End of an Era

For a span of close to seventy years, members of my extended family have held an annual gathering on their farm. When my mother was a young girl in the 1940s, she would go to her aunt and uncle’s farm in Elk River, MN. In those days, the gatherings were called powwows. My mother was not a farm girl, but she still talks fondly of those visits to Uncle Mike and Aunt Irene’s farm.

Great Uncle Mike
Great Aunt Irene


After my mother started her own family, she would take my sisters and me to the farm each summer for the powwow. This was in the late 1960s, and maybe early 1970s. The farm was packed with family and friends of Mike and Irene, many of whom I did not know. Just as my mother had played with her many cousins who all convened at the farm, my cousins and I would explore the farm. We were suburban and city kids, so the farm was kind of exotic for us… another world. We’d explore the barns, gawk at the cows, watch Great Uncle Mike do chores, get a ride on the tractor-pulled hay wagon, and spend the better part of the day sliding on flattened cardboard boxes down the steep grassy hills on the back of the property.

Rick on the Farm circa 1980
Rick on the Farm circa 1980
My mother and grandpa on the farm 1980s
My mother Betty and my grandpa Phil on the farm, 1980s

As I finished my high school years, I stopped going to the annual gathering, but made my way back sometime toward the end of my college years. The event had changed a little bit. By the 1980s, it was held later in the summer, maybe even early fall. Great Uncle Mike had retired from dairy farming, so the cows weren’t there, but there were lots of antique tractors, as Mike Jr. (my mom’s cousin) was an avid collector. The events were sometimes called “corn feeds”, and in some years they were “threshing bees”. One thing was the same: family and friends from all over showed up for the gathering, which now covered an entire weekend. My mother still had the pleasure of visiting with her cousins, just as she had done forty years earlier.

Cousin Mike 1980s
Cousin Mike 1980s

I skipped attending for a number of years again in the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, yet when I did attend, I found that music had become part of the experience. Great Uncle Mike was of Hungarian descent, and some of his cousins from the “old country” would make the travel to Elk River. I remember hearing old world accordion music, and eating corn on the cob, and enjoying Great Uncle Mike’s boisterous laugh and Great Aunt Irene’s perpetual smile (two constants over the decades). Mike Jr. and wife Sandy were the hosts of the event by now, but they were clearly carrying on the tradition established by Mike and Irene.

Cousin Mike at the threshing machine
Great Uncle John at a threshing bee
Cousin Mike’s antique tractors
Cousin Mike’s tractors

Before too many more years rolled by, we were missing Mike and Irene, who both passed away in the early 2000s. They were conspicuously absent, because by 2005, their presence had been a hallmark at these gatherings for nearly sixty years. Also in these years, the family farm in Elk River was sold off, and the gatherings moved to Mike and Sandy’s new homestead near Milaca, MN.

At the Milaca home
At the Milaca homestead

Mike and Sandy’s influence on the event was clear by this time, as the gatherings were characterized by lots of bluegrass music. Mike and Sandy had become friends with a large community of bluegrass and country music players. This was about the time I had taken up the banjo, so these events drew me back more frequently than in years past. We’d stay up until all hours jamming. In the cool September evenings, the dew would form and put a particular chill in the air, which also made it difficult to keep banjos, guitars, mandolins, and fiddles in tune. These were good times, though, and I came to meet a lot of good people who were a generation older than me.

Bluegrass Music at the Milaca home
Campers and Jammers Everywhere!

Which brings us to 2018. Mike and Sandy announced that this would be the last year they would host the event. It had grown to a nearly week-long affair; all of those friends of theirs would descend upon their property with their motor homes. It’s a lot of work putting on an event like this! And, the sad reality was, each year more friends and family were passing away since the previous gathering. For all the changes over the years, a few things stayed constant up to the end. You could still roast thick-sliced bacon with onions and peppers over an open fire (affectionately called “heart attack on a stick”). You could count on hearing lots of music, and eating loads of corn. Finally, and most importantly, you could count on spending quality time with family and friends, telling stories and sharing memories.

