Thursday, June 28, 2012

Letters from My Daughter

Louisa has been away at French camp since June 18, when we put her on a bus to Hackensack, a northern Minnesota town located about an hour south of Bemidji. She will be gone for a whole month and will earn high school credit through the Concordia Language Villages program, which is fantastique! She’s never been away from home that long, so it’s a new separation experience for her and for us – and a glimpse into what it will be like when she leaves for college in two years (gulp!).

The view from the beach at Louisa’s camp/photo credit Lac du Bois/Hackensack
I miss her – her smile, her musical voice, her wit, and her enthusiasm – but I know it’s important for her to have experiences that challenge her, without the safety net of parents offering advice or assistance. It’s the perfect opportunity for her, at age 16, to explore who she is and who she’s becoming.

And who she is, until mid-July, is Élodie – that’s her French name at camp.

Élodie avec ses amies de la cabine/photo credit Lac du Bois/Hackensack
One of the cool things about the camp is that it harkens back to the olden days (olden as in pre-Internet and pre-cell phone) in terms of communication. We cannot call, text or email her. This makes it easier, I think, for her and the other campers to fully involve themselves in the experience. Of course, we can write letters to her, and she can write to us. And we can view the camp blog that regularly features photos and brief explanations of what the campers are doing (a smart marketing move by Concordia that probably is also a concession to parents with helicopter tendencies).

A page from a story she wrote and illustrated for a class project
A few days after Louisa left home, we received two letters from her in one day. When I opened the mailbox and saw her familiar handwriting on the envelopes, I felt a rush of excitement I rarely if ever feel from opening an email or checking a text – and it brought back memories of other meaningful letters I’ve received in my life, letters that meant so much to me that I kept them (they are somewhere in the basement, and yes, Dad, the apple doesn’t ... you know the rest). These include weekly letters my mom faithfully wrote to me during my first year of college; notes from my dad accompanied by political cartoons and classified ads for French horn players; and a series of letters Steve wrote to me the summer after his first year in medical school, when he was traveling out west with some buddies and I was working in Mississippi.

Une lettre d’Élodie
It seems cliché to wax nostalgic about how unfortunate it is that no one writes letters anymore – but it’s really true. Letters reveal clues about a person’s personality and are much better at conveying feelings than a series of sentences typed on a keyboard. You can carry the letters in your pocket or hold them in your hand and know that your loved one made impressions on the same paper hours or days earlier with a pencil or pen – it’s a warmer connection, one that seems closer to the human heart than what can be shared through the wonders of gigabytes and pixels.

When I reread Louisa’s letters, I picture her in her cabin, or sitting on the dock, thinking about us, and it makes me feel closer to her. The things she chooses to mention – or not mention – give me insight into what she was thinking and doing at the time she wrote the letter. The letters remind me of the old serial stories that authors (like her namesake, Louisa May Alcott) used to write for newspapers. From the three letters we have received so far, I’ve learned that Élodie earned a bead for successfully taking on the challenge to speak only French on her first full day at camp; I have been introduced to the characters of her cabinmates and her two adored cabin counselors, the one who writes Harry Potter fan fiction and the one with a beautiful singing voice; and I have heard tales of delicious food and fun events, like a dance on the beach. I can hardly wait for the next installment, to see where the story leads!

In return, I’ve sent her letters chronicling the events she’s missed at home, from the unexpected (the tree falling down and crushing our playset in the aftermath of the flash flooding) to the ordinary (her dad’s play rehearsals, our dog Waffles being cute). 

I know from reading old family letters that the ordinary details are the ones that become meaningful years later simply because they provide a record of what was ordinary for one person, or for one generation. For example, from a letter my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, wrote to his mother, Rebecca, in the summer of 1915 on the back of a band concert program, I learned that my grandfather and great-uncle had recently returned from a visit to Rebecca’s home where they had enjoyed spending time with their cousin, Oliver; I also learned that G. Oliver and his wife, Islea, were feasting on the bounty of their garden that summer, which included peas, beans, potatoes, radishes, lettuce and onions.

Yes, life 100 years ago was different, but yes, in many important ways, it hasn’t changed much. Family connections feed us just as food does, and are so vital to our growth. We can’t always understand or appreciate this until we are separated from those we love.


A picture postcard my grandfather Ronald sent to his grandmother, Rebecca Riggs, in 1910.
If, years from now, Louisa’s children or grandchildren find these letters from camp that I’m saving, they might be amused to read about her adventures, or they may be astonished to discover that people really did write letters once, before the U.S. Postal Service dissolved and all communication became telepathic.

I can’t predict the future or do much to influence societal changes in communication. What I can do, though, for at least a few more weeks, is write to my daughter at camp and eagerly anticipate receiving letters in return.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Here’s to Happier Adventures in Duluth

Residents of Duluth are receiving countless positive thoughts, prayers and good wishes this week as they continue to recover from a record-setting flash flood that has likely caused millions of dollars in damage.

