Coalwood is in my heart today

Life has its turning points. The little town of Coalwood, West Virginia represents a big one for me. It was after visiting the October Sky Festival there in 2005 that I decided to make a documentary film about the town. Who knows why. I had no experience as a filmmaker, no camera, no concept of all that it takes to video a video production of that scale.

In October of 2009, after a half-dozen more trips to Coalwood and four years of learning a few skills, a dream came true as I was able to go back to Coalwood and hand-deliver a DVD of “Welcome to Coalwood” to each of the people who had appeared in the film or helped me make it and personally thank them for welcoming me into their homes and letting me into their lives.

That 2009 trip was emotional for me, as some of the people were getting on in years and others had experienced major life changes. I’ll never forget the heartfelt thanks and hugs I received from these wonderful people just because I took an interest in them and their little town. It didn’t matter to them that the film wasn’t the highest-quality production or that it was made by a beginner.

Homer Hickam had put Coalwood on the map a decade earlier with his wonderful memoir, Rocket Boys, which was made into the movie October Sky. My project covered some of the same ground, but in a different way — by finding people from the old days who were still around to tell the history of the town as they remembered it.

My biggest initial motivation for attempting to make the film was to preserve on video some of the older people that I’d met. In fact, when I drove down there with my daughter Emily in the summer of 2006 to do my first shooting, I really didn’t know what I was doing — but I felt a sense of urgency to record some of them before it was too late.

Red Carroll (2006)

I’m glad I did. Since I’ve made the film, several wonderful Coalwood residents who were “stars” in my film, including Red Carroll, Gene Turpin and Fred Beavers have died. Katie Jones has since move away, as has Janice McClure.

Eugene Turpin (2006)

"Miss Katie" Jones and Emily Date (2006)

Bill & Reba Bolt / Jim and Carol DeHaven (2006)

The Company Store, one of the two most import existing buildings in town, was torn down just as I was finishing the film, dealing a crushing blow to any historic preservation effort.

It’s really hard to explain to some people why that little, falling-down town grabbed me, but the fact is, it did. I’ve given up trying to explain it. It’s like trying to explain why you fell in love.

I’m a big believer in the importance of place. We all have places that we are emotionally connected to. For most of us those places are not famous or well-known, but they have meaning to us and represent something deeply important in our lives.

Coalwood is one of my special places. It changed my life.

The October Sky Festival is today. I should be there and regret that I’m not.

To the people of Coalwood: I’ll be thinking about you all day today. Thank you for what you’ve given me.

I’ve missed two October Sky Festivals in a row. I can only hope that there will be another one next year.

Red Carroll talks with a group of Minneapolis teachers on the steps of the Clubhouse (Oct 2008)

If you’d like to see some of my other Coalwood-related posts, here are the links:

Big Creek High School: A missed opportunity for historic preservation

Coalwood on my Mind

Memories of Red Carroll

“Owe my soul to the company store” — some like it that way.

365 Moments

I like to make photographs. But quite often, after an initial quick look, they get forgotten in my computer’s photo library.

I want to change that, so I’ve decided to make an effort to find and post one of my old photos each day. My motivation for doing this is strictly selfish. I want to make myself take the time to find one visual image that I’ve made, stop and say, “I think that one turned out OK”, and think about a memory it brings. I’ve started putting them on a website I’m calling “365 Moments”.

I’m not sure if I’ve got 365 good ones, but I’m going to give it a shot. My choices will be arbitrary — random looks at days from the past, with no regard to subject matter. I’m simply looking for photos that grab my attention.

I started doing this daily on August 1st, and now have enough photos posted to start sharing them with you. Perhaps they’ll help you connect to a memory of your own, who knows? Click here to view the ones I have up so far.

Great bike rides of the Twin Cities that begin and end at my house #2: The Grand Rounds

(Note: To see my first “great bike rides” post from about a year ago, go here)

I used to think “The Grand Rounds” was a rather pretentious name added in modern times to the more than 125-year old string of parkways that wind through the city of Minneapolis. But I recently learned that the term dates back to 1891, when William Watts Folwell used it to describe landscape architect Horace Cleveland’s masterful proposal made to the newly-formed Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners 8 years earlier. Now that I know the name is that old, I like it.