Shucking Corn
Making “Heart Attack on a Stick”
Betty with Cousin Mike
Sandy makes everyone welcome
Time to eat!
Shootin’ the bull, having some good laughs
Quality time with family

Estimating that my first attendance at a powwow was somewhere around 1968, this meant I had been attending off and on for about 50 years… shocking for someone like me who often mistakenly thinks he’s younger than that. Without this gathering in the future, it’s unlikely that I will see some of those friends and musicmakers of that older generation ever again. For their part, the coming years will likely be characterized by continuing to say goodbye to dear friends as more of them pass away. It’s a sobering thought, one that I hope is tempered by all the many years of memories and laughter that they shared.

Even sadder than seeing this tradition come to its natural end is the realization that my generation hasn’t provided a similar experience for our kids or grandkids. My sons won’t really have a decades-long tradition to look back upon when they are my age. Still, it’s a little piece of Americana that I’m pleased is part of my life experience.

Thanks for all the memories, Uncle Mike and Aunt Irene, and Mike and Sandy!


Great News

I’m delighted to report that I’ve received an Emerging Artist grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council (SEMAC) to produce a new photography exhibit. The project that I will fund with this grant is an extension of my earlier Light Chaser exhibit held at Gallery 24 in April, 2018. As part of the grant, I’ve set these goals:

First, I have the goal of producing at least ten new photographic works related to my theme. My current vision is that these will be black and white photographs shot with film, and self-developed. I have the materials and experience to do this already. The content of the photographs will feature landscapes, sun, moon, and stars, and will interpret written passages from historical scientific figures. Second, I have a goal of conducting two family-friendly workshops for parents and children in which I encourage them to mingle art and science with resources they already own or have at home. Third, I have a goal of holding an art reception capstone event that features my photographs and builds upon the experience of the workshops. Finally, I have the goal of building a companion website for my project that features the art and science results of the attendees of my workshops and reception, allowing the project to live on past the terms of the grant.

My capstone exhibit will be at the Rochester Art Center in July, 2019. Stay tuned for more info as the project progresses.

Light Chaser Stories: Scene 2

One of my favorite colors in nature is the yellow of the goldfinch. When we visit Janet’s relatives in Brainerd, we have the chance to see a lot of them at her aunt’s house. She has a couple of feeders that the goldfinches love.

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Light Chaser Stories: Scene 1

Thanks for supporting the Kickstarter campaign for Light Chaser. Here’s a story that sets the context for the exhibit.

As a light chaser, it helps to plan ahead, as light is an elusive and ever-changing creature. I had been waiting for some months to go out on the weekend of a new moon to create a star trail photo at Kinstone, a favorite hangout of mine in Wisconsin. Each time a weekend would fall near a new moon, my efforts were thwarted by cloudy skies, it seemed. Finally, a clear weekend was forecast so I made the drive from Rochester to Fountain City well after sundown to start my quest.

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Light Chaser Exhibit

I am raising funds via a Kickstarter campaign to create printed and mounted photographic works for my first solo art show, entitled, “Light Chaser”, to be held at Gallery 24, an artist collaborative in Rochester, MN. I’m a former chemistry and physics teacher, and my photography is definitely influenced by the understanding of light I gained while studying, and teaching, chemistry and physics. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The greatest scientists are always artists as well.” For me, there is beauty in the art of photography just as much as there is beauty in the scientific understanding of light and color.

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Civic Music Board

I took a walk this afternoon through the Rochester pedestrian skyway system to our City Hall building so I could renew my disclosure form with the City. In my role on the Civic Music Advisory Board, I am essentially an unpaid employee of the city (some people call that “volunteering”, of course). What distinguishes my situation, however, is that I serve under the same requirements for honesty and integrity as paid city servants. So, it is necessary and good that I disclose any financial or other relationships I have with businesses that operate within the city, so that my participation on the Civic Music Advisory Board does not conflict in any unfair or improper way.

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Arts Ecosystem

Janet and I are lucky to be living in a town that not only has a vibrant arts culture, but has an arts culture that let’s us in! My limited experience with artistic communities in other cities gave me the impression that the community was hard to break into. Not in Rochester.

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Two Worlds

Janet and I spent a few days in Las Vegas just before the Christmas holiday, and it’s certainly a land of two worlds. The Las Vegas most of us think of is the glitzy, opulent, over-the-top world of casinos and night club acts. But, sitting in the desert as it does, there is another world, one of quiet majesty and extreme beauty.

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