Hallelujah Anyway!

(Ellis Press, 2004)


Almost as soon as I arrived in southwest Minnesota I began photographing the landscape: initially the farm I rented south of Minneota, then places along the biweekly drive between Minneota and Peoria, Illinois.  Then the prairies, towns, barns, churches and cemeteries in my corner of the state.  Even in the old days, I found in the landscape consolation for anxiety over academic politics and grief over the separation from my children.  Robert Bly told me that would be the case, and he was right.
Experiences around the world, and with books like A Generation in Motion and Poland in Transition, taught me the value of photos coupled with text, and somewhere in the middle 1990s I conceived the idea for what became a coffee table anthology of southwest Minnesota writing, Southwest Minnesota: The Land and the People. Other writing-photography projects followed: the region seemed infinitely rich visually as well as verbally.

And culturally.  The strong ethnic flavor still found in the towns and farms of southwestern Minnesota has been diluted by time, mixed marriage and mass-media culture, but I see vestiges of the Old World in the faces of my students and the inscriptions of old gravestones, in spoken Minnesota English and the names of businesses.  Especially I see it each summer in the festivals at which the small towns of this region celebrate (and promote) themselves. 

These too are dying, fighting—like the farms and town, churches and schools, and Southwest State itself—a hard and probably losing battle against the inevitabilities of population loss, outside economic exploitation, and the shifting enthusiasms of a younger generation.  I feel less nostalgic about the diminution of festivals than I do about the demise of the towns and farms and congregations.  Although some are old, reaching back forty years to a time when they were quite the deal, others are relatively recent inventions, designed mainly to bring customers to local merchants or provide an excuse to drink and party in a region that has maybe already too many excuses to drink and party.  An event like Polska Kielbasa Days, Belgian-American Days, and even Upper Sioux Agency Pow-Wow is essentially retrospective and artificial.  The very premise is loss.

And yet they’re fun, and they represent a communal effort all should respect and appreciate.  Certainly they’re a more legitimate, a more indigenous embodiment of “cultural diversity” than most of what goes on at the college. And things like Hanley Falls Threshing Show, Granite Falls Rodeo and New Ulm events are quite the deal, a guaranteed great time.                

So in April of 2000, having recovered from the flood of 1997 and blissfully unaware of the impending flood of 2001, I committed the summer to hitting every festival I could find, taking a notebook and a camera.  The result was a series of impressions published in the summer 2001 issue of Great River Review (without photographs), and in 2004 (with photographs) in a small book titled Hallelujah Anyway.                                                                                                                   I learned many things over the summer of 2000, not the least of which is the tremendous repetition of faces, floats, and events one celebration to the next.  It wasn’t just the same small-town queens, attendants, and tired political candidates making the rounds, either: the circuit is full of exhibitors, vendors, owners of old farm machinery or vintage cars, beer-drinkers, dancers, and frybread fanatics, who migrate all summer around the area.  I learned also that the ethnicity of many festivals is more in the structure of the celebration than in the actual events: Protestants, for example, do in fact have a word fixation, tending to favor lectures and learning; Catholics are in fact a little more inclined to beer, Miss Tootsie, and fund-raising.  I learned that if I kept my ears as well as my eyes open, I’d be tossed one good line after another, free, there for the taking—I could no more make up the talk than I could invent the photos.  I learned that old folk have as much fun as young folk, but fun of a different nature. 

Most important, a northern Protestant myself, I learned to take life not so seriously, because death is inevitable and I’m not going to survive it.

That summer I hit Luverne Buffalo Days on June 3, Windom Riverfest on June 9, Renville Hometown Days on June 10, Russell Bandwagon (formerly Dairy) Days on June 10, Fulda Wood Duck Festival on June 16, Granite Falls Western Fest on June 21, Vesta Centennial Celebration on June 24, Bird Island Wing Ding Days on June 24, Dawson Riverfest on June 23, Westbrook Centennial/School Reunion on July 2, Hendricks Centennial Celebration on July 1, St. John Cantius, Wilno July 4 Celebration, Jasper Quarry Festival on July 13, Dawson Western Crazy Days on July 13, Walnut Grove Pioneer Festival on July 15, Sacred Heart Summerfest on July 16, Tyler Aebleskiver Days on July 22, Upper Sioux Wacipi, Granite Falls, on August 5, Ghent, Belgian-American Days on August 5, Benton-Fremont Days on August 12, Pipestone Civil War Days on August 12, Ivanhoe Polska Kielbasa Days on August 12, Bechyn Czech Heritage Festival on August 20, Wood Lake Community Fair on August 22, and Minneota Boxelder Bug Days on September 9.  From those events came these words, these images.


