There is no better way to explore the history and culture of a place than by utilizing the creativity and knowledge of local residents. Doing just that across fifteen projects and over a year of story collection, the Otter Tail County Story Mapping Project is complete and available to access online. The Otter Tail County Story Mapping Project is a pilot project by Rethos: Places Reimagined in partnership with the Otter Tail County Historical Society and Springboard for the Arts. The purpose of this project is to collect and map the stories of Otter Tail County by engaging community members through small projects led by local organizations, historians, artists, authors, and community members. In addition to illustrating what is important to the people of Otter Tail County, the story map will become a local resource that may assist with the following: economic development strategies, pathways to safeguarding heritage resources, future philanthropic investment, planning and policy decisions, promotion, and partnerships.
Beginning in January 2020 residents participated in community story workshops to learn about what story mapping is, methods of gathering community stories, and project ideas ranging from one-on-one conversations to more creative and public projects.Throughout 2020 and 2021 submissions were accepted across four rounds. In each round a team of community members representing the Henning Landmark Center, New York Mills Cultural Center, Otter Tail County Historical Society, Pelican Rapids Community Library, and Springboard for the Arts, along with Rethos, reviewed applications, ultimately selecting 15 projects of various styles from across the county. Individual project parameters were left broad so those conducting the projects had more control over how their projects were completed, giving a more authentic representation of cultures throughout the county. Projects were eligible for funding between $500 and $2,500, resulting in an overall investment of $30,000 in Otter Tail County.
The resulting 15 projects come in a variety of forms: documentaries, trivia contests, books, photo series with oral history collection, public art displays at local events, compiled research presentations, and podcasts to name a few. Throughout all projects, the past and present of Otter Tail County is explored. Represented are people, places, and events throughout the county that paint a portrait of not just the most notable figures, but also of the broader community.
Shana Crosson, whose project Stories of West McDonald explores the history around that lake, hopes that her project will be a learning tool while also bringing people together, “I hope I’m sharing information they didn’t already know, or giving them a new perspective. I also really hope it builds some connections among people on the lake so we all know a bit more about each other. The area is very divided politically right now, and maybe some conversations about where we all come from can create commonality… I realized how little I knew about a place I’ve been going for my entire life! Hopefully, this will help others learn more about the place, too."
By empowering locals to explore these movements and cultural traditions that built and continue to sustain Otter Tail County, the project more accurately reflects the values of the community instead of centering what outside consultants might view as valuable. These cultural markers are represented visually on the story map as cultural assets, determined by examining the themes in each of the projects. There is also the hope that by exploring the past and present that Otter Tail County may better situate itself in the future.
Speaking about their project Flyover Logic Podcast, Tami Vigessa and Mike Thorson see having hard conversations as a necessary step towards personal and community growth, “Several of the conversations were inspiring and also enlightening. We talked about issues of diversity in rural areas, access to opportunities, how to make connections to obtain access, and why people should invest in rural areas… Conversations around diversity and access to opportunities for young people with big dreams are relevant and certainly necessary as we consider growth in rural areas and why people leave or why they feel comfortable staying.”
Some of the projects are living on beyond the story mapping project. A small sampling of a few projects that are continuing include: Jon Solinger’s Common Ground: Community Garden Portraits was recently turned into a window display at the Pelican Rapids Food Shelf; Dorothy Eskelli’s The Winter Sauna is available to purchase or read at various places throughout the county; Kandace Creel Falcón’s Nourishing Narratives: A Latinx Foodmap of Community Comida is set to become an exhibit at the New York Mills Cultural Center; Carmen McCullough’s book Suitcase of Memories is available for purchase; Tami Vigessa and Mike Thorson’s Flyover Logic Podcast is available on all podcast platforms. Additional projects are also continuing or can be contributed to as well, specific information can be found by visiting the storymap link.
Through this visualization and record of Otter Tail County’s past and present the hope is that residents can now help visualize the future while better celebrating the unique cultures throughout the county. As we continue into the future, hopefully these projects inspire residents to explore and express the unique aspects of Otter Tail County in fun, creative ways that lead to increased partnerships throughout the county. To view all of the projects, the storymap itself is available on the websites for the Otter Tail County Historical Society, New York Mills Cultural Center, Pelican Rapids Library, and at this Rethos page.
This project was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.