From Two Harbors to Adrian, Hallock to Spring Valley, Minnesotans Tell Their Stories
By Jennifer Laura Paige

With Minnesotans poised to celebrate the state’s 150th birthday in 2008, Albert Lea writer and editor Joan Claire Graham arrives at the party bearing the perfect gift—more than 500 true stories about our people, places and events.  In her seven Minnesota Memories volumes and two satellite projects, Austin Remembers and Albert Lea Remembers, hundreds of Minnesota people have stepped forward to share their best true stories about life in the North Star State.

These stories are a mixed bag, as are the people who wrote them, but Graham believes the eclectic assortment of topics, tones and writing styles provides a texture that makes her projects relevant, real and rich.  She says, “Celebrated writer Larry Engelmann writes about the simplicity and joy of participating in Peewee League baseball in 1950s Austin, and a Clara City farmer with an eighth grade education sends me a 9-page, hand scrawled explanation of why he left the farm around that same time.  When given the chance, people will tell the story they feel most qualified to tell, in the best way they can, and I am pleased to welcome everyone who wants to participate.”

In Minnesota Memories 7, Northfield native Mary James writes about a Ku Klux Klan incident she witnessed as a child.  “Mary is 92 years old.  How many people among us can bear witness to that time in the 1920s when the KKK organized small town Minnesota men to assemble en masse to discriminate against Catholics and Jews?  We need to hear what those eye witnesses have to say.”

Rosemary Wulff wrote about her sister, Berniece Pennington, the first Miss Minnesota, who died of tuberculosis in a Cannon Falls sanatorium at age 27.  “This story, published in Minnesota Memories 3, provides a bit of Minnesota trivia, but it also teaches a history lesson about a time not so long ago when a TB diagnosis offered little hope.  Rosemary has since died, but we still have her story.”

All seven Minnesota Memories volumes feature a diverse assortment of subjects and storytellers. Stories range from epics about coming to America to backstage dramas about the early days of Bloomington Civic Theater and the Stagecoach Opera House, and also feature accounts of dirt drifts that nearly buried Hollandale in 1934, teenagers who helped save North Mankato during the 1951 flood, and Daniel Gainey, an Owatonna man who turned a local jewelry shop into an international class ring and yearbook manufacturer, Jostens.  St. Olaf professor Jim Swanson writes about Curt Carlson’s Gold Bond Stamp grocery store promotion that evolved into a business empire, and a librarian from East Grand Forks writes about a cow pie poultice that saved her brother’s foot.

Even stories about everyday life, such as the those about a farm girl’s detested old raincoat, a widowed mother who ran a corner grocery store, and a girl’s treasured Sonja Henie doll provide history lessons about life and values, and reading them often triggers a similar memory.  Graham observes that submitted material tends to fall into the following categories: history, humor, heroism, heritage, hard work and homage.  Books contain hilarious stories about extraordinary events, and they also contain heart-wrenching tales of disaster and loss, epic tales of survival, reminiscences of events that have grown more glorious with the passage of time, tributes to country school teachers, mentors and grandparents, and a personal favorite about a village mayor who forgot to vote, lost the election by one vote, and ended up as a contestant on the popular television show, “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Graham, who has compiled and published a Minnesota Memories volume each year since 2001, operates an independent publishing company, Graham Megyeri Books, out of her home in Albert Lea. Throughout the year she gathers stories as she speaks at libraries, church groups, town meetings, historical societies, retirement centers and schools throughout Minnesota.  The back page of her books, which contains a map that shows author hometowns and story settings, proves that she has gathered participants from every part of the state.  Her program is lively, and her message is simple.

“Ink on paper is our most archival medium.  If you want to preserve your story, you have to write it down.  Electronic devices fail or become obsolete, tapes grow brittle and break, and the spoken story changes with each retelling.  I encourage people to write their family stories, to supplement genealogy charts with stories, and to create family books.  I give them some pointers and urge them to give it a shot.  If their effort results in something they’d like to share with the world, I invite them to contribute to my next volume.”

“Each new story becomes my favorite story, and as I edit and interview the author for more details and photographs, we become friends for a while.  Writers possess different skill levels, but I try to edit their material with tweezers instead of a sledgehammer because I believe that it is important to try to preserve each writer’s voice and figure out what he wanted to say and what compelled him or her to submit this particular piece.  My youngest contributor was 9 years old, and my oldest was 100, and writers’ occupations have ranged from doctor to housewife, professional writer to paperboy.  If I extend the courtesy of listening to what each person has to say, I am constantly impressed, amused and entertained by what I hear.

“When I started doing this, my main objective was to provide real people a chance to dispel media stereotypes of Minnesotans by creating a forum to tell their true stories.  When I lived in California and Maryland, I constantly fought off jokers who expected a Minnesotan to resemble Rose on The Golden Girls, the characters in Fargo, or—worse yet– Ole and Lena.  I imagined that Minnesota Memories would become an enterprise, but after six years it remains more of a project, and that’s okay.  It’s evolved into a nice little cottage industry, and something much more.  I sell enough books and do enough speaking engagements to keep the series going, the books provide entertainment and education for people of all ages, and I really believe that providing people with encouragement to save their stories is a noble cause.  If there is someone else who has done this, to the extent that I have done it, I am not aware of him or her.”

The Austin and Albert Lea books were sesquicentennial projects published under the sponsorship of the Friends of the Library, but Graham has independently produced and published seven Minnesota Memories volumes.  “I have neither asked for nor received any grants or subsidy.  I gather stories and publish these volumes because I enjoy doing it, and because I feel it’s a good thing to do.  In the past two years, individuals who were compiling anthologies for the Minnesota Humanities Commission and Minnesota Historical Society Press contacted me to ask permission to use some of my published material, but both those projects failed to materialize.  Creating anthologies involves a lot of work, and I believe that after nine volumes, 2000 published pages, I have figured out how to do it.

“My constant challenge is to get the word out about what I am doing.  I tell audiences that I would like to continue doing this until all the great Minnesota stories have been preserved in print—or until I conk out, whichever happens first.  I suspect that it will be the latter, but until that happens, I continue looking for new stories and planning future volumes.”