splash pad, near an apartment complex, next to the fire station and across the street from the historic Deerwood Auditorium (city hall and police department).
Randy and I discovered the 1914 water tower when we stopped for a picnic lunch en route to a family lake cabin on a Saturday afternoon in July. Previous drives north, we drove right through Deerwood without pause. In a hurry to get to our destination.
That’s problematic. That word, hurry. By hurrying, we too often miss simple delights. Like the historic Deerwood water tower.
I grabbed my camera to photograph the tower, attempting to document it from multiple perspectives. Architecturally. Artistically. Historically.
The towers, erected between 1912-1918, were of historical importance in development of the Cuyuna Iron Range. Tax revenue generated from the iron ore mines funded their construction.
I appreciate that these five towns on the iron range valued their aged water towers enough to pursue and acquire historical designation. The water towers represent a time in Minnesota history. They represent, too, the architecture and art of yesteryear.
TELL ME: I’d like to hear of vintage water towers you’ve noticed and appreciate. Tell me, too, why you value them.
THE STURDY STONE STRUCTURE anchoring a corner in Deerwood drew my photographic and historic interest during a recent stop in this central Minnesota community in Crow Wing County.
How could it not? Buildings like this with a fieldstone facing hearken from a bygone era, from days when intense hands-on labor factored in to construction. Workers hauled 800 tons of fieldstones from the site of the Cuyuna Country Club to build the Deerwood Auditorium between 1935-1936.
That’s a lot of rocks. I understand, not because I ever hauled that much stone anywhere. But, as a child, I spent many a summer plucking rocks from farm fields in southwestern Minnesota and tossing them into a wagon. Picking rock is hard work. Darn hard.
I admire the tenacity, determination and ingenuity of our forefathers. They relied on local natural resources to build buildings. And, in the case of the Deerwood Auditorium, materials also from the old Meacham Mine machine building to incorporate into the structure.
Donations and Works Progress Administration funding and labor were also part of this project.
The completed building included village council chambers, a kitchen, locker rooms, library, space for fire fighting equipment and that all-purpose 38 x 80-foot gym with overlooking second floor balconies. Today the auditorium, on the National Register of Historic Places, serves as a community center and gathering spot for celebrations like weddings, birthdays and family reunions.
Back during construction, locals aimed to have the building finished in time for the community’s annual fall lutefisk dinner. It was completed for the event, which drew an estimated 1,000 diners to feast on the lye-soaked cod of Norwegian culinary delight.
On the July Saturday I paused to photograph this WPA building, I knew none of these historical details. I couldn’t get inside the Deerwood Auditorium, today home to city hall, the police department and community center. Oh, how I wish I could step inside. To take in the history of this place. To imagine locals packed shoulder to shoulder forking down slippery, smelly lutefisk, their conversations creating a deafening din.
I settled instead for appreciating the exterior workmanship, the talent and strength required to build this remarkable building. The craftsmanship. The hours and hours of labor. That shows in a structure that exudes strength, that honors those who work with their hands, for their work endures.
Please check back next week for one final (of three) post from Deerwood.
ONCE UPON A TIME in The Land of Plenty, a rising revolt threatened the kingdom, especially the remote villages.
The Great Invader observed the discontent, the disagreements, the squabbling and outright lies. He delighted in the division permeating the land. He was an opportunist who wasted no time sneaking into villages and even cities. The more misinformation spread, the more he gloated, the easier his mission to inflict sickness and death upon the land.
When he learned the Ministry of Education was meeting to discuss plans that would thwart his efforts, he took note. He needed to gather information, to strategize and then to implement a strong plan of attack.
So The Great Invader slid into the meeting room, tucking into a corner unseen. His invisibility was especially useful in situations like this. Already, he liked what he saw—people packed together, most without protective armor. Perfect. He felt giddy inside. He had allies.
