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Minnesotans’ lives during Depression, WWII and postwar boom captured in massive ‘Greatest Generation’ exhibit

Members of the "Jeannie" crew, from the oral history by Sally Noran about her father, Burgess Blackburn (center).
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Members of the “Jeannie” crew, from the oral history by Sally Noran about her father, Burgess Blackburn (center).

The Minnesota Historical Society is opening a huge, semi-permanent exhibit Saturday at the History Center in St. Paul that honors the generation that experienced World War II.

But despite the Memorial Day weekend opening, the exhibit is not all about the war. Titled “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation,” the exhibit caps an exhaustive project that was launched in 2005 and its scope is three major epics in 20th century history: The Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar boom.

“What we’ve tried to do is look at the entire life of this generation, from birth to legacy,” said Project Director Randal Dietrich. Roughly speaking, he said the generation includes people born between 1910 and 1929.

I had the opportunity to tour the stunning, 6,000-square-foot exhibit about a month ago. It was still under construction, but one thing immediately apparent was how much generations overlap. My parents were born in 1909 and 1915, yet their upbringing was Victorian in so many ways. Born in 1946, I was a victory baby, but my upbringing resonated with the psychological impact and historical memory of the war and the Depression — with my parents’ memories and outlooks, in other words.

C-47 fuselage turned into ‘ride’ over Europe
So many things stayed around. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the fuselage of a C-47 transport plane, the military version of the civilian two-prop DC-3 that ferried paratroopers during the D-Day invasion. It’s been turned into a multimedia “ride” that takes the visitor into the air war over Europe, complete with flak, but that also focuses on the stories of Minnesotans who endured it. Some of their accounts can make you weep.

What impacted me, however, was the memory of flying in C-47s over the Arctic during a brief government job I had in 1969, just a few months before I was drafted. It all looked so familiar: the bench seats along the fuselage, the tiny windows, the raw, exposed metal hull.

Similarly, the exhibit has a replication of a movie theater of the 1930s, where Depression-era kids could escape for double-feature afternoons if they could scrape up a dime for admission. The theater’s interior is a kind of teetering, perspective-fooling look at the screen from high in the back row of the balcony of some old movie house. I couldn’t help noting that the Saturday matinee admission was 15 cents when I was a kid in the 1950s — not much in the way of inflation when you think about it.

A soda-fountain shop from the 1940s, which includes a multimedia evocation of the news about the attack on Pearl Harbor, reminded me of the one I worked at in the early 1960s. A Soapbox Derby racing car that won the nationals held in Akron, Ohio, in 1938 reminded me of the one my brother built in the 1950s; his came in dead last in our hometown race.

An M-8 armored vehicle — made in St. Paul
The war, with its privations and sacrifices, is also detailed. There’s a full-sized M-8 armored vehicle made at the St. Paul Ford plant and a depiction of troop-carrying wooden gliders made in Minneapolis. Visitors, too, will be reminded of how many Gold Star Mothers received their banners during the war.

On and on. There’s a display of TV sets from the earliest years, many of them showing clips from TV shows of the 1950s. There’s a beautiful 1955 Ford sedan, built at the plant in St. Paul — the kind of everyman car that was ubiquitous among my high-school buddies in the 1960s. A dry-cleaning shop from the era, with its snaking rack of motorized hangars, shows scenes from the era of suburban boom. A hospital maternity ward shows the optimism of the American century in the number of new lives being launched with the belief in a rosy, hard-won future.

Patricia Lucille Berry and husband Airman Robert McKewin, from the oral history about Berry by McKewin.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Patricia Lucille Berry and husband, Airman Robert McKewin, from the oral history about Berry by McKewin.

The exhibition is destined to remain in the History Center for most of the next decade, and it’s altogether likely that many Minnesota schoolchildren will tour it on field trips in the coming years. In anticipation of that, the exhibit has a lot of interactive things for kids, including a munitions assembly line, the chance to fiddle with a ’50s-era television, to build a model glider, and other activities. Actors also routinely perform as characters from the era in one of the exhibit’s theater alcoves.

Minnesotans’ recollections recorded
But for adults interested in social history, one of the most impressive parts of the exhibit is the size of its personal contributions by members of the greatest generation. I asked for a list of people who were interviewed for the project and the list given to me was 21 pages long.

It wasn’t hard to make the list inclusive, said History Center Museum Director Dan Spock. Recollections have been recorded by African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, various ethnic groups, women who were fliers, factory workers, homemakers, service personnel — the list is huge.

“They were not go-it-alone people — they were joiners,” Spock said. “And they were the most sophisticated American generation that had ever lived. They graduated from high school in large numbers; they saw the world, though sometimes in unpleasant circumstances, and they went to college in large numbers. They tended to have an interested mindset.”

Historical Society personnel spent years collecting stories, recordings and film for this exhibition. And much can be found online, including short films, photo displays and essays. You can, in fact, get a sense of the size and scope of the Greatest Generation Project without visiting the exhibit.

But why not see it? It’s part of your history — perhaps the one you lived, or otherwise the one you inherited.

David Hawley, the author of a half-dozen plays and two nonfiction books, writes about culture, the arts and other subjects.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Dave Kopesky on 05/22/2009 - 02:06 pm.

    I have seen the exhibit and the you catch the essence of it well. The History Center like most arts and cultural organizations is being badly hurt by reductions in contributions, admission fees and state support. I hope many people take the time to visit – it is well worth the cost of admission or membership.

  2. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 05/24/2009 - 05:29 pm.

    In 1937, my father, Joseph Meszaros, visited his boyhood home in Barberton, Ohio, taking a long car trip with his sister, from their home in Passaic, N.J. His father had arrived in Ellis Island, from Bakonysarkany, Hungary, in 1901, with five dollars in the great Eastern European emigration to America. My grandfather married fellow emigre Julia Vucs (Wutsch) and started a family in the Passaic Hungarian community, but moved to Barberton, Ohio during WWI to work in a war plant, where he earned enough money to buy a large home for his growing family back in N.J.

    Fortunately, my father procured a little Kodak Brownie camera for his Ohio trip, and recorded for posterity dozens of pictures of the industrial town of Barberton. He included in his photo album a 1920 class picture from the Barberton school which included barefoot boys.

    During his 1937 Ohio trip, WPA projects from the FDR New Deal especially impressed him, and he provided some commentary to his pictures of Barberton WPA projects, which centered around water development:

    “Water Scenes: Lakes and Reservoirs in and around the old home town. Besides being a thriving industrial city just 7 miles outside the world’s largest rubber plants – Barberton is blessed with natural beauty, greatly improved in the past by WPA work.
    “Spillway – takes care of overflow.
    “Lake Ann in the center of town. Almost perfect oval in shape. Beautiful!
    “Beautiful lakes, surrounded by trees, well kept lawns. Water to drink – water for swimming – water for industry. Life itself!”

    In 1939, he visited the World’s Fair in New York, and his commentary with pictures of a “streamlined train of tomorrow” reflected the indomitable American spirit: “A powerful engine built for American Railways at Altoona, Pennsylvania. Weight: 938,000 pounds. Horsepower: 6400. Speed: 100 miles per hour.”

    In fact, 27 eastern railroads at the 1939 – 1940 New York World’s Fair combined to created a massive model railroad exhibit, totaling 3500 feet of track, 40 locomotives, and 400 railroad cars.

    In 1940, he featured a picture of himself, a handyman of many depression era talents, fixing a shoe, captioned “Happy here at home, but somewhere in Europe there is a little girl without a mother perhaps now without a father….” This clearly indicated that Americans were well aware of the European conflict soon to become World War II, and were NOT isolationist.

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