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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Literature Review on Marshfield History

Photo by Jean Kelley Noble (McMillan St.)

     Marshfield’s history of racism and social class struggle is an important subfield of Wisconsin history.  Local histories are very telling in that the reader (usually someone that lives or lived there) is given an opportunity to find out what happened “here.”  All history is local. Marshfield went through the early years leading up to Wisconsin statehood.  Marshfield went through all the wars and continues in the present in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Marshfield went through Reconstruction, the Nadir Period and the Great Depression.  What happened in Wisconsin and in U.S. history, happened in Marshfield.  There are several books and one revealing essay that need to be read in order to create a picture of understanding of Marshfield history.  The city’s story is unfolded in these monographs that reveal a glimpse into the struggles faced in other parts of the state and country, but also have significant aspects that make the city unique.  That is not to say that everything discovered about Marshfield is positive.  There are a great many events in Marshfield’s history that cast a shadow of discrimination and inequality on perhaps an otherwise “progressive” society.
            A quite famous writer by the name of Nina Revoyr spoke to this issue in an essay entitled “Foreigner in Marshfield.”  It appeared in a collection of writer’s memoirs about growing up in America.  She recalled that Marshfield “scared” her because the city “seemed untouched by the social upheavals, the movements and debates around racial and sexual equality, that opened the collective mind of the rest of the country in the 1960s and 1970s.”[1]  This says so much about what life was like in the mid 70s in Marshfield.  This city seemed to have a force field affect around it, which seemed to filter out and temper the information regarding the Civil Rights Movement.  Some residents may have felt they were not affected because Marshfield was all white.  Many of these residents were affected by the loss of family and friends in foreign wars.  The interesting part is, many cities were affected this way.  Why was Marshfield indifferent to civil rights?  There are many accounts in the literature reviewed here, which would explain that resentment did exist against people of color and social class.
            Marshfield is a city that was greatly influenced and shaped by these issues. The elements of the wars fought and resulting ideologies could be seen as the driving force.  Marshfield chose to exclude those that were not white and those that were lower class.  A layered social class existed; including transients which rode the boxcars of the railways, to Mary Eileen Trimble’s accounts of her own economic limitations, to the higher class of citizens who are glorified for their part in the development of Marshfield.
            Marshfield may have been a “sundown town.”  According to James W. Loewen, author of Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, “a sundown town is any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus ‘all-white’ on purpose.”[2]  This book must also be read to understand Marshfield history even though Marshfield is never mentioned.  Because the book focuses on American racism in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, it is an important tool in approaching history in any Wisconsin city.  This is an essential skill when studying the history of Wisconsin.  Everything that is read after reading Loewen’s work will cause question as to where, when, who and why did this happen in Wisconsin.  Was Marshfield a sundown town? 
            By reading A Bridge from Here to There by Mary Eileen Trimble, two volumes of The Marshfield Story and novelist Nina Revoyr’s work in Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America, one can easily frame the picture of racism and class struggle in Marshfield’s history.  While reading the literature on Marshfield history makes a case for social stratification and racial exclusion, there is need for much more research to prove Marshfield was enforcing informal covenants restricting integration.
            It is not hard for me to verify racism cited by the authors because I’ve lived in Marshfield since I was 4 years old.  I know that it was commonplace to hear the word “Nigger.”  I remember only one African American in my high school in the mid 80s.  I wondered why African Americans and other people of color were degraded when our city was void of them.  What did these people have against them and why?  African Americans were everywhere when our family visited Milwaukee, but only one or two families at any one time in Marshfield.  It is easy to see that this ideology had a strong hold on Marshfield.  Dr. Jeff Kleiman, longtime history professor at the UW Marshfield/ Wood County, reports in The Marshfield Story of a KKK recruiter that came and spoke to 600 people 50 years earlier in October of 1924.  Where this KKK event met is of particular significance to the racial climate in Marshfield. Kleiman refers to the facility as the “Wildwood Pavilion” at “Wildwood Park.”  He makes no mention of this being originally named the “White City Pavilion” at the “White City Park.”[3]  The question is: Who was in charge of renting out the pavilion for a KKK rally, the Eagles, the American Legion or the City of Marshfield?
            The Marshfield Women’s Club spearheaded the name change from White Pavilion to Wildwood Pavilion in 1923.[4]  On July 10, 1923, the Marshfield Women’s Club of Marshfield were successful in requesting to the City Council that the name of the both the pavilion and the park be changed to Wildwood Park and Wildwood Pavilion.[5]  
            In the same edition of The Marshfield Story there is a history that was submitted by the Marshfield Parks and Recreation Department that shows that the pavilion and park were renamed the year before.  In 1927, the Women’s club supported a charity listed as an “Industrial School for Colored Girls” and studied interracial problems.”[6]
            There is something that does not quite add up and deserves further research and investigation.  How could the American Legion have rented out the Pavilion in on a five-year lease that expired in 1923 from the Eagles when the expiration of the lease and all facilities and improvements would revert back to the city in 1923.  This is an area where some analysis would be very helpful in The Marshfield Story. This is an area that could be researched further. The information is there in different place and that is partly because there are submissions from numerous authors. The narrative written by Kleiman does not pull together the information from the Marshfield Women’s Club and the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department. In many ways, while there is a wealth of information that the Marshfield History Project has assembled, there are as many questions that are raised as there are answered           
            The city’s “first major exposure to racial diversity occurred in 1944 because of a labor shortage in the bean canning industry, Marshfield saw the first instance of a large group of “colored” imported laborers who could not get served in restaurants or bars “either by direct refusal of owners” or “indirectly by threats of local patrons to withhold their business if blacks were served.”  This situation was the topic of some debate in the local newspaper, theMarshfield News-Herald, and in the opinion section, the editor wrote that at least they “don’t ask to come into our houses.”[7]  In 1924, The American Legion had a five-year lease on the park.