“How long have you had your turtle?”
“A day.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Some boy.”
“Where did he get it?”
“Does he have a name?”
“You and your turtle practice?”
“What happens to your turtle after the race?”
“Back to the river.”
“Think you’ll win?”




Man:  “You had to register with radio Q92.”
Kid: “We don’t listen to Q92.”
Man: “It was in the papers.”
Kid: “We’ll sign up now.”
Man: “We’re not gonna have the outhouse race if nobody is registered.                                                            
Next year we’ll have the race if enough people sign up in advance.”



In the Bird Island Post Office: “Rubb’a Dubb’a Dog with an Attitude.  Are you sick and tired of your dog not listening when your trying to give him/her a bath?  If so call 365-4321 and ask for Jessica Beckler.  We will give your Dog a bath, comb its fur.  After we are done your Dog will look great!!! Open: Friday-Saturday. Founder of the business: Jessica Beckler & Tiffany Zuhlsdorf.”


Radio promoting the Dawson Riverfest fishing contest: “We don’t say they have to be walleyes or northerns.  Just a fish.  Whoever has the most fish is the winner in that age category.”




“Ja, in them days, trains come through here pretty regular.  You could ride to Tracy for eleven cents.  Hard to believe how things have changed.”



“Be a lot nicer if it wasn’t for this heat.”
“Bailey, what did you do with my grandmama?”
“One lady is 102.  She lives in Milan, but we’re sending a group over to the home to bring her here.”

“How much longer, dad?”

“She collects all that old stuff.  I wouldn’t want to have to wash it.”
“So that’s how long it takes to smoke one cigarette?”
“Four generations--they move at different speeds.”
“This building used to be out by Kevin Olson’s place, right by us.”
“Golly gee; you think they could of waited two, three years.”

“We had good intentions. . . .”

“We can go to the dance now that we have our buttons.”
“A woman just does things different.”
“I had a few choice words for them, too.”
“Times being what they are, I don’t know that they’re milking now.”

“You know what?  It’s nap time for dad, too.”

“We never were much for these celebrations.  Remember when the fairgrounds was right across the street from us--some years we didn’t even go, didn’t even cross the street.”
“It’s been too long. You probably don’t recognize me either.”
“We’re gonna take a foot run over to grandma’s house.”

“Whadda you guys wanna do now?”


“That’s what we do here,” a woman in her late thirties reflects. “Sit on the lawn, drink beer, and watch the world go by.”


Behind me, a young mother shows her infant son to admiring friends.  “So she said, ‘I didn’t know you’d had your baby already.’  Well hello!  Like, look at me . . . I’m not fat any more.  Now he wants a daughter.  I told him, it’s just been two days.  I’m still sore.”   


“They have a Norwegian festival over to Hendricks.  Or Lake Benton.  One of those towns.  I was thinking of a Polish festival here.”
“I like Polish sausage.”
“It’s called kielbasa.”
“I heard it called other names.”
                                                                              “The beer is good, sister.”
“It is.  The beer is good.”   


“You here again?”
“Every night this week.”

“A girl in high school thinks that boys have all the power.  She is so afraid they will not notice her.  Completely self-conscious.  Then you grow up, and you realize that boys are more confused than girls, and girls have all the power.  But by then it’s too late.”

“I used to make all that stuff.  Don’t do it any more.”
“I don’t want to take the chance of burning myself.”
“Heavens no!”

“Jenny, your mom’s looking for you.”

“This is what America is all about.”

“You here again?”

“Every night this week.”