Horace Cleveland as a young man. He was nearly 70 when he submitted his design for the Grand Rounds !

Minneapolis has one of the best urban park systems in the world. We would have none of it today but for the vision, forethought, and actions of an amazing string of parks commissioners (along with Cleveland’s detailed plans) in the late 19th and early 20th century, including Charles Loring, William Berry and Theodore Wirth.

I’ve biked most of this route many times, but never as a whole. So a couple of days ago, I decided it was time to grab my camera and saddle up. I’d seen different numbers for the total mileage — usually 50-53 miles, but I also knew that included some dead-end spurs. I decided to just do the main, basic route and see how it works as a loop.

Cleveland’s idea was to tie together some of the most beautiful parts of the city in such a way that you could make the whole trip without ever leaving a park-like setting. For the most part, it does that very well. The Minneapolis chain of lakes, along with the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek, are well-known treasures, but the ride also includes some impressive boulevards in the city’s northern areas. Most of the route is, indeed, “grand”, but there’s a short “missing link” of about 3 miles in the northeastern part of the ride that isn’t terribly scenic. Many plans have been proposed over the years to finish it, but so far it’s still missing. A variety of street options traverse the gap and get you downtown to join up with the river.

The dark blue line shows the Grand Rounds. Note the dotted lines through an industrial and residential part of northeast Minneapolis. The outline of the city limits can be seen where the shade of green changes.

Since I live a couple of block from Minnehaha Creek, I bike and run the southern part of the Grand Rounds a lot, but the beauty of the creek and the lakes never gets old. A quick loop around the lakes or a run around Lake Harriet never fails to lift my spirits.

My grand tour the other day ended up totaling about 37 miles. As I said, there are other ways to do it that add more mileage. The route also intersects with a lot of other bike paths on which you could wander all day. It’s a great city for biking.

Here are a bunch of photos from my trip. Along the way, I somehow lost my little notebook that I was writing the mileage in at photo stops (imagine me losing something), so the mile numbers are from “Map My Ride” and are approximate — also, of course, pretty meaningless unless you start at my house. But if you ever do want to start at my house, give me a call and I’ll go with you. It’s a great urban ride.

0.7 - We drop down into the Minnehaha Creek valley to get started.

1.5 - First look at good old Lake Harriet.

5.5 - Cedar Lake's south beach

6.7 - North side of Cedar Lake. The railroad and the Cedar Lake Trail (not ours) head toward downtown Minneapolis.

6.8 - on the other side of the railroad bridge is tiny Brownie Lake, an often overlooked little gem.

8.3 - Theodore Wirth Golf course. What a view!

8.8 - Statues depicting Theodore Wirth (Minneapolis Parks Commissioner in the early 1900s) with some kids for whom he helped provide a beautiful place to play, are near clubhouse of the golf course that bears his name.

10.7 - Victory Memorial Drive honors those who died in WWI

15.2 - Downtown skyline over the rail yards of "Nordeast".

16.2 - Another peak at downtown from the 10th hole at Columbia Park, another very nice municipal golf course.

17.3 - Quiet, residential neighborhood on St. Anthony Parkway with happy, safe, above-average kids.

20.8 - After a trip through the "missing link", we're downtown.

21.3 - Almost everything you need to know about Minneapolis is represented in this photo -- flour mills, St. Anthony Falls, Mississippi River, hydroelectric plant, barge going through lock & dam, James J. Hill's stone arch railroad bridge. This area is ground zero for Minneapolis .

21.5 - New I-35W bridges show no trace of the terrible tragedy that happened here 4 years ago.

23.2 - Back to green and blue landscape. The Mississippi River from West River Road across from the University of Minnesota.

28.0 - Minnehaha Falls

29.3 - The path hugs Minnehaha Creek

30.2 - Lake Hiawatha

32.0 - Lake Nokomis -
About five more miles and we're home - around the lake and up the Parkway.

Severed roots: Visiting a past I never had

I made my first visit to the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota this summer.