ANGRY, DEFIANT VILLAGERS SPEAK
When the villagers stepped up to address the Ministry of Education, The Great Invader could hardly contain his joy. They—with the exception of two—sided with him, expressing outrage toward any efforts to protect the young children of the kingdom. This was going so much better than he had hoped.
“You will not tell us what to do,” said one defiant mother, her son posed beside her. “My children will not wear masks when they are in the village school.” That defied official recommendations from the Ministry of Health to wear protective face masks.
The Great Invader nearly revealed his presence by pumping his arm in celebration. That sent a ripple of air into the room. He reminded himself then to sit still and listen.
THE GREAT INVADER LOVES WHAT HE’S HEARING
Another mother stepped forward, claiming a mask would traumatize her children, that a face covering was unnecessary, and that she, and her children, had rights. The Great Invader nearly danced right there in the midst of his powerful grassroots allies.
But even he couldn’t believe the mother’s statement that “No kids have died (from the virus he inflicted).” He knew this to be a bold lie and hadn’t expected such an uncaring and uninformed public declaration of untruth. Yet, this only bolstered his campaign, so he quietly applauded.
And he applauded, too, when a villager attacked the recommendations of the Ministry of Health and called face masks “child abuse.” He hadn’t even considered that, noting the need to share this with his Office of Misinformation. He felt such gratitude for the angry villagers filling the room.
UGH, SOMEONE CARES, HE THINKS
But he loathed the two mothers who spoke in support of masking in the village school. The shared their concerns for the health and safety of their children, all the children and the village educators. This was not helpful. Not at all.
PLACES TO BE, WORK TO DO
In the end, The Great Invader needn’t have worried. The Ministry of Education voted only to strongly recommend (not require) wearing of face masks in the village school. He noted, though, two dissenting votes. One ministry member expressed her deep concern about the safety of the young village children. The Great Invader filed that for future reference before slipping from the room. He felt certain many of the village children would come to school unmasked. Oh, how this pleased him. He could roam freely, infecting the youngest with incredible ease.
Now, with schools opening soon, he had work to do. Routes to map. He would target the children of the kingdom, especially those too young to take a magic potion that helped many of the village elders and others keep him at bay. He held deep disdain for those who chose to protect themselves, their families and friends, and other villagers. How dare they challenge him. How dare they try to stop him. How dare they…
NOTE: In every story truth exists, this one no exception. The setting and quotes in this story are, sadly, real. Be safe. Be well. Care about our children. And each other.The Great Invader (COVID-19) is still hard at work in The Land of Plenty and beyond.
I APPRECIATE OUTDOOR public art. That includes kitschy roadside sculptures that define communities. The walleye in Garrison. The prairie chicken in Rothsay. The otter in Fergus Falls. Babe the Blue Ox in countless Up North Minnesota towns.
And in Deerwood, a Crow Wing County community of around 550, a leaping whitetail deer. The jumping deer, located in Elmer Park, is visible from Highway 6. I snapped a shot of it from the road last trip through this town in mid-July.
A little poking around online revealed that Deerwood was originally known as Withington. But, after being too often confused with Worthington in the southwestern corner of Minnesota, it was officially named Deerwood. That makes sense given its location among the lakes and hardwoods of central Minnesota where deer abound.
I learned a bit more history. Cuyler Adams of Deerwood discovered the iron ore which led to mining in this region. Thus the name Cuyuna Range—a combination of Adams’ first name and the name of his dog, Una.
Oh, the things you learn upon seeing, and photographing, a memorable deer sculpture next to a roadway.
TELL ME: Do you have a favorite roadside sculpture? I’d like to hear.
THERE ARE DAYS when I feel such frustration. It’s then I remember the words of my mom, clearly frustrated with six misbehaving offspring.
“You kids make me so mad I could just run, run, run,” she declared. That grabbed our attention because Mom, one of the sweetest and most loving individuals I’ve ever known, seldom lost her patience with her three sons and three daughters. And, despite her threat, she never ran.
