During the month of June, 15 students from the University of Minnesota and their instructor, David Feinberg, focused their attention on the 1894 Great Hinckley Fire to serve as inspiration for creating visual artwork. As a first step in their learning, Steve Johnson of the Hinckley Fire Museum in Hinckley, Minnesota, about 90 minutes north of the university, gave them a tour of the building and relayed a variety of stories from that disaster, some of which had Swedish connections.
The fire affected the lives of the many Swedish settlers who were living in the 400 square miles destroyed by the fire. Two months after the disaster, the official death toll listed 413 people, but not included in this number were the Native Americans in the region. The total increased over the years as bodies were found in the burn zone. According to the surnames listed among the recognizable dead, about 100 Swedes lost their lives in the disaster.
Perhaps it is not surprising that a Swedish journalist found his way to Hinckley to interview survivors. Gudmund Emanuel Akermark was the author of “Eld-Cyklonen eller Hinckley-branden,” which was written in 1894 and served as one of the course texts for university students in June.
Akermark emigrated from Sweden in 1887, and at the time of the fire was editor of “Skordemannen,” a farm paper published in Minneapolis. In 1973, the text was brought to the attention of William Johnson of Hinckley, who translated it in time for the U.S. bicentennial celebrations in 1976. According to Johnson’s research, Akermark had published some articles in Swedish, and in the translator’s introduction Johnson states that the author had “found employment as a journalist working from time to time with various Swedish language periodicals.”
A story shared in this book and also in Lyseth’s (2014) volume, “Hinckley and the fire of 1894” involves a root cellar built by stone mason Erick Troolin. Nearby on September 1, 1894, Minnie Samuelson was getting ready to marry John Derosier. After some socializing leading up to the ceremony, “a mighty flame of fire shot down upon the house and ignited it, and in the amazement no one understood from whence it had come” (Akermark, p. 69). After some confusion, the guests realized they could go to the root cellar for safety.
While they were inside the small space, the door began to burn and the air was suffocatingly hot. The group was lucky as they realized they could use the 20 large cans of milk to douse the burning door. When the heat grew to such intensity that it pierced their clothing, they poured milk over themselves. This action saved the wedding party, and some days after they were rescued the engaged couple married.
Stories such as the milk in the root cellar, as well as field trips, discussions and studio time are all part of the three-week course. The class, which has been offered for the past decade, asks learners to research history for the purpose of creating a visual image. Students confront the past to be influenced by it. They are charged to translate, personalize and interpret ideas and emotions, thereby making a personal connection, which becomes transformed into a visual language. This year, the class culminated with the 11th annual collaborative art exhibit installed at the Hinckley Fire Museum.
Due to popularity and the satisfying degree of experiential learning, several students were repeating the course and already had artwork on display at the museum from the 2014 term. Of particular note was that fully two-thirds of the class qualified for the senior citizen discount, which is a Minnesota Legislative Statute making it possible for people ages 62 and older to take classes at public colleges and universities for a nominal cost. Auditing a course is free, and at the University of Minnesota, credits cost $10 each. During class introductions on the first day, several admitted to being perennial students, aiming for a BFA, or returning to college after a 40-year career.
The Hinckley Fire, called the worst disaster in Minnesota history, happened 121 years ago. While many schools take students to the museum on field trips, the topic has faded for some Minnesotans. Feinberg believes it is important to remember the stories of history. “If you don’t have people talking about it and warning the next generation not to repeat it, the story disappears.” He gave an example about stories of genocide, which he said last about 25 years. Consistent with his thinking, he specified in one course objective that learners would be influenced by the past and make artwork relevant for the future.
Feinberg supports student arts learning with suggestions for how to begin creating their final piece ready for exhibition. To make art, he says: “Don’t try to think of a great idea. Whatever you think of, make a sketch. Then gather it altogether and see what you’re going to do with it. Don’t throw things away.” He also advocates for exchanging ideas with others in the class. “Getting started is difficult, but don’t worry about quality. The idea becomes smart through processing. When you process, you start editing, and it leads to something worthwhile and important.”
Working from the heart is a reoccurring phrase in Feinberg’s instruction. “When you work from your mind it hardly ever works out. When you work from your heart, it nearly always works out.” No doubt class participants found many opportunities to make a heart connection with the stories of the Hinckley fire, and some of those reflected Swedish influences.