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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

I'm not as pioneering as I first believed

David Colburn
Posted 3/31/21

When, in the course of conversation, I mention my Kansas roots to a new acquaintance, the response is more predictable than a Democrat wanting to raise taxes: “How did you wind up in …

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I'm not as pioneering as I first believed

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When, in the course of conversation, I mention my Kansas roots to a new acquaintance, the response is more predictable than a Democrat wanting to raise taxes: “How did you wind up in Minnesota?”
The simple answer is that I answered a help wanted ad and got the job. End of story.
The real answer is of course much more complex and nuanced, but perhaps can be boiled down to one word: novelty.
I’ve long had an interest in new experiences, something that quite well explains the fact that in all my adult life the longest I’ve stayed in any one job is five years, when I was a professor of early childhood education at Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College. It’s been quite a run over the years, starting in 1985 with my first post-college job in Shawnee, Okla., taking me from (hold onto your hats) Dallas to Kansas City, Dodge City, Chicago, St. Louis, back to Kansas City, Los Angeles, Parsons, Kansas, Spokane, back to my Kansas hometown of Marion to jump into journalism, Missoula, Mont., and finally to Tower and the Timberjay. Point Barrow, Alaska could’ve been on that list if I hadn’t been married to someone adamantly opposed to the idea. The idea of moving to Chicago, though, didn’t seem quite so bad to her compared to that one.
I recall reading a number of years ago about how members of the “millennial” generation would, on average, have 14 jobs in their lives. I chuckled – adding in the jobs I’d had in junior high, high school and college, I was already there. I was a pioneer, a trailblazer for a whole new generation.
When I moved to the North Country last year, I assumed that yet again it was a pioneering choice. I was relatively certain none of my relatives had ever lived in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
I found out this past weekend that I was about a century wrong. And how, pray tell, did I do that?
Well, I read it in the newspaper, of course!
Rummaging through a box of memorabilia looking for a picture, I ran across a familiar brown, folded copy of the May 12, 1919, Emporia, Kansas High School Echo newspaper. It has a letter in it from an American soldier in France describing his discovery of a temporary hillside grave where my great-uncle David Potter was buried along with about 30 of his comrades who died in the Meuse-Argonne offensive of World War I just months before.
Unearthing that, right there alongside the slide rule he used in high school math that’s the only physical connection I have to the man for whom I was named, I felt like doing a little more research. I’d done some but knew there was likely a bit more I could do.
I pulled up a newspaper archive site online where I knew they had searchable copies of the Emporia Gazette, the Echo, and a few other smaller papers that had news of Emporia, pop. 9,000 in the early 1900s. It was the kind of news unique to small-town community journalism, the sort where my great-uncle and his friends throwing a subscription dance or flipping over their canoes in the river was there alongside important state and national news. I found out that David Potter broke his arm when he was three, was quarantined along with his family for scarlet fever, and fractured a shoulder blade and an elbow while diving for a loose basketball during an impromptu scrimmage one Christmas break.
But as it so happened, his father, who died in 1916, also was named David Potter, so my name search pulled up references not only to him but to his wife Nancy, as it was customary in those days of journalism to refer to her as Mrs. David Potter.
And it was in one of those little community news items related to her that I discovered a Minnesota family connection. It was reported, more than once as it turned out, that she was visited by Mrs. John Potter and son of Minneapolis, Minn.
I’d never paid any attention to John in my prior research. David’s sisters, including my grandmother Frances and great-aunt Elizabeth, were the siblings I knew as a youngster. John had died back in the 1940s, and he really wasn’t relevant to anything I wanted to know in my first foray into David’s history.
Now, however, I had reason to be curious about John, who I discovered was a salesman of those still relatively newfangled things called automobiles. His interest ran counter to that of his father, who ran a livery stable and had once written a letter to the paper decrying new street accommodations for cars, claiming that promoting their use would make the streets impassable for the horse-drawn fire units of the day.
I was intrigued to discover through other little such newspaper items that John also apparently had a bit of wanderlust. He went to Oklahoma City to sell cars, just 20 miles from where I had my first post-graduate job. Another reference put him in Mitchell, S.D., a few years later doing the same.
So, it was little surprise to find out that what brought him to Minneapolis in the 1920s was a job selling Buicks for the Pence Automobile Company. He would’ve worked in what was touted as the country’s largest automobile showroom of the day, the bottom floor of an eight-story building that today is on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance to the expansion of the auto industry in the 1920s.
Like me, John evidently didn’t mind moving a bit, either, as eventually he ended up selling cars in Long Beach, Calif., the same place I lived when I directed a South Los Angeles Head Start program.
Anyway, by combing newspapers, I’ve discovered I’m no family pioneer in my move to Minnesota. I’m just re-creating family history from a century ago. I must admit, I rather like that notion. While obscure, it’s a welcome connection to my new home I hadn’t had.
One of these days a trip to Minneapolis is in order to take a look at what used to be the Pence Automobile Company building. It’s not a trip that would ever have been on my radar if not for a great-uncle whom I know only from mentions in his hometown newspapers. That’s one of the reasons I love small-town community journalism – we chronicle the life of our communities in ways the big media outlets never will, occupying a niche that will stand the test of time as long as there are people curious enough to explore us.

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