A Chinese proverb states: A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
I made that first step over two weeks ago, and I am finally home. I started writing my blog before my husband and I left for a few days of vacation in northern Minnesota to stay with friends and visit relatives over the 4th. Once I got home, I slept in my own bed for one night, and after repacking, I hopped in my sister’s car for another rode trip the next morning. I had a nice time from north to south, and was surprisingly blessed with new information for the article I have been researching and writing about my minister, Mary MacNicholl. I have been excited to learn about her, her family, and her climb to become the first woman ordained Methodist minister in Minnesota. This work has taken me on a journey that I never realized I’d take. Now home, I decided I would finally finish this blog before July ends so I can get back to my other writing.
I love the 4th of July. It’s a time of celebration with friends and family. This year, our newest baby celebrated with us–her first 4th and probably her first parade. Even though my husband and I have travelled a lot, we’ve never been anywhere famous to take in parades and fireworks, we have seen some wonderful exhibitions across the United States.
For the last years, we have gone to Ely, MN, my husband’s hometown. Ely is proud of its heritage. Definitely a city like many on the Iron Range built from the backs of the miners or foresters who were immigrants from Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, and Finland, and other countries, the generations that followed were proud of their heritage in America. Everyone gets into the act to make this day special. The parade begins at 1:00. Many of the town people place lawn chairs at the same place each year in front of Zup’s, (the Slovenian grocery store,) up and down Harvey or Sheridan streets to watch the lawn chair ladies, the Klown Band, and lots of floats with kids spraying guns of water on the over-heated watchers. After some tour around the beautiful countryside where hills and trees rise up and circle the crystal lakes before gathering for picnics of traditional American of Zup’s own Polish sausage, hot dogs and hamburgers, and maybe some homemade walnut or apple Poteca. Once darkness comes, the sky blossoms with the most amazing colors as fireworks, private and public, ending the day’s celebrations.
A number of times as my husband and I headed home from Ely to South Dakota (we lived there for thirty years) because we had to go to work the next morning, we could see north, east, west, and south as the sky blasted on fire. We could only imagine and mimic the universal “oohs” and “aahs” being shouted and car horns being honked during and after these night sky displays. Just like James Cagney’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” we feel patriotic on this day; we love to kick up our heels.
After I returned home, my sister and I headed to Iowa where my mother’s family came from at the turn of the century. After we left Minnesota, we took 218, the Avenue of the Saints, and came to Clear Lake, Iowa, where Buddy Holly’s airplane went down in a field in 1959 after appearing at the famous Surf Ballroom. We drove by corn fields that relatives once planted from Rockford to Floyd and down to Nashua where our Grandma Ina played organ in the Little Brown Church. She followed her parents to St. Cloud, Minnesota, after finishing her teachers’ training. Her parents had moved because they had lost everything in a terrible tornado, including a record player given to Great Great Grandpa George Potter by Thomas Edison. (The two knew each other in Port Huron, Michigan when and where Grandpa was the postmaster on the Grand Truck Railway and young Tom was selling his goods and newspapers to make money for his experiments. I have a bit more to say about George Potter in a few lines.)
Eight hours later, we pulled into Anamosa, where our aunt lives–our sole reason to go to Iowa. We visited, we laughed, she told us stories, we ate with the cousins, children of cousins and their children. Of course, before we left, we did some antiquing and viewing Grant Wood landscapes. “American Gothic” and his other works are part of the culture in this small town where he lived. As we headed north, we could see how rural scenes of neatly plowed fields and rolling hills captured Wood’s imagination.
We stopped for the night in Spring Valley, Minnesota. Of course, no trip is complete for me without fodder for more writing. Now what is so spectacular about Spring Valley? Ah, Almanzo Wilder’s parents, Laura Inglalls Wilder’s in-laws, settled here and the United Methodist Church in Clearwater, Minnesota, received their woman minister from the Methodist church there. From childhood on, I have been a Laura followers, and I used Laura’s life for part of my master’s thesis. Now, I said I’d get back to Gr Gr Grandfather George Potter. He was born in Franklin County, New York, just a few miles from where Almanzo was born. It gets to be such a small world, even if we don’t know if the families knew each other back in New York. Spring Valley’s museum is in the old Methodist church where Reverend Mary MacNicholl preached.
The United Methodist Church Museum in Spring Valley.
Wilder mementos as well as other notable citizens fill the building top and bottom. The historian told my sister and I that they have so much as far as historical objects that the history society has filled barns, sheds, houses, and of course, the church. From the theaters cameras invented by the Conley brothers to watches bought by Richard Sears for his mail-order catalog (the one in who is the Sears in Sears and Robuck) and who was Almanzo Wilder’s boyhood friend. The Spring Valley historical society is proud of its heritage and attempts to house anything and everything given to them.
As far as Miss Mary goes, she preached in this now museum-church with its beautiful Italian stained-glass windows, dating back to the 1700s. The story goes that way back in Italy, a church in England commissioned the glass company to make and design these windows. For some reason, they backed out of using them. They were stored somewhere in England and forgotten for nearly 100 years. From the church’s inception, the windows have shone light on the parishioners in this Spring Valley Methodist Church for 100 years and still graces the sanctuary. Miss Mary received her ordination here before transitioning to Clearwater where I grew up and where I and others appreciated her spiritual guidance. I stood at the altar and tried to imagine Mary singing in front of her congregation, blessing and serving communion, or baptizing babies. I received a wonderful gift from the historian. She gave me pictures of the church, the rectory before it was torn down, and Mary and her mother Mary who had come to Minnesota to be her housekeeper. Here is a community that loves its history and is proud to display it!!!
A small detour before we finally headed home was to Wykoff, Minnesota, just ten miles away from Spring Valley. This was Mary’s first church, along with two others in Fillmore County. This was Sunday about one o’clock. I didn’t expect to see anyone come from the church so my sister took pictures of me standing on the steps. It was a warm day so she went back into the ac of the car while I wiggled the door handle. Finding it unlocked, I slipped into the entryway. Little rooms off to the side were carpeted and there were steps to the basement. The sanctuary doors were open. I walked to the front pew.
As I sat down, I thought about all I had learned about Mary MacNicholl since I had started this process. She received her divinity degree in the late 40s and left her home in New Jersey. She became the minister she wanted to be from childhood. This was the first church she served along with Fillmore and Fountain –a three-point charge. Brown paneling and red carpeting welcomed me. I could imagine this peaceful sanctuary welcoming her as well. I remembered the first day of my teaching career, and I could imagine the preparation she put in for her first sermon. I sat for awhile, and then it was time to move on. I closed the door behind me, but I didn’t lock up. I left the building as I found it. As we drove away, heading home, I was impressed with how Mary faced many challenges to become a minister in a man’s world.
I refrain from breaking out into song about our country’s freedoms and opportunities that are available to men and women alike. (I am sure you are thankful for this.) My hope is that we can feel the fourth of July every day so we can put behind our differences and celebrate our Americanism.