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Season 3, Episode 5 – Hannah Dyson: Putting the “Story” in “History”

Hannah Dyson

Hannah Dyson discovered a remarkable overlap in her theatre and history interests when interning at the MN Historical Society. Writing stories for MNopedia about fraudulent towns and journalistic assassinations, Hannah developed a passion for storytelling that connects past and present – and her Augsburg and historical society mentors have helped her focus her ambitions. Her storytelling explores justice and freedom of press both historically and in our own future.

Transcript

Hannah Dyson: History is about telling stories and theater is about telling stories. You look at these historic figures and you take them for what they are. And while you don’t seek to condone or forgive actions that people have taken, you need to understand it.

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I’m Paul Pribbenow, the President of Augsburg University and it’s my great privilege to present the Augsburg Podcast.

Catherine Day: I’m Catherine Reid Day, host of the Augsburg Podcast. Today we speak with Hannah Dyson, Augsburg class of 2020 about her discoveries in the overlapping worlds of history and theater. We discuss her internship with the Minnesota Historical Society, and speak with her and several of her academic and professional mentors about how the past can illuminate our present and future.

Hannah Dyson: I was always interested in history. I don’t think it clicked until my freshman year of college. I always was reading historical nonfiction and fiction books and my mom took me to the Alexander Ramsey House and the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, and I always loved going to that. I had one of my birthdays at, I think it’s called Murphy’s Landing, it’s just a farm that recreates the historical past.

Hannah Dyson: I was always fascinated with that but because I had been so active in theater, I always just assumed that that was the main thing that I wanted to do. I guess I never realized in my head that there was also this historical part of me and this interest in history. And so when I was in a class, an art history class, and I think that’s what sparked the realization in my head that I could do something with this.

Hannah Dyson: I had had it in my head that I wanted to do an internship at the Minnesota Historical Society once I started into the path of history at Augsburg. I assumed that it was too competitive for me, that I wasn’t good enough, that I wouldn’t be able to do it. And so every semester when I saw that they were posting or asking for interns to apply, I would never apply. I would always stay away from it, just because I was afraid to do it.

Hannah Dyson: I think it was last year around this time, maybe a little earlier, I was sitting down with my advisor Jackie DeVries. We were talking about internships and how I needed one because I was a junior, and I mentioned off hand the Minnesota Historical Society’s internships. And she was like, “All right, we’re going to apply.” She didn’t give me another option, she was like, “Here’s what we need to do, we’re going to go through these steps.” And so she just was like, “We’re going to do this,” and I was like, “Okay,” and we applied and I got it.

Hannah Dyson: I was working with MNopedia, which is the Minnesota Historical Society’s online encyclopedia about Minnesota history. I was assigned to the Place Names Project, which is based off this book that was published in the 1920s and has been revised since. It’s all of the place names that ever existed in Minnesota, so post offices, towns, rivers, all of that good stuff. And I was assigned to try to find some of these lost place names.

Linda Cameron: She’s a super sleuth and I think the thrill of the hunt is part of what Hannah lives for.

Catherine Day: This is Linda Cameron, Program Manager for the MNopedia Project at the Minnesota Historical Society, and Hannah’s supervisor throughout her internship.

Linda Cameron: She really had the enthusiasm, I think, that it takes, and the tenacity, to keep going. When she couldn’t find it initially she just kept going until she did find something. And eventually we’d have to say, with all of our interns and volunteers, we eventually had to say, “Okay, you’ve done what you can. Let’s just move on to the next one.” But she was really good about making that choice herself and knowing when she reached the limit of her ability to find things and then move on. But she did find a number of really obscure locations for us, which was really helpful.

Linda Cameron: She came in one day and she said, “You’ll never guess what I found.” And she found this incredible story about land speculation fraud. And because we try to give our place names interns an opportunity to write as well if they’d like to do that, to give them a more rounded experience with MNopedia, we asked her if she’d to write an article on land speculation. And she had trouble choosing just one example, so we had her write what we call a C-level, which is about a 1200 word article about land speculation in general for a specific period. And she chose the 1850s because that’s when a lot of this stuff was happening.

