by Emmett R Smith
ANY Attempt to discover the stories of the remembered past by any history-maker, amateur or professional, brings one up against the question of private and anecdotal, family, evidence, as opposed to the public record; more, it exposes to us the central problem of how much we may be able ever to claim we “know” about any particular happening; or, any portion of the historical past. It is very much a part of our contemporary attitude to claim that the personal (“oral history”) must be brought forward in juxtaposition to, or even in advance of, the “official” and public record — the odd result being that everything becomes “public,” while everywhere we lament the loss of “privacy.” In any event, without significant amounts of the private and the personal to be made public, any history now is likely to be regarded as “uninteresting.”
I agree with Hungarian-American historian-emeritus John Lukacs that history increasingly is poorly taught, even as the public appetite for things such as the funding of oral history projects is increasing. Indeed, so poorly taught is history, above all as rhetoric, a re-visionary literature about the remembered past, that we probably do not have now an adequate public idea of history any longer: neither of what history may be; nor, of how history might aid for instance oral history, perhaps by giving us some “feel” for an individual life even in absence of so-called “objective” facts. Quite apart from the new difficulties postmodern historians begin to encounter in trying to perceive the essence of lives yet separated from us only by a mere seventy or so years, and not only because of the acceleration of time by technology but also by the final and irrevocable end of the late-modern age, I am all the more glad to report that we, of the Anton Schippel-descent, here at home in Blue Earth County and Old Mankato, Minnesota, do have a family-saga that, furthermore, in its five-generation evolution illuminates a certain long-denied and suppressed face of the public tale!
It is The One And The Only Story now extant here among descendants, in oral-memory specifically, about Mankato architect Albert Schippel, and how in babyhood his mother Wilhelmina very possibly saved both Albert and his older brother Henry from injury and death during the Dakota Conflict of 1862. The tale was first told to me as a small boy fifty-two years ago while staying on my maternal Grampa’s farm in rural Eagle Lake, Minnesota, in the hot summer of 1956; it was spoken by my Great-Aunt Leona Magly (b 1901), herself never married and a niece of Architect Schippel through her mother Mary Schippel Magly.
Its setting is the “Great Sioux Uprising” which marked the beginning of twenty-eight years of warfare between northern Great Plains tribes and the US:
“WELL, Buddy, their Dad was away and the Indians came and told [their] Mommy that others were coming and there was trouble, because the Sioux were on the warpath. So Mommy got the kids [three-year-old Henry and baby Albert] in the wagon and harnessed up and they headed for the fort [Fort Ridgeley].
“Some other Indians rode up and they wanted my grandmother’s rubber ladies’ overshoes. [Then, sometimes: “These Indians were drunk!” But, not always, although liquor was one of my great-aunt’s megrims.]
“She wasn’t having any of that, Buddy, and told the Indians none of that now! and whipped up the horses and galloped away. The one Indian had a rifle pointed at her, but it wasn’t much and he shot her as she shook the reins….
“It hit her in the face but healed up after.
“Anyway, she got away with the kids, and when Albert Schippel grew up he became an architect and designed half the buildings in Mankato!”
AND That’s all, seven (or, sometimes, eight) sentences:
If not a miraculous birth, then at least a remarkable childhood escape.
And sure evidence that Schippel in August 1862 was the eight-month-old baby of a determined and stubborn mother. As a small boy myself, hearing the story repeated many times through childhood, I had no doubt whatsoever about who was Albert Schippel! Implicit in the tale of being saved by his mother from Indians was the whole later outcome of his life; given the failed at-gunpoint attempt to rob his mother, Albert Schippel positively could not have failed to grow up to design “half of the buildings in Mankato.”
It is a barebones narrative in a scant 159-164 words, as heard again and again in my memory. My great-aunt had a whole repertoire, a family litany, of word-for-word tales; and, all simply stiff with pre-postmodern assumptions, values, codes.
I delighted in all of them!
And as she told me her stories over and over, she would answer patiently my endless child’s intrusive questions — just as she would never tolerate childish interruption and bad manners by me, if we had company! Her tales were word-pictures of another world; and, the “Schippel Story,” as I soon dubbed it when asking to hear it for the nth time, was the jewel in my Great-Aunt Leona’s crown of family-accounts.
AS An example of oral-tradition, much edited by my great-aunt I am sure, in her decision to choose a particular word or phrase, to make a certain emphasis, these stories all seem to me now to have been especially characterized by the persistent awareness of future outcomes. My great-aunt said that her stories about “Indian days” were told to her in childhood by the “old Germans,” the old people of her grandparents’ generation. But, she said, we still had much to learn from them now.
