Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the first book in Edmund Morris’ three-part biography of the legendary former US president. I’ve been captivated by this character since my visit to the American Museum of Natural History during our recent trip to New York.
This book covers Roosevelt’s pre-presidential years; 1858-1901. On of the most fascinating pieces of Roosevelt’s history is his time in the Badlands of Dakota. Escaping the pain and tragedy of losing both his wife (following the birth of his first child) and mother only hours apart, Roosevelt heads west to pursue the life of a cattle rancher and western pioneer. Later in life is credits this time of his life as the most formative and says that without his time in North Dakota (as it was later titled) he would not have ascended to the presidency.
Early Selkirk and Lily
As I read about this period of his life, I noticed that it overlapped with the earlier years of my hometown of Selkirk, Manitoba. Roosevelt arrived in Dakota in 1884 and Selkirk was incorporated in 1882. The proximity of time (not to mention geography) encouraged my mind to wander – thinking about what life was like at that time in the fledgling community.
Not so long after this time, my great-grand parents met, were married and started a dairy farm just north of Selkirk. And then in 1918, their daughter and my grandmother (Amma in Icelandic), Lilja Paulina Magnusson was born.
My Amma passed away in 2011 and I often think about the tremendous social and technological change she experienced in her life. Growing up I remember her talking about delivering milk for her father by horse and cart or sleigh in the winter. Lily (as
Amma was called by many friends) lived through much of the turmoil and growth of this city.
Today, many of the stories I hear told about the early Selkirk or about the evolution of this community, are inherently stories about Amma’s life, at least the context of it. This connection makes the history of this city deeply personal for me.
Remembering our Past
My brother-in-law Patrick, had the great foresight to video record his grandfather Wes, tell stories about his life. I had the great honour of knowing Wes and hearing him tell just some of the amazing stories from his life; stories about riding the rails in the depression, and working in logging camps. Wes was a great story teller and lived an interesting life.
Lily too lived an interesting life. I can’t help but feel disappointed that I didn’t take the opportunity to learn more about it. That I didn’t ask for more stories, or have the foresight to record the ones that I did hear. What a loss to posterity it is to not have her recollections and memories recorded. History, after all, is nothing more than summary of our collective recollections. History is society’s diary, written by wiki.
Capturing our Shared Heritage
It is this sense of loss that moved me to write the Capturing of Shared Heritage vision paper, which outlined the creation of a museum for the City of Selkirk. It’s a long-term plan that takes into account the financial realities of such a project, but one that would result in the creation of a hub where stories like my Amma’s could be collected and retold for the benefit of future generations. Truth be known, it was the passing of my Amma that moved me to action. As we created the Selkirk Heritage Endowment Fund (SHEF), the foundation of the vision paper’s proposal, she was foremost in my mind. Every year since its creation, I’ve made a donation in her memory.
As I read this award-winning biography and marvel at the trials and tribulations, decisions, actions, mistakes and triumphs of this man that history has elevated to legend, I can’t help but think about Lily, about her life and her accomplishments. I am reminded of the efforts and struggles that have created the community and society in which I live. I am reminded of the passion and sacrifices that resulted in streets I travel, in the buildings that I pass by and culture in which I am immersed. I am reminded that we all contribute to history in our own way. We all have a legacy we leave. The Selkirk Heritage Endowment Fund is, in a sense, a tribute to each and everyone who has contributed to the history of this city.
While Lily’s time on earth has passed, her contributions live on, through her linage, the existence of the SHEF and through the success of a community she helped build.