            It becomes clear that there are numerous causes to the social problems faced by Marshfield throughout its history. In 1924 a KKK rally was held at the Wildwood Pavilion. Professor Kleiman reports that Catholicism is the predominant religious affiliation in Marshfield. The KKK was hostile towards Catholics.  Kleiman mentions in his narrative “that the only thing that made this unusual was the very late date of organizing a Klan chapter and large Catholic population in the area.” Professor Kleiman’s one sentence assessment leaves future researchers many unsolved mysteries to be revealed. He makes the assertion that 1924 is a bit late to be forming a new chapter of the KKK. [8]  This would appear to be a very important idea that deserves to be expounded upon.  The reader is left with more questions than answers. Why did the desire to form a chapter in Marshfield occur so late? Was it because the city had such a high Catholic population and was not looked favorably upon by the KKK earlier? The Milwaukee recruiter indicated that the KKK was loosening its requirements for membership when he said that they would “even let a Protestant man who had married a Catholic”[9] join.
             Trimble, who at 61 penned another view of local attitude: “World War II had struck a giant blow to our small town as well as to the entire country. Parents suffered the loss of their sons and daughters in places many have never heard of before the war – places like Iwo Jima, Bougaineville[sic], Guadalcanal and New Guinea.”[10]
            “In our home, there had been eight people living normal small-town lives, and now there were only three of us still together…I had never traveled far from Marshfield except for Dad’s emigration from Canada when he was a little boy, neither had my parents.” The author complained of having chores assigned to her, which she hated, when she was an adolescent. She was “quite wrapped up in” her “own miseries and letters” written to her brother Bud, who was reported missing in action and was later confirmed dead. She describes her anger being so strong that “she turned away from her weeping mother one day when she lay down on” her bed “seeking sympathy and understanding.” She said that, “for some reason, my heart had turned to stone and I got up and left the room.”[11]
            Living in Marshfield in 1974 left its footprints on the heart of another author, Nina Revoyr.  She is an Asian American who was brought to the city by her father and cared for by her grandparents while he worked out of town.  In 2003 she wrote about the abuse she was subjected to while living in Marshfield. By looking at the early development of opinions and attitudes towards people of color and social stratification we begin, we see a fostering of fear due to ignorance, anger and resentment.
            Revoyr moved to Marshfield in 1974, just before the fall of Saigon to the communists and the ultimate loss of the Vietnam War. Revoyr moved from one of the world’s largest cities, Tokyo, Japan to a town of 14,000 in Wisconsin in the mid 70s and had this to say about the transition: “Moving to a small, white, Midwestern town from the huge, bustling, international city of Tokyo was a tremendous shock to my system…Marshfield, for its part, was no more ready for me, and the townspeople made it clear I wasn’t welcome.”[12] She recalls when her father brought her mother home for the first time and writes, “My father brought my mother home to visit, and for many of my grandparents’ neighbors and friends, she was the first Asian that they’d ever laid eyes on.” Revoyr doesn’t hold back in her assessment of what happened to her in Marshfield. She credits everything she knows about the issues of race relations, she learned in Marshfield.[13]  She is a famous novelist with three novels written with her new novel on the way, which is going to be based on the issues discussed in the essay.
            Revoyr noted that for some people, like her father, “Marshfield was a place that needed to be escaped from, although he was warned by his teachers not to leave and go to college, because the outside world was sinful and corrupting. And for outsiders, like me, people who tried to make some kind of home there, Marshfield was excluding, impenetrable.”           
            The population of Marshfield as indicated on the 1920 census showed 7394 with 2 blacks listed.  By 1930, the population of Marshfield rose to 8778 with zero blacks.  The 1940 census shows Marshfield’s population steadily rising but the African American population 20 years later still remained at zero.
            Trimble referred to her family life in the mid 1930’s as saying that they “presented a united front against outsiders.” [14]   Her family was devout Catholic and practiced self-discipline while trying to raise their standard of living.  They were loyal to Americanism and like many individuals...they sought the American dream.
To understand what these aspirations could lead to, the following excerpt from The Marshfield Story describes the climate of Americanism in the 1920’s.  Kleiman described how in 1924, a speaker at the Marshfield KKK rally held at what the year before had been called the “White City Pavilion” emphasized, “high Americanism’…lashed out at the ‘foreign born, Catholics, Greeks, Negros and Jews.”  The speaker confirmed that these groups could not join the Klan.  What is interesting is that the Catholics and the KKK, completely opposing groups, supported their country, yet there was hatred among them.
             Revoyr recalls, “The occasional child – out of sympathy or boredom or plain curiosity – made some preliminary gesture of friendship, her parents would soon put a stop to it.  Because of the war, the children would tell me and I didn’t understand until much later what they meant.  Many of the town’s fathers and grandfathers had served in WWI, and to them I wasn’t just a foreigner: I was the Enemy.”[15]  Based on Trimble’s accounts, although at no time does she describe herself as being racist, one can begin to see how negative feelings of narrow minded
residents that lost fathers, brothers, uncles and friends in the war would eventually grow up and view Revoyr as the “enemy” although it was by no means justified.
“During their entire lifetime, my parents never once owned a home, a car, or anything of much monetary value, but they were proud of the fact that they were able to keep the family going during the perpetually lean years.  Mom’s strong Catholic faith, her Irish sense of humor and fierce determination made it possible for her to raise us six children ‘with an iron hand’ (as we used to say), while dad worked away from home much of the time.”[16]
            The Marshfield history project did a great wonderful job of collecting an enormous amount of information. It is a must read for those interested in Marshfield history. The analysis could be a little more complete in some area, but the readers can do their own research just within the two volumes. Many connections can be made from different parts of the collection that make it an enjoyable task. Trimble while at times touches on possible controversial topics in Marshfield’s history, she doesn’t wrestle with the whole idea of the war.  She seems to scratch at the surface, but then continues in a positive tone forcing the reader to fill in the spaces with all kinds of angry emotions.  It makes the reader question the perspectives.  Her Catholic upbringing could have had an influence for not dwelling on the negative, but even though it isn’t written, the foundation for racist ideology is set. There really isn’t an argument being developed, but I don’t think that was Trimble’s intent. She was writing her life story, which is quite an accomplishment. These are the types of work that make an historian’s job easier and makes one wish there were more works out there like this one for, if nothing else, the historical significance.
            Trimble does a nice job of telling her life story and she does not really make any real clear historical argument and does not appear to have meant to.  Kleiman does a nice job of assembling an informative and thorough history of Marshfield. There is a great deal of analysis in the areas of economic development. It does seem like there may have been some hesitation to explore issues of race and class divisions to the satisfaction of the readers. Revoyr does an absolutely brilliant job in her indictment of Marshfield. Her upcoming novel on life in Wisconsin and what happened when an African American family tried to move in is probably the most anticipated novel of my life. My favorite novel is The Catcher in the Rye and I have a feeling that will be moving to second place in the very near future.

