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Politically Incorrect

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If communities are like families, we need to bridge the gap with our in-laws

Just on the dot of closing time I called the Bonner County Historical Museum and asked the director, Ann Ferguson, if I could possibly intrude for some research in old newspapers. Graciously, she invited me over, and hauled out huge ledgers from high shelves filled with slightly yellowing pages of the Sandpoint News Bulletin from the late 1940s and early '50s. As I paged through the ledgers, looking for information on the final consolidation of Bonner County Schools, I came across reference to opposition to a highway bypass of Sandpoint, and tales of a monstrous winter storm in the early part of 1950, "the worst storm in two decades" the paper proclaimed. 

I'd say I'm never happier than when pouring over old documents, except I'm just as happy cheering on a Clark Fork basketball game, hiking through the mountains with my friends, enjoying a rowdy ladies' night dinner, talking with my children or curled up on the couch with a good book. Still, historical research is one of my favorite hobbies, and never more so than when shared with a fellow history buff like Ann.

Ann is a fourth-generation Bonner County resident, bitten by the same genealogy bug that Betsy Fulling exposed me to a couple of years ago. She told fascinating stories of her grandparents' arrival in this area and we wandered the conversational map of hinterland hardships, family legends gone awry and the character of people who challenged the new frontiers.

My own family, on both sides, are descendents of mostly Scots-Irish stock who left their homes in the 1600s for the wild lands of the New World. Once here, their fiercely individualistic and anti-government tendencies led them to participate in a revolution to create a new government, then into ever-westward expansion into each new "frontier" territory the country boasted, (possibly explaining how such a liberal soul as I came to be so distrustful of government). From Virginia to North Carolina to Tennessee (where many, followed their "nobody's going to tell ME what to do" hearts straight into the Civil War), on to Texas and finally, the Dust Bowl pilgrimages into California.

Maybe that's how I ended up here in North Idaho after moving 56 times and living in more than half a dozen states and four different countries. America in the latter half of the 20th century was a relatively tame place, and little pockets like those we find here in the Pacific Northwest are as close to a frontier as we can come these days in the lower 48 states. Based on my genetics, I'd likely have kept going 'til I ended up in Alaska, if I hadn't spent enough time in Chicago to learn to truly, deeply dislike the cold.

Given my peripatetic journey through life, I've almost always been the "new kid" of any area where I've lived, even, after 17 years in Bonner County, in North Idaho. Perhaps that gives me a different sensitivity regarding how we treat people when newly arrived in our lives.

By the time I came to North Idaho in 1987, the area had already been somewhat inundated with new arrivals, and there existed, at best, an uneasy truce between those new to this area and those whose families had come by wagon, by mule or by train to carve out a life in mountains covered by deep forest, where just feeding the horses, much less the family, as Ann pointed out, was a critical process involving backbreaking work.

In those 17 years since I first arrived here many more have come, attracted by those same qualities that make everyone else stay: unparalleled beauty, the simplicity of small town life, and an atmosphere where individuality and a "nobody's going to tell ME what to do" attitude is not just tolerated, but understood.

The influx, of course, has increased property values, created traffic problems and broken up vistas of unbroken, wilderness beauty with the outlines of second, retirement, vacation and other homes. It's added new words to a formerly simple lexicon: ideas like "wildland interface" and "sustainability." 

Old timers have watched their property taxes climb through the roof, have struggled with deciding whether they must sell off land that's been in their family for generations. Newcomers, while appreciating the area for its unique qualities, have expressed frustration when the natives were less than appreciative of their efforts to 'improve' the lifestyle that had worked here for so long. Families who lived for decades on the wealth of the land, be it timber or silver or crops painstakingly carved out of the forest, watched in dismay as a changing world rendered their livelihoods obsolete, and looked for blame into the faces of their new neighbors, freshly arrived from areas no one here wanted to resemble in any way.

I've always believed that communities are families, and people newly arrived are like those who marry in. That new blood is crucial for our continued health, yet effort must be made on both sides if the marriage is going to last. I think the best way to build bridges between those new to the area and those whose grandparents are buried in this soil is with stories.

After all, culture is really nothing more than stories: stories of the history of the area, of the sacrifices made by generations of people to carve out a life amidst the bald eagles and the grizzly bear, at the feet of these mountains and at the edge of this enormous lake.

Like a family welcoming a new bride our native families need to reach out to those people just arriving in this area and share the stories of what made this place what it is today, both good and bad. And like that new bride, listening carefully as her mother-in-law explains the one and only way that meatloaf can be made, our new arrivals need to take the time to listen, to respect the hard work, the sacrifice and the love that so many families have spent on carving our communities out of this land.

It's not the stories, of course, that make it work. It's the respect.

Charity, they say, begins at home and it's right here, in this home we all share, where our charitable hearts can begin to bridge the gap between our local pioneers of yesterday, and those who seek to be pioneers today. It is only from such a firm foundation that we can continue to build on the work that has gone before, to make sure our home doesn't go the way that so many other homes, so many other communities, have gone before.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

genealogy, Bonner County Historical Museum, Ann Ferguson, Sandpoint News Bulletin, newcomers, community, Politically Incorrect

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