Oh, what I would give for my mom to make that threat today. But she can’t run. She can’t even walk. She’s confined to a wheelchair, living in a nursing home. Physically, she’s still with us, although we, her grown children, have been separated from her more than with her during this pandemic.
So perhaps I am grieving more than feeling frustrated.
I’m also feeling overwhelmed. Everything that could go wrong in the world seems to be happening. Raging pandemic. Check. Floods. Check. Wildfires. Check. Drought. Check. Hatred and division. Check. Politicizing everything. Check. Selfish behavior. Check. People in Afghanistan fleeing for their lives. Check. Shootings/murder every single day, night and day. Check. Injustices. Check. I expect I’ve missed something.
I cannot recall a time in my 60-something years of life that we were dealing, simultaneously, with so much as a state, a country, a world. And that can leave a person feeling, well, overwhelmed.
How do you deal with all of this? I try to remind myself that we will get through this. Somehow. I find myself connecting to my faith in a deeper and more intense way. I do what I can to uplift and encourage others. I read. Something other than news; books that take me away from reality. A friend also reminded me to hold onto my focus word: hope. There’s a lot to be said for hope.
Another friend offers practical suggestions in a blog post, “Doing What You Can & Your Personal Well-Being,” on Penny Wilson Writes. Please take time to read Penny’s tips by clicking here. Although I’ve never met this Texas blogger, I feel such a connection to, and appreciation for, her. She writes with empathy, compassion and understanding. She genuinely cares. She’s authentic. Honest. Penny, also a gifted poet, has written often about her struggles with depression. That openness, I expect, has helped many. She also shares the work of other bloggers, including me, with untethered passion and joy.
People like Penny give me hope. She uses her writing talents, her experiences and more to encourage, uplift and inspire others. She helps me tamp down the urge to rage and, then, to run, run, run. And for that I feel gratitude.
ONCE UPON A TIME in The Land of Plenty, a lowly worker headed off to work in the local wagon repair shop. He wasn’t feeling particularly well. But he couldn’t take a day off simply because he felt sick. He had a family depending on his paltry wages to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.
In the depth of his heart (his mother had always modeled mindfulness of others), the young man felt a tinge of guilt about laboring when he was ill. He, after all, was fully aware of a deadly virus which swept through the region and well beyond the borders of his homeland. None-the-less, need prevailed over his underlying fear of The Great Invader.
The wagon repair shop owner expected him there, sick or not. The wealthy owner held no concern for the virus and would quickly dismiss anyone who failed to show up, so focused was he on filling his coffers with gold.
And so the young man went off to work, feeling he had no choice in the matter. He continued to repair carts and wagons and sometimes even chariots inside the dank, windowless shop. Occasionally he paused to swipe the back of his filthy hand under his runny nose and to sip tepid water from a dirty tin cup.
Within days, those who worked beside him fell ill, the sickness spreading like wildfire. Even the wagon repair shop owner, who sat in a corner enclosure counting his coins, fell ill. But that didn’t matter. Everyone was expected to be at work. There were carts to fix. Wagons to repair. Chariots to get on the road. A coin box to fill.
Then one day, the young man overheard a conversation between the senior repairman and the wagon repair shop owner. The older man shared how sick his wife had become with the virus. She lay in bed wracked by fever and coughs, unable to function. Guilt swelled within him. And anger rose as he listened.
“Everyone’s sick,” the shop owner said dismissively. “You can’t stay in your hovel and hide when there’s work to be done.” The lowly worker heard not an ounce of care or concern. No compassion or mindfulness.
Regret overwhelmed the young man. What if the senior repairman’s wife died? He could not shake his sense of responsibility, his role in spreading the virus. If only he had listened to his inner voice, his conscience, his heart. His mother. If only he’d cared about those who toiled beside him and their families. If only he’d joined the line of villagers who waited for hours for a magical potion distributed throughout the region to help stop The Great Invader. If only…
MANY YEARS HAVE PASSED since Randy and I stopped at the Little Prairie Historic Schoolhouse, rural Dundas. But on a recent weekend afternoon, we picnicked on the school grounds, next to a cornfield and a stone’s throw away from a vintage outhouse.
