A great deal of history: Barb Sommer preserves oral accounts in book form

WORTHINGTON -- Worthington native Barbara Windschill Sommer, an oral historian for almost 30 years, has always had a keen interest in American history. Her new book, "Hard Work and a Good Deal," published this year by the Minnesota Historical Soc...

WORTHINGTON -- Worthington native Barbara Windschill Sommer, an oral historian for almost 30 years, has always had a keen interest in American history. Her new book, "Hard Work and a Good Deal," published this year by the Minnesota Historical Society, is the story of the Minnesota Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC), a 1930s nationwide program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sommer said that she developed an early interest in primary sources of history from her grandmother.

"I used to spend two weeks in the summer with her in Fairmont. We'd sit on the couch together, and she would tell me about her parents coming from Sweden and how they moved across Minnesota from Vasa to the farm outside Wheaton. She talked about her brothers and sisters, life on the farm, and what it was like for her to be a young hat-maker in Minnesota and South Dakota. I loved those stories and didn't realize at the time that I was hearing history."

Sommer has led oral history workshops and has taught oral history at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and at Nebraska Wesleyan University. She first became interested in this field while earning her master's degree in history at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. There she learned of Sea Grant funds available to scholars to interview North Shore commercial fishermen.

"I did the interviewing, and I was hooked. To be able to hear history from those who lived it proved to be an amazing experience. I've never lost that excitement and still feel it whenever I do an interview. I've done hundreds of interviews since then and I take pride in each one."


Sommer related how she and four other interviewers began oral history sessions in the early 1980s with men who had been part of the Civilian Conservation Corps about 50 years earlier.

"These CCC alumni were a little embarrassed at being asked questions. Initially some of them indicated they didn't want to talk about the CCC because it was a relief organization, and they didn't want that to reflect on their families. But when they opened up and started talking, the pride they felt in their accomplishments came out."

Sommer said there are around 110 oral history interviews in the complete CCC collection. They're at the Iron Range Research Center, and copies of the information are stored at the Minnesota Historical Society. She explained that "collecting photographs and artifacts is an expected outcome of oral history, but the outpouring for this project was more than I've seen for any other."

The title of Sommer's book comes from what one Minnesotan said about his time working in the CCC. "It was a good deal." The book's pages are full of candid photos submitted by CCC men.

When Franklin Roosevelt became U.S. president in 1933 during the Great Depression, he made a priority of introducing New Deal programs to help ease severe unemployment.

"Only 33 days after FDR's inauguration, the CCC was born and began accessing enrollees around the USA. The CCC put 5 million young men to work on the land and on conservation projects. From 1933 to the early 1940s, the CCC offered these men steady work, a paycheck and Army barracks-type of shelter, leaving a legacy of parks, trees and forests as well as knowledge of special farming techniques."

Sommer's well-organized and very readable book gives insight into what these men accomplished in Minnesota. Chapters on the CCC experiences of American Indians and African-Americans of Minnesota are also included.

A few of the many Minnesota sites developed were Itasca State Park, Fort Snelling Historical District, Pipestone National Monument and Camden State Park near Marshall. All are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


The organization was intended to fill a temporary need. World War II brought the program to a close when CCC men were drafted into the military or found employment in defense work.

Although the enrollees often arrived with little or no training, "they came out of the CCC with education they could take to a job and earn a living for the rest of their lives." Classes were offered in English, math, public speaking, typing and more. All these classes were popular because there wasn't much else to do in their spare time, especially with no television to watch. They made their own entertainment with music, sports and games.

Some enrollees didn't know how to read or write, and those classes were particularly "important for their futures. ... The men often came into the CCC thin and undernourished. They came out rugged and healthy."

The interviews revealed a lot of favorable comments: "It came along as a wonderful blessing." "It gave us a new lease on life." "I never ate so good in my life." "We were often snowed in but not under." "We were young and strong and there was a pride in being able to do all that."

Interviewees spoke about the impact on families. "My dad died when I was 15, leaving my family in dire straits. I went into the CCC when I was 18. The $25 that went home every month made the difference to my mother and five kids still at home."

After World War II, some of the men stayed in the military. Others farmed, worked for Hormel, Red Wing Pottery, radio stations and Northwest Airlines. Some used the G.I. Bill to pay for college. One CCC alumnus won a scholarship to study physics at Carleton College, graduated Phi Beta Kappa and later became a radiation researcher at M.I.T. A typical comment was: "The CCC gave me discipline and a work ethic."

Sommer's book is a wonderful source of history of Minnesota. She has documented recollections that might have been lost. Already many of the men who were interviewed have died. Their oral histories catch exact words and patterns of speech. The book contains appendices, footnotes and names of more than 130 state camps with their locations. Camp newspapers, sporting inventive names, are listed, among them "The Call of the Wild," "The Blue Ox" and "Lake Pepin Breezes."

Sommer has impressive credits: she's a graduate of Carleton College and, in addition to her master's degree from University of Minnesota, she's enrolled in a Ph.D program at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, pursuing her doctorate in 20th century history with oral history emphasis.


She has received numerous awards, including the Certificate of Commendation from the American Association for State and Local History. Her work has appeared in a number of publications and, besides her "Oral History Manual" with Mary Kay Quinlan, she is at work with colleagues on three new manuals.

In connection with "Hard Work and a Good Deal," Sommer has given lectures throughout the state and has found there is tremendous interest in the CCC. She has been interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio's "Midday," has spoken at the St. Paul Public Library History Series, at the Minnesota 150 History Conference at St. John's University and at Carleton College. Sometimes CCC alumni have attended and have added their thoughts.

She said: "Although I am very interested in writing, I am as much or more interested in public history work with museums and with oral history projects. I've worked with museums everywhere we've lived."

E.J. "Red" and Jean Windschill, Barbara Sommer's parents, now living in Eden Prairie, have left an indelible impression on the Worthington community through Red Windschill's contact with Bruce Dayton, whose generosity helped bring about the restoration of the Historic Dayton House, a symbol of Minnesota history. Since Barbara, with the help of a friend, put her father in touch with Bruce Dayton, she said she can "claim a very small toe-hold in her hometown of Worthington."

The author and her husband, Larry Sommer, who recently retired as director of the Nebraska State Historical Society and continues with consulting work, live in Mendota Heights. Their three children work in Marin County, Calif., New York City and Chicago, Ill.

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