Recently, on a road trip through Minnesota, I passed through Chisago City, a small town of Swedish heritage about an hour north of the Twin Cities. My favorite historic sites and monuments are often those that are simply unexpected. I love stumbling across a little gem when my mind is elsewhere and Chisago City provided me with a thought-provoking example.
In the center of town there is a disused railway depot surrounded by the old storefronts of the 1800s, now somewhat restored and housing a few nostalgia shops and candy stores. In the center of the square is a monument to Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg. The statue at the top of the monument depicts Moberg himself, hands shoved in his trouser pockets, gazing intently off into the distance. Next to him stands a larger-than-life bicycle.
The plaque on the monument reads:
Writer - Playwright - Journalist - Social Critic
Vilhelm Moberg was one of the foremost Swedish authors of the 20th century. His most famous characters, Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson, were representative of the over 1.2 million Swedish emigrants that landed on our shores between 1846 and 1930. During the summer of 1948 he stayed in Chisago City and explored this area by bicycle. That research helped shape his most famous work -- the epic tetralogy "The Emigrants," "Unto a Good Land," "The Settlers," and "The Last Letter Home." In Sweden, thanks to Moberg's literary works, this land of Kichi-Saga--the Chisago Lakes Area--is probably the best-known area of the United States.
September 7, 1996
Regardless of whether or not "this land of Kichi-Saga" is indeed the "best-known area of the United States" in Sweden (New York isn't really on their radar, then?), the existence of such a monument beautifully sums up the lure of celebrity tourism and the desire people feel to attach themselves to a larger historical trajectory. Now, I did not grow up in a small town, but I have lived most of my life in a medium-sized city that sometimes has a tough time laying its claim to historical fame. Sure, a few eccentric musicians were born here, but they have now mostly eschewed their association with the town. We housed some noteworthy gangsters in our Victorian houses in the 1930s, but Chicago beats us with Al Capone. Railroad tycoons and famous authors once strolled under our elm trees (now long dead) on their way to the river, but we can't claim to be the childhood home of Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. (Although, perhaps this is a good thing--have you ever been to Hannibal, Missouri? The Twain kitschyness is suffocating.) So, long story short, I understand the need to feel a part of a larger story, to connect oneself with world-known romances or nationally recognized Civil War battles.
The Vilhelm Moberg monument in Chisago City is a physical expression of the human need to feel a part of something larger. I suppose this is often translated in a religious sense as being subject to Fate or God's Will, but I think historical identity is equally important. The residents of Chisago City--or, at the very least, those residents who erected the monument--want to feel like their town has played a deciding role in world history. Their "claim to fame" rests on the shoulders of the famous Swedish writer (whom I had never heard of) and his biking travels through rural Minnesota. I haven't quite decided what it means for people to need a "claim to fame," but I think it has something to do with a need to feel worth, to feel like one's life does not exist in a vacuum, that we are all connected--across time--and our paths cross in significant ways. Gazing up at Moberg's spectacled features, I wondered what he would think of the Chisago City monument and if he desired a connection to this place as much as it desired a connection to him.
As I drove out of town, I passed a farmhouse with an enormous sign in the front yard: "Vilhelm Moberg Slept Here." Then again, perhaps the city's need to associate itself with Vilhelm Moberg is just a need to attract tourist dollars from his most rabid fans. Any of you out there visited Chisago City?