I’m not going to review the details of the disaster in my blog (you can get that background by reading today’s Minnesota Public Radio story here). But I did want to bring up the topic of the Lake Superior Zoo; if you have followed the flooding news at all, you have no doubt heard that some animals died and others were temporarily displaced by the flooding (as this June 22 MPR story explains). I have to confess, although I’ve visited Duluth at least a dozen times in my life – most recently about four years ago with Steve and the kids – I didn’t realize the city had a zoo.

If I’d read my G. Oliver Riggs files more closely, however, I’d have known. Turns out, G. Oliver and his 90-member St. Cloud Municipal Senior Boys’ Band toured the zoo in August 1934 when they were in Duluth for the American Legion state convention.

The two-day Duluth trip must have been quite an adventure because I’ve seen it mentioned a couple of times in G. Oliver’s files. The St. Cloud boys placed first among 26 bands in the Legion’s torchlight parade competition, which included five official American Legion bands. The St. Cloud band also received awards for largest delegation and boxcar traveling the longest distance.

An excerpt from an article in the Aug. 7, 1934, St. Cloud Daily Times
The band members had some free time after the parade to go sightseeing; they took a boat trip on Lake Superior, visited Morgan Park (a planned community built by the U.S. Steel Corporation), and toured the zoo (which was relatively new at that point; it opened in 1923, and its first animal was a pet deer named Billy). According to a story in the Aug. 8, 1934, St. Cloud Daily Times, the older boys who had been on other band trips said this one was the best yet.
The St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band in 1934
Also during the trip, the band performed a free concert for Duluth residents at the courthouse square. The article didn’t mention how many people attended the concert, but it did say “many citizens flocked around G. Oliver Riggs, director, and the boys, after the concert, to express their appreciation of the courtesy, and to give their praise.”

Our family is planning to spend a few days in Duluth in August (this was part of a family vacation we had planned before the flooding). We haven’t finalized our itinerary yet – it likely won’t include a visit to the zoo – but we are looking forward to the adventure, and we’re happy to do what we can to support the city with our tourism dollars as it continues to recuperate from the flood.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Neighborly Picnic off Eighth Street

We enjoyed a wonderful picnic – and the shade of the tall trees – last Saturday at Barden Park in St. Cloud. The “Main Street to Eighth Street” Lewis family celebration was a good excuse to bring the Riggs family members together for a gathering. Unfortunately, not everyone could make it, but we had about 75 percent of the family there, which was a great turnout for a busy summer weekend.

We even managed to gather in one place long enough for a kind man to take a group picture with multiple cameras – not an easy task!

Three generations of Riggs family members gather in front of the Barden Park bandstand.
G. (George) Oliver Riggs, the cardboard cutout who loves to travel, was finally able to meet his great-great-grandson G. (Griffin) Oliver Riggs, the adorable baby son of my cousin Brent and his wife Nicole – it was a photographic moment we made sure to capture for posterity.

The two G. Olivers together!
Griffin with my dad, who was about Griffin's age when he moved to St. Cloud.
Brent with Griffin

My grandfather Ronald with my dad, William
Before the picnic, Steve and I toured the Lewis House, the longtime home of Dr. Claude Lewis (brother of author Sinclair Lewis) and his wife Wilhelmina. The house was built in 1926 and is located in St. Cloud’s historic south side neighborhood, next to St. Cloud State University. It was designed by prominent St. Cloud architect Louis Pinault (1889-1980), who also designed the octagonal granite bandstand across the street from the Lewis House.
Steve and me before the Lewis House tour; the bandstand behind us was built in 1925.
The Lewis House was one of many neighborhood homes affected by the university’s expansion in the decades after World War II. The house was taken over by the university in 1972 and turned into office space for the St. Cloud State University Foundation and Alumni Relations. Known as the alumni house for many years, it was recently renamed for the Lewis family to highlight the connections between the campus and the neighborhood. 

The house my dad, his brother Bob and his sister Dana grew up in, next to the Lewis House, was moved to another location in town, and the site became a parking lot.


My dad has fond memories of the interactions he and his brother, Bob, had with their neighbors. Some of his recollections are mentioned in a story Alex Ames wrote about the Lewis family for the May issue of Crossings, the Stearns History Museum magazine (Ames just graduated from SCSU with a master’s degree in public history).

“Mrs. Lewis, whom Bill remembers as ‘very motherly,’ always had homemade cookies for the boys,” Ames wrote.  “The observant medical professionals even made sure the kids stayed hydrated while playing outside. Dr. and Mrs. Lewis ’had a Culligan water cooler they [they] could have had in the kitchen, but [they] left it out on the porch, and the Riggs boys could help themselves! We loved Dr. Lewis,’” Bill Riggs remembers.

We didn’t see any water available for guests on the porch of the Lewis House last weekend, but that was OK – the Riggs family members brought plenty of food, drink, and even some homemade cookies (thanks, Mom!) for our picnic in the park. Dr. Lewis and Mrs. Lewis would have felt right at home.