Hannah Dyson: I came across this old town called Lafayette and it was around for, it said, only 1857 that it was around. And through further research I discovered that this town, Lafayette, had never actually existed. It had been a scam done by this guy in order to collect money from people and then not actually provide them with what he was saying, lots for this town. And so I brought it to my supervisor, Linda, and I was like, “This is bizarre.” What should I do about this? And she was like, “Oh, this is so fascinating.” And then through further research, it became apparent that it wasn’t just this one town, but it was an epidemic that took place in Minnesota between 1854 to 1857. And so that’s how my final article, Land Speculation 1854 to 1857, came about.

Linda Cameron: Hannah is also writing a magazine article for the Minnesota History Magazine for our suffrage issue, for fall of 2020. It’s not very common for an undergraduate student to write for Minnesota History Magazine, but Hannah’s abilities were pretty evident. And I think she really impressed both myself and Laura Weber, the editor for the magazine. She’s writing an article, I think on the suffrage research that she did. We have a special suffrage issue that’s coming out next fall.

Hannah Dyson: It’s about anti-suffrage, which is a group of women in Minnesota and beyond who opposed equal suffrage. I came across this particular and the opportunity came to me. I was working through the URGO department at Augsburg, which is undergraduate research over the summer, with Jackie DeVries. And we were at the Hennepin History Museum creating an exhibit about suffrage for the Centennial of suffrage being passed in the 19th amendment. And this topic of anti-suffrage came up and I was very interested in this because the women who opposed the vote, it seems so bizarre and weird to us today. And I wanted to understand that group of women. And so I took that and ran with that.

Hannah Dyson: My opening sentence for my article is, “Lavinia Gilfillan, who was one of the anti-suffragists was a modern woman.” The way that I conceptualize them is not that they were backwards, retrogressive women who didn’t want what was best for women. I think it’s easy to jump to the assumption that because they fought against the vote that that means that they were these disconnected society women who were clinging to past era’s and not looking forward, not being modern. And that’s just not the way that I perceive them.

Hannah Dyson: I perceive them as women who are active in their communities and believed in women’s education and believed in women in business. But really, they thought that the way that women could best improve society was through nonpartisan power. And certainly they had other arguments as well, and some were more conservative than others. But really, their main belief in Minnesota was that through nonpartisan power, through not being connected to politics, was how they could best improve society.

Darcey Engen: Here at Augsburg, my closest colleagues are in the English department and the history department.

Catherine Day: This is Darcey Engen, professor and chair in the theater department.

Darcey Engen: When you think about historians and what they do is they create a landscape for you to investigate what people were thinking and feeling and doing historically. Theater does the exact same thing, but we have that little extra step of performing it at the end. But the investigation and the curiosity that is required to be a theater artist or a historian are very, very similar. It’s about empathy, it’s about curiosity. And it’s about facts.

Darcey Engen: For a student like Hannah and with this amazing internship that she’s had, and these opportunities to publish. It’s not surprising to me that she’s accomplished these things. When she came into the theater department, she’s just a vibrant and lovely and funny, good natured person. At the same time as she is deadly serious and on-task and organized. And that is an incredible combination because it’s a person that in essence can play and imagine and empathize at the same time as they can organize and be an excellent writer and have all of those professional skills intact.

Hannah Dyson: I absolutely got started in the storytelling path through theater. You get on stage and you embody a different person. And you’re telling their story through their eyes and seeking to understand them even though they’re very different from you and maybe have questionable motives and may be not be a good person. I played in The Crucible here at Augsburg, I played Deputy Governor Danforth who was the person who was leading the trials and going after these people who were innocent but who the character deems guilty and sentences people to death. But, in playing that character, I knew I couldn’t play that character as a villain because that doesn’t provide a complicated performance on my part. I had to seek to understand that character.

Bill Green: She is a storyteller, very, very adept.

