Please welcome today’s guest writer, Noah Schumerth. Noah studied Geography and Architecture at Calvin College and graduated in 2019. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in Urban and Environmental Planning at Arizona State University, focusing on network connectivity and its effects on urban access and social dynamics. He works as an urban planner in Casa Grande, Arizona, fighting on the front lines of urban sprawl in the Phoenix metropolitan area. He lives in Tempe with a 24-toed cat named Happy Feet.
My friend Allison sat down excitedly across the dining room table and explained to me how the first day of my visit to Winona was going to go. A tour of the town, a stop at the farmer’s market to find the purveyors of a sourdough I absolutely needed to try, and a trip to the local historical society. I happily accepted the terms of the day, ready to experience the stage upon which my friend’s life took place. Out the door we went, into the snow and the grey shroud over the city (quite unfamiliar to me now after over a year of living in Phoenix, Arizona).
To those that know me, it is no secret that I love local museums and historical societies. They are unmatched for curating new stories. They contain small tales of bravery, from someone who took a leap and started a business that would last a century to a local soldier who helped free those trapped in a concentration camp halfway around the world. They tell deeply human stories that dive into the mundanity of daily life in a small community. They paint an intimate picture of what a community is defined by, what it wishes to remember and carry on for the next generation.
Coffee in hand, we strolled into the dimly lit historical society later that morning. The museum resides in what remains of an old gymnasium, exhibits lining the old running track, lit by a single large beam of light coming from the Diocletian window on the end of the building. I was immediately captivated, drawn in by the intimate stories and accomplishments of how ordinary townspeople had directly impacted the community throughout its history, sometimes in ways that echoed through generations. Women’s suffragists who fought from Winona to ensure women were a part of the 1920 election. A local lumber company executive who used his money to build public works projects that remain in Winona today, over 120 years later. A local police chief who was remembered for his bravery as floodwaters consumed the town in 2007. Pragmatists, idealists, and people who simply responded to a call for action took steps to make their community safer, cleaner, and more beautiful than when they had started.
After a long while, Allison nudged me as I was busy reading stories of 1970s anti-war protests in the town. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon—we’ve been at the museum for almost three hours. But as we left and walked along the frigid streets of town, my mind wandered somewhere more serious. Of the hundreds of people honored in this museum whose stories I’d just been arrested by, not a single person’s achievements or accomplishments were likely known beyond the borders of Winona County. Most of them lived and died in complete obscurity, their memory mostly passing away with those who knew them personally.
Even in their immortalization of local people and circumstances, the very nature of the museum felt as though it was cutting against today’s striving for fame and notoriety: the dedication of one’s entire life to a community left their memory in a dusty room, largely visited by bored students on field trips and the occasional curious passersby.
The vignettes of lives on the walls of this tiny Minnesotan museum challenged my increasingly abstract notion of success. In the blur of graduate school, with its publications, job opportunities, and career preparation, all that I was doing had become about posturing myself for what would ultimately be my “career,” a position with notability and a wide audience through which someday I could affect widespread change. For me, the present had been pledged in service to a formless future goal.
I wished to reach a point where I would be remembered as someone who contributed something to solving the systemic urban crises of our time—if I wasn’t, was I still fruitful? Or was I largely just wasting potential?
The lives of these rural Minnesotans lacked evidence of fretting about how to position oneself to “maximize their impact” or reach the widest audience for change or even how they would be remembered for their work and their lives. In their limited posts in life, they responded to immediate needs of the people around them in their place. Their “success” came from real service to real people in real time.
The author of Ecclesiastes states that “there will be no remembrance of the former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things that are yet to be.” The lives of these people who lived and died bore witness to this fact, ushering in a stark warning to us who set up our love in hopes of being widely remembered for even the most altruistic ends.
Perhaps the only “success” that we can measure ourselves by is how we serve and minister to those immediately around us, and the beauty we leave behind in the world for others. Particularly for the ambitious among us, perhaps it is better that we live as those who will end up in the history museum of a tiny, largely forgotten city: forgotten in the world’s eyes, but remembered and cherished only by those who will live with the dividends of what we did.