It was about time, since I’m an enrolled member there.

Why I’d never been there before is a long story. I’ll write more about it in a future post, but let’s just say that the way that American Indian culture fizzled and pretty much died in my family through my grandparents’ and my mother’s generations is not unique. The more I’m around other people of Native American heritage, the more I realize that everybody’s doing a certain amount of learning — some were exposed to more of the culture as a child and some are more like me. American society did it’s best to squash out native people and their culture — both literally and figuratively — and it’s actually pretty amazing how much has survived.

I’ve been wanting to go up to White Earth for a long time. About four years ago, I started thinking about making a documentary film about “my reservation”. But I didn’t want to just go there and start shooting video before I had an idea of what I was trying to do, so I kept putting it off.

This summer, MinnPost, the online news site where I do freelance video and writing, provided me a great opportunity (nudge, perhaps?) to finally go. I’m part of a project called Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads. MinnPost received a grant from the Bremer Foundation to profile young people in small towns and rural areas of Minnesota. We’ve been doing groups of reports around themes, and the summer cluster of reports was about Native American youth.

I spent two days at the White Earth Pow Wow in June and ended up with four videos, featuring nine young people. They ran last week in MinnPost along with another piece I did about a Dakota man in southern Minnesota. Here’s a link to all of those videos.

(all photos by Steve Date)

I’ve been to few pow wows over the years, but always only for an hour or two. Hanging out for a couple of days, walking around, talking to people, feeling the drum beat and the rhythm of the days gave me a whole new appreciation for it. I started to feel a little more like I was in the middle of it, a little less like an outsider looking in.

I find it difficult to shoot both video and still photos at the same event. When you’re doing one, you feel like you should be doing the other. Since this was mainly a video assignment, I didn’t take as many stills as I would have liked. But I’ve put some in a Flickr set. You can view those photos here.

A reservation is a complex place. There are many story lines and some of them are not easy to understand or to tell. It took me 58 years to get there, but now I want to do a film about this place more than ever.

Stay tuned.

Pizza Night at A to Z Farm: Wisconsin’s worst-kept secret

Hungry for pizza? How does this sound — hop in the car, drive 80 miles, wait in line for 20 minutes to order your $24 – $27 pizza, wait two and a half more hours outdoors for your number to be called. Then sit on the ground (a few feet from some cows and goats) and eat it.

Not interested? Too bad for you, because you’re missing a great dining experience.

A to Z Produce and Bakery is a 4-mile drive up out of the valley from Stockholm, Wisconsin, near Lake Pepin. (see previous post)

Emily and Kyle have been regular visitors to the “pizza farm” and have been trying to get us down there for a year. We finally made it last night.

When the weather is nice, you have to park pretty far away. (all photos by Steve Date)

A to Z offers pizza night only once a week — Tuesday evenings from March to November. Their deal is that they sell pizzas — fantastic pizzas made with things that are grown within a few hundred yards of where you’re standing — but nothing else. If you want a beverage, a napkin, fork, a snack while you wait, or anything else, you have to bring it to the farm with you — and you have to take all the wrappers and containers with you when you leave (including the pizza box you just bought). There are no trash cans. Oh, and you’ll also need to bring a blanket or a chair to sit on.

Check the chalkboard menu when you arrive to see what kinds of pizza are offered this week, place your order, and then wander around the farm or sit back and relax for a while.

This shaded area gets the most crowded.

Picturesque out-buildings remind you this is a working farm the rest of the week.

This is not a place to go if you’re in a hurry. If you can’t wait a couple of hours to eat, then bring some snacks. Your kids will love it here. They get to run around and explore the farm while you sip your favorite beverage and catch up with friends and family.

As a city boy, I don’t get to spend much time on farms, and it was nice to soak in the sights, sounds, and yes, even the smells. To sit for a few hours on a blanket with people you like in such a beautiful place is a wonderful way to spend a summer evening.

As for the pizza? I can’t imagine how it could be any better. Fresh vegetables that taste like you just picked them yourself and crust that is the most tender I’ve ever tasted make the wait and the price worth every minute and every penny.

Thanks, Emily and Kyle, for being persistent in your invitations.