Catherine Day: This is history professor Bill Green.

Bill Green: I think the first time I worked with her in the classroom was when she had my Minnesota history class. And I often allow students the flexibility of doing either a traditional research paper or something dealing with family history, genealogy or history, family history, or something creative. They could write a play, they could tell a story about something, they can make something up.

Bill Green: Hannah wrote a story that I still think about. I think I read the thing for the first time about two or three years ago and I still think about it. And the reason why it was so noteworthy to me was, aside from the fact that it was extremely well written, there is a fluidity in the style. There’s grace and her writing style. She really had a feel for humanity. So that I find myself, when I think of a story thinking about the characters that she made up. And she was able to bring out the drama and the tensions among the characters in a very realistic way.

Bill Green: I actually had a sense of flavor, context, color. The mood was set, all of that captured in her story. And I find that to be a rare talent for a person who is not an English major, which she’s not. And I think ever since then, whenever she was interested in talking to me about a project, or doing something, I always said, “I’m completely at your disposal.” I had, and have, the good fortune of working with her on a special project she’s working on, honors project. She’s dealing with a topic on Minneapolis history in the 1930s. And she got involved in this material, it’s incredibly interesting. So in trying to figure out what kind of standards she could use to assess what information is important and what information only seems important, we decided for her to do this one thing and that is tell a story.

Hannah Dyson: The Twin Cities during the 1920s and 1930s was notoriously corrupt. Walter Liggett was a journalist in Minneapolis and he was looking into connections that Floyd B. Olson, who was the governor of Minnesota, had to organized crime. There were two organized crime groups in Minneapolis. One ran by Isadore Blumenfeld, nickname Kid Cann, and then the Minneapolis Syndicate. And he was looking into these connections between Floyd B. Olson and these criminals, and other organized crime that was taking place and was connected to politics, to the police department. And he was really speaking against this. And he was met with a lot of consequences for that. He was accused of crimes and he went to court a month before his assassination for the charge of sodomy. And this was intended to get him thrown in jail for 20 years, and to essentially shut him up.

Hannah Dyson: And then a month later, he was assassinated for speaking out against this. There was a trial, his wife identified Kid Cann as the assassin. And so he went to trial and he was found not guilty because he had an alibi from his barber. It’s not necessarily clear if he was the assassin or not. There’s some ambiguity to, maybe it was this other guy from Chicago who looked like Kid Cann, maybe it was someone else. There’s no resolution, and there isn’t for the other assassinations that took place either.

Bill Green: History is a way of really understanding human nature. And I think all of that stuff is neatly tied up in a sense, and not so neatly sometimes in the study of history. Because, we’re not about coming up with answers per se as much as ways of being in that large world. The central issue is getting people to be able to see, getting students to be able to understand why there’s conflict, what are the opposing sides? What is it about a circumstance that brought a person to a different point of view and how was that point of view resolved, if ever? And what do you think about how it was resolved? History allows you to really explore that.

Hannah Dyson: If you just look at a historical figure and you say, “That person is evil.” and move on, that doesn’t really reveal anything about human nature and human understanding. Augsburg is helping me find my calling and supporting me through the incredible environment we have here. I do think it’s quite unique. It’s this environment of support and reaching out and seeking to help. And genuinely being interested in, all of my professors have took time out of their busy lives to help me find my path moving forward.

Hannah Dyson: There are so many mentors that I’ve come across. All of the professors here, all of the workers, all the staff, they all want to see the students succeed. And they’re willing to take time to make that happen. And being exposed to all these different stories helped me be a better performer and a better historian. That’s invaluable.

Catherine Day: We’ve heard today from Hannah Dyson, Augsburg Class of 2020. We’ve also heard from Linda Cameron, program manager for the MNopedia project at the Minnesota Historical Society. Darcey Engen, professor and chair in the theater department. And Bill Green, professor of history. I’m Catherine Reid Day and this is the Augsburg podcast.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to the Augsburg podcast. I’m President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit augsburg.edu.