Seb and Louisa investigate the bounty of picnic food.
Elias has a swinging time in St. Cloud’s oldest park.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Happy 125th to the St. Cloud Municipal Band

It may not be the country’s oldest continuously active community band – that honor apparently goes to the Allentown (Pa.) Band, which had its first documented performance in 1828 – but at 125 years old, the St. Cloud Municipal Band is certainly one of the old-timers among U.S. community bands.  The SCMB kicked off its 125th anniversary season last month with a concert at the Paramount Theatre; on Saturday afternoon it will play a concert in Barden Park as part of the celebration honoring the Lewis family’s connections to St. Cloud.



Last month’s concert drew an audience of 550 people, and the radio station WJON ran a story about it, which you can read here. The story includes five photos of the band from over the years, and three of them may look familiar to regular readers of my blog – they are of the band during the time my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, was director.

The band’s official beginning is dated at 1887, when the city’s first daily newspaper began reporting on the activities of a community band called the St. Cloud Union Band. An auxiliary of this band, the St. Cloud Bicycle Band, famously performed at the Minnesota State Fair in 1895 and claimed to be the only such band of its kind. The 16 or so musicians played while riding bicycles and were led by a man named John Boobar, a percussion player and professional bicycle rider. Another band member was Martin Molitor, who years later served on the band committee that brought G. Oliver to St. Cloud in 1923 to resurrect the city band, which had broken up after World War I.
Martin Molitor, left, and John Boobar of the St. Cloud Bicycle Band.
Molitor also was partly responsible for G. Oliver leaving St. Cloud in 1925; he and G. Oliver tangled over who was getting credit for the band’s success, which led to G. Oliver resigning as band director (he returned in 1928, after the city elected a new mayor and passed the band tax law). But that’s a story for another blog entry!

Because of that gap in time, between the end of World War I and G. Oliver’s arrival in 1923, the St. Cloud Municipal Band cannot claim to be Minnesota’s oldest continuous community band – but it wouldn’t be able to claim that, anyway, since the honor goes to the Meire Grove Band, which was established in 1883, followed by the Carlisle Band, which formed in 1894. Meire Grove is located halfway between St. Cloud and my hometown of Alexandria, and Carlisle is just north of Fergus Falls (something about the soil or air in west central Minnesota must have fostered musical activity).

Members of the Meire Grove Band, circa 1894 (photo from the Meire Grove Band website)
The third band in the running for the honor is the Two Harbors City Band in northeastern Minnesota; it formed in 1897 and still performs weekly summer concerts.
The Two Harbors City Band (photo from the Friends of the Band Shell Park website)
Thinking about the history of Minnesota’s community bands got me curious about longtime, continuous community bands in other states, so I did some further research.  Here’s what I found:

The Allentown Band, which I mentioned earlier, has been going strong since 1828. John Philip Sousa recruited members of the band for his own professional band, and the band was directed for many years by a Sousa alumnus, Albertus L. Meyers. The band has about 65 members, ranging in age from teenagers to senior citizens, and it plays 50 paid engagements each year.
The Allentown Band from the 1800s (photo from the Allentown Band website)
The Bangor (Maine) Band, which bills itself as the oldest continuous community band in New England, dates back to 1859. During the Civil War, the band became a regimental band attached to the Second Maine Infantry and later the Fourteenth Maine Regiment, and was present in February 1865 when Union forces recaptured Fort Sumter from the Confederacy. The band is made up of about 50 musicians and performs throughout the year.
The Bangor Band, 1898 (photo from the Bangor Band website)
• The Medina (Ohio) Community Band has been through several incarnations since it formed in 1859. The original band was made up of males, mostly in their 20s. The current band is composed of about 100 musicians, male and female, who range in age from 15 to upper-80s. In the summer, the band performs in a gazebo in the town’s historic Uptown Park Square.
The Medina Knights of Pythias Band, 1901 (photo from the Medina Community Band website)
The Maine (N.Y.) Community Band, formed in 1861. Like the others I’ve mentioned, it initially was an all-male band, with an emphasis on brass instruments, but is now truly a community band made up of males and females from youth to retirees.
The Maine Community Band from 1907 (photo from the Maine Community Band website)
I’m sure there are other longtime, continuously active bands out there that I’m missing; if you know of one worth mentioning, let me know!

It’s encouraging to see that St. Cloud isn’t the only city that continues to value and support its community band. According to the article Celebrating 150 Years of Minnesota Community Bands by Jon Schroeder, the construction in recent years of new outdoor summer concert venues (like the state-of-the-art bandshell in Red Wing) shows that interest in Minnesota’s community bands – thought to number 150 – is on the upswing.

That’s a trend I can enthusiastically support. Happy Anniversary, St. Cloud Municipal Band. May you and your community enjoy many, many more!