Culture is one of the basic elements of any civilization. As it embraces a wide range of activities, beliefs, and art forms, it enriches our lives and helps us to better understand ourselves and our place in the world. Morrison County has been blessed with a rich cultural heritage. This heritage is in large part due to the efforts of local women who worked to transfer, establish, and promote culture for the benefit of themselves, their families, and their communities.
One of the benefits of being a new employee at the Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) has been exploring the museum’s archival and three-dimensional artifact collections. I have thoroughly enjoyed peaking in boxes and digging through files while searching for evidence of the role women played in the establishment of cultural resources in the area. Not surprisingly, the evidence is strong. From hand-crafted domestic items created to serve both functional and decorative purposes to the programs of social and civic groups intended to benefit entire communities, the cultural activities of the women of Morrison County have been extensive.
From the beginnings of human civilization, women have worked to improve and refine their surroundings and living conditions. For example, Native American women living in the area decorated items such as clothing and medicine bags with quilling and beadwork. With the arrival of white settlers, aspects of European culture were transferred by immigrant women who brought with them the knowledge and skill of various art forms. One example of this that is found in the MCHS collection is a white cotton wedding shirt that was made in 1860 in Hanaskog, Sweden. This knee-length shirt is beautifully decorated around the front opening with embroidery and crochet-work.
Pioneer women and their descendants excelled in making functional items aesthetically pleasing. Many hours were spent weaving, tatting, sewing, and quilting. An excellent example from the MCHS collection is a Tulip quilt that was made by Carrie Enke in the 1930s. This quilt won first prize at the Minnesota State Fair.
During the Victorian era, a pleasingly decorated home was considered a tool for advancing society and improving what was commonly referred to as the “moral order”. The domestic environment created by women was believed to elevate the mind, emotions, manners, and tastes of the future citizens of the world. Photographs of domestic interiors in Morrison County show an abundance of decorative textile work as well as representations of the “fine arts” of painting and sculpture. These works were most often produced by the woman of the house herself.
As the population of the county grew, women turned their efforts to include the improvement of their communities. Plays, operas, picnics, public gardens, concerts, and art exhibits are some of the cultural opportunities that were the direct result of their efforts. The Musical Art Club of Little Falls, which was organized in 1911, offers a great example of women working together to encourage culture in their community. Article II of the club’s constitution states its object as “(t)o advance the interests and promote the culture of musical arts in Little Falls”. The club advocated music in schools, community singing, and offered programs featuring musical and literary selections. The programs initially were comprised entirely of local talent, but they soon expanded to include outside groups, such as the St. Paul Schubert Club and the Braemer String Quartette. By 1919, the club had acquired a permanent home with the dedication of the Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser Hall. The hall was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Weyerhaeuser of Little Falls.
Another organization that was instrumental in promoting culture in its community was the Royalton Study Club. Organized in 1907 by a group of ten women from the Royalton area, the club sought to further the education of its members and of the community. The women met on a regular basis to study, read, and share material. Their efforts formed the basis for the beginnings of the Royalton Public Library. Women also played a significant role in the cultural opportunities provided by churches and schools. Churches and schools, particularly during the beginning of white settlement in the county, were often the center of culture for the community. Baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals provided settings for the sharing of ideas and beliefs while giving women an outlet for their musical and artistic creativity. Women were able to play an even more significant role in the field of education as they often served as teachers in local schools. School plays, programs, and graduation ceremonies were cultural and social highlights for the entire community.
Needless to say, there is overwhelming evidence that women played a vital role in the establishment and promotion of culture in the county. Whether a handmade quilt, musical concert, or school play, the rich cultural heritage of Morrison County continues to enrich the daily lives of its citizens.
by Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 1999, Morrison County Historical Society