[1]Susan Richards Shreve, Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America,             (New York: Haughton Mifflin Co., 2003), 172.
[2] James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (New             York: The New Press, 2005), 4.

[3] The Marshfield History Project, The Marshfield Story 1872-1997 (Amherst: Palmer             Publications, Inc., 1997), 28.
[4] Ibid., 168
[5] Ibid.,168
[6] Marshfield History Project, The Marshfield Story 1872-1997 (Amherst: Palmer             Publications, Inc., 1997), 230.

[7]  Marshfield History Project, The Marshfield Story 1872-1997 (Amherst: Palmer             Publications, Inc., 1997), 69.

[8] The Marshfield History Project, The Marshfield Story 1872-1997 (Amherst: Palmer             Publications, Inc., 1997), 28
[9] Ibid., 28
[10] Mary Eileen Trimble, A Bridge From Here To There. (Manufactured in the United             States: Missouri Western Graphics and HUNTER, Ltd., 1989), 52
[11] Ibid., 50- 51.
[12] Susan Richards Shreve, Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America,             (New York: Haughton Mifflin Co., 2003), 173.
[13] Ibid., 172.
[14] Mary Eileen Trimble, A Bridge From Here To There. (Manufactured in the United             States: Missouri Western Graphics and HUNTER, Ltd., 1989), 28.
[15] Susan Richards Shreve, Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America.            (New York: Haughton Mifflin Co., 2003), 173-174.
[16] Mary Eileen Trimble, A Bridge From Here To There. (Manufactured in the United             States: Missouri Western Graphics and HUNTER, Ltd., 1989),10.


martha said...
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Scott Kenneth Noble said...

Thanks, Martha!