I can’t wait to go again.

Who needs Sturgis?

On our way to eat lunch at The Anchor Fish & Chips in Northeast Minneapolis today (it’s great, by the way), we stumbled on a neighborhood motorcycle show called the Bearded Lady Motorcycle Freak Show on 13th Ave. NE just east of University Ave. This neighborhood has kind of become Hipsterville over the past few years and I like going up there to view cool people as they go about their lives in their natural habitat.

After our tasty and satisfying fish & chips, we wandered over to the motorcyle festival. There were a lot of interesting bikes, of course. But as they say in unsuccessful job interviews, I’m more of a “people person”.

The Grain Belt was flowing, the tattoos were glistening in the sun and I snapped a few photos. They pretty much speak for themselves, so I’ll shut up now. Next year, I’ll spend more than 30 minutes there.

(All photos by me – Steve Date)

The spectrum of hipnicity

I want this shirt

OK, I had to put in one motorcyle picture

And finally — It ain’t over ’til the bearded lady scratches.

A lazy, hazy, back of my neck getting dirty and gritty kind of week

I got a note the other day from my friend Casey in San Diego and he mentioned something that I always point out to people who don’t live in Minnesota — that we have a more extreme range of temperatures here than just about any populated area in the world. Everyone knows about our winters (-20 is not uncommon and -30 is possible), but some don’t realize how hot it can get here in the summer.

We’re in the fourth day of a week-long hot spell up here. Temps are in the high 90s during the day and don’t drop out of the 80s at night.

I was on my run around Lake Harriet on Sunday, sweating out several gallons of disgustingness, and I kept thinking about two songs from when I was a kid. “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer” by Nat King Cole came out when I was 8 years old in 1961. It’s a corny, old-fashioned kind of song that became etched in my brain and I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to. It’s an example of the early rock and roll era, when “How Much is that Doggy in the Window” became “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog” almost overnight and both genres coexisted for a time on the Billboard charts and “rock” radio stations. That was also pre-Motown, so the only kind of song that a black singer could get on the pop charts while Elvis and others (Pat Boone ?!?!?) were making piles of cash from recording covers of black blues and soul songs.

A couple of years later, the Beatles came along and . . . do I really have to describe what happened? The mid ’60s were, among other things, the birth pangs of the Woodstock generation. The other song that was in my head on my run was “Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, with John Sebastian. That song from 1966 has also left a permanent mark in my brain tissue. When I got home, I looked at a video of Summer in the City on YouTube and was instantly brought back to a time when I thought those guys were cool and that song seemed really edgy – even a little “dirty and gritty”. I was 13.

It was the year of The Monkees, The Association, Simon and Garfunkel, two generations of Sinatras — and the Billboard #1 song of the year was “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Sgt. Barry Sadler.

But the times they were a-changin’ and John Sebastian was trying to place himself somewhere in the middle between The Beach Boys and what would become “hard rock” in just a few short years. But Sebastian never made it out of that transitional zone, although he did make an attempt by perfoming at Woodstock while on an acid trip.

Long story sh . . . . no, sorry, it’s just a long story. After my run, I went back over to “my” lake – Lake Harriet – and gave myself a one-hour assignment to shoot photos of people enjoying the lazy, hazy, heat.

There are a lot of great songs about summer that would be much better to get stuck in your head than the two I had — “Summertime Blues”, “Hot Fun in the Summertime”, “Heat Wave” (not about summer at all, of course) immediately come to mind — “Summer Wind” by Sinatra and “Summertime” by Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin (and a million other singers) are great songs. I’d even welcome an occasional “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry. I’m going to try to conjure up one of those on my next run.

But for now, I’m stuck with this one. I hate to admit it, but I still kind of like it — and I really don’t want to lose the memories it brings.

So play the video of John Sebastian, smirking, laughing at himself lip-synching with his long, perfectly-combed hair and mutton-chop sideburns. Look at the photos of the lake, and then go outside and have some “sodas and pretzels and beer” like a “cool cat, lookin’ for a kitty”.

“You’ll wish that summer could always be here” — especially if you live in Minnesota.