I embraced this rural Bridgewater Township setting as I ate my sandwich and watched the occasional vehicle fly by on paved Rice County Road 8. Mostly, though, quiet prevailed.
Little Prairie—a name that resonates with my prairie roots—was settled in 1855 when Jacob and Eliza Emery homesteaded here. He’s noted as the church founder on a paver at the Little Prairie Community Memorial, new since our last visit. Emery, as history goes, cut a 3-mile track through the Big Woods to find this 60-acre prairie. Little Prairie.
A study of the memorial pavers reveals names of early settlers, farmers, teachers, families and others with connections to this prairie place. History imprinted upon stone.
Beyond that, when I let this place speak to me, I could hear the voices of children as they played tag on the playground. Or circled on the aged merry-go-round. Screams. Laughter. Joy. Maybe even pleas to stop the dizziness.
I could hear, too, the scraping of shoes on the mud scraper bolted to cement steps outside the front doors.
I could hear the creak of the water pump handle moving up and down, up and down.
I could hear the bang of the outhouse door.
Locked doors kept me from accessing the school. But I imagined the determined voice of a teacher, the recitation of spelling words, the scratch of chalk upon slate, the clomp of shoes upon wooden floor…
This schoolhouse, built in 1858, holds no personal meaning to me. Yet, I cherish it. Within these walls, children learned. They flourished. They grew friendships and knowledge and, I expect, a deep appreciation for their community. This place. This Little Prairie.
DOWN THE GRAVEL ROAD, I saw him exit the ditch, cross the roadway and then climb into his red pick-up truck.
“That’s Keith,” I told Randy. Even from a distance I recognized the tall, lean profile of Keith Radel. Known as Mr. Bluebird, he travels the backroads of Rice County checking bluebird nests.
Randy and I had just finished a short hike at the nearby Cannon River Wilderness Park when I spotted Keith on a gravel road in rural Dundas. We paused, his pick-up and our van pulled side-by-side, windows rolled down, the three of us conversing like farmers meeting on a rural road to talk crops.
I didn’t take notes when we were talking, although I recall Keith saying major ice storms in Texas this year had a devastating effect on the current bluebird population. He keeps meticulous notes on each nesting box.
Mostly, I focused on being in the moment. When Keith offered to show us two bluebird nesting boxes just down the road, we didn’t hesitate, reversed course, our van following his truck in a trail of dust. Once parked, Keith led us down the side of a ditch, lifting the nest cylinder from its post to reveal three beautiful blue eggs inside. The next nest held only a single egg.
Soon we were on our way, Randy and I looking for a place to eat a picnic lunch and Keith continuing with his bluebird checks.
Place connects us. Most people in Rice County are clueless as to the location of Vesta, or even our home county of Redwood some 120 miles to the west. So whenever I see Keith, I feel this sense of connection to my home area, to the land. When we met on that gravel road on a July afternoon, Keith understood my need to exit Faribault, to follow gravel roads, to reconnect with the land. And, yes, even to look at the crops.
When I published that post, I was unaware of the podcast. But Minnesota Prairie Roots reader Sandy Varley directed me to the NY Times podcast and for that I feel grateful. Please, take 20 minutes of your time to listen to Tilly talk about her Papa.
About the grandfather who climbed with her onto their special spot on the roof of his house to talk and star gaze. About the grandfather who would show up unexpectedly at school to eat lunch with Tilly (even stealing her chips) and tell stories to her and her friends. About the grandfather whose t-shirt she slept in when he lay dying in the hospital.
I admire the strength of this 12-year-old in telling her story, sharing her grief. Her words are powerful, her insights remarkable for someone so young. Via this podcast, via the bravery and honesty of Tilly, Rice County’s first COVID-19 death transforms from a statistic to a granddaughter remembering and grieving her grandfather. Her beloved Papa.