An interesting motif is the alleged curse on Mankato:
My Great-Aunt Leona said that when she was a little girl the “old Germans all” said that there was a “hex” on Mankato:
“Because of hanging the Indians, Buddy!”
Indeed, this claim was widely verified to me by others, including our neighbors Alfredo Domingo and his housekeeper, Cely Oehler. Also, I well-remember in the summer of 1958, or 1959, in the nearby rural Eagle Lake home of retired farmer Lewis J Compton, longtime friend of my mother’s taciturn Swedish-American father Joseph Jacobson (for whom Leona Magly, sister of my deceased grandmother, kept house), how I listened with rapt attention on a hot July Sunday afternoon in Compton’s shut-up and shaded parlor. I gobbled Marthy’s freshly frosted still-warm chocolate cake and drank iced lemonade while sitting on the cool linoleum under the table, as my great-aunt, Mr Compton’s unmarried daughter “Marthy” and the elderly Mrs Sybil Johnston, all reviewed the matter of this putative, but clearly potent, “hex:”
“AND All that snow in ‘51, my God, yes! Those dreadful floods that spring — of course it was a bad thing to do [the hanging by the US of thirty-eight Dakota captives on 26 December 1862 was the conversational context], and now we pay the price for it!”
“OF Course! And what about the ‘Green Gables’ twister [a ferocious summer 1948 tornado; some experts, today, consider it to have been an F5 storm, in the severest category], that wasn’t natural….”
[I think I also remember that one of the old ladies sportively mentioned at this juncture the widely-discussed paternity lawsuit then happening, in which a Mankato waitress was suing her employer, Daffy Mejnoon, a popular restaurateur of our local Maronite immigrant community, but I’m not sure; that a social gaffe of this sort, however, were laid at the door of a Sioux (or Winnebago?) Indian curse was of course a true instance of interpolative farm wife-wit! This was all in the good old days fifty years ago, of Minnesota DFL Congresswoman Coya Knutson. — ERS]
THE Foregoing adductions by those old people are evidentiary, of course, even if they are not “evidence.”
For what is evinced in this case in other words is a strong — albeit ghastly and negative — impression of overall Old Mankato history, certainly as held by nearby onlookers with a disillusioned eye. All of it is certainly relevant to interpretation, and a marxist history-worker, for example, could well infer a projection in “superstitious” language of the evils of high-modern capitalism.
But, whatever may be the elusive and never-to-be-pinned-down “final” conclusion, about the reality of the Old Mankato Curse, it certainly stands tall as a decisive motif in our regional lore; and, surely, it does represent at least a prevailing distinct impression, of the mauvaise and villainous effect, overall, of Old Mankato on the surrounding region for many years, nay, decades. For this much is true, at least, that there is objectively a pervasive and vile atmosphere throughout much of our story, of almost deliberate-seeming second-rating all down through Old Mankato’s city history. As my late mother said, when through typically fumbled and bungled urban “renewal” projects here far too many of the 1880s and 1900-era buildings designed by Mankato architects Pass, Gerlach, Schippel, Bell and other pioneers were wrongly pulled down:
“It’s because they hung all the Indians, so now they are God-damn-it constantly trying to erase it and hide things from each other!”
My late mother when three years old in 1921 had felt the pellets of birdshot beneath the skin of her great-grandmother’s cheek, but objectively the loss of much of our historic building heritage of course had nothing to do with any Indians whatsoever, dead or otherwise. Rather, it was but another tragic consequence of too-promiscuous 1960s “free” money from off of the federal government of Lyndon Johnson, all dished out too soon….
In short, the likelihood of any “final” historical analysis of our admittedly generalized civic underachievement here is, at best, only remotely probable. But, trying to penetrate the dubious mystery probably not so very important in itself, of a community’s general knack for inadequacy over its generations, has made of me at least a lover of history of some insight and illuminative power. So, I may close by writing that, although my mother’s maternal forebears, unlike her father’s, were not Scandinavians, being several species of German, the stories (vindictive, but usually without malice!) that my Swiss-German great-aunt Leona Magly told me paradoxically were indeed at least family-sagas in the best sense; and, they are all in memory as richly satisfying as the best of the Icelandic sagas: which I began to read and love in adolescence as my great-aunt all-unwittingly worked to lead me to appreciate such literature!
I am grateful personally to have been given these stories—the voice of Leona Magly (d 1994) in memory is a voice of the former age. And, the “Schippel Story,” with its intersection of family-lore and a verifiable public life, amid the persisting public horror of smug failed governance and policy, has made me lifelong a passionate lover of story, saga, history, of the perhaps ever-unanswerable question:
“WHAT ‘Really’ happened?”
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 18 July 2008]