by LAURA HAYES
It started with a simple goal — learn how to preserve Lanesboro’s history using modern technology. In the end, three local students — Olivia Obritsch, Mai Gjere, and Nora Sampson — had spent several months researching topics and issues relevant to both Lanesboro and other small communities throughout the region.
In December 2015, Lanesboro Arts was one of six communities to receive a grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street (MOMS) program. According to MOMS Youth Access Grant Coordinator Shannon Sullivan, when organizations are awarded this grant, they have to make a digital interpretive project. However, she said that the communities often interpret this in many different ways. Some groups — such as Lanesboro — use the grant money to help create documentaries. “Oral history is a really big part of these projects … There’s a natural fit between oral history and video recording,” Sullivan said.
With this grant, Lanesboro Arts staff created the Youth Access Technology Project (YATP) and set off to find local students who would be interested in creating documentaries chronicling Lanesboro’s history. Both Sampson and Gjere got involved with the project after Lanesboro Arts staff member Sara Baskett visited Lanesboro Junior High. When Baskett told the students about the project, Sampson and Gjere’s interests were piqued. “I’m more of an artsy kid, and I do a lot of extracurriculars in general. I figured that it would be cool to do and provide a lot of experience,” Gjere said.
While neither had experience in directing films, the two girls — who were in eighth grade at the time — applied for YATP and were accepted. “I thought that we were going to make a short little video and it wasn’t going to take very long,” Sampson said with a laugh.
“I was expecting it to be more like a class,” Gjere added.
The third participant, Obritsch, who was a homeschooled high school senior at the time, was invited to apply for YATP after Baskett saw a silent film that she directed for Lanesboro Community Theater’s silent movie festival. “I was unsure, at the time of the application, if I wanted to be part of the project — mostly due to concerns about the time commitment during my senior year,” Obritsch admitted. Despite her worries, Obritsch decided to apply for the project, swayed in part by the chance of having work displayed in the Smithsonian.
It took the students around six months to research, film, and edit their documentaries. Historian Erin Dorbin taught the girls how to make a documentary — how to use the technology, how to edit their films, and how to interview local people. “In presenting this [to the students], we did not want to determine what projects that the students would take on. We had some ideas, but it had to be self-directed because if it wasn’t something that they were curious about, then who would spend hours after school pursuing this?” Dorbin said.
When Sampson was searching for a topic for her documentary, she looked around Lanesboro to see what was going on in the community. “There’s a lot of tourism, but there’s a lot of agriculture in the background,” she said.
Sampson’s documentary examines the history of agriculture in Lanesboro — from highlighting Future Farmers of America in the schools to talking with current farmers to visiting an auction house. “I’ve never been that close to livestock because we don’t live on a farm. I see them every day, but I’ve never been that up close and personal,” she said.
For her documentary, Gjere asked community members why they decided to come to and stay in Lanesboro. “I really had to go back and forth a lot,” she said. “I was going to do it on businesses. I kind of did that, but it became more about people because I think people are interesting in general.”
Part of Gjere’s documentary addresses a phenomenon called the “brain drain” where rural communities lose young adults after high school. Gjere’s research indicates that people often move to small communities at age 30 to start families. Personally, Gjere said that after completing the documentary she would consider moving back to Lanesboro after college. “Before, I would say absolutely not. Now that I know more and know more of the history and the people, I would be a lot more open to it,” Gjere said.
Obritsch’s documentary focuses on the economic revival of Lanesboro — tracking what helped the city grow, such as the establishment of the Root River Trail System. She interviewed around 12 people who remembered the old railroad that ran through town where the current trail is and people who were both in favor and against constructing the trail.
The process, Obritsch said, was lengthy, but she learned a lot about herself. “Apart from learning the technical skills of documentary making, I developed a deeper appreciation, feeling of belonging, and investment in my community and its future,” she said. “I still look back on the entire process of making these documentaries and think, ‘Man, I did that!’”
“These aren’t stories about Lanesboro,” Dorbin said. “These are stories about contemporary rural America. These are stories about issues facing every rural community we know.”
The students said that YATP helped teach them important life skills. “I learned how to be more comfortable around people because when you have to talk to random strangers on the street, you have to be confident,” Gjere said.
Obritsch said that the project helped her learn soft skills such as how to meet deadlines, compose emails, and conduct interviews. “These experiences helped me grow as a person and have benefited me greatly as I transition into college and its demands,” she said.
Lanesboro Arts will host two public screenings of the documentaries at the end of the month on January 27 at 6:30 p.m. and on January 28 at 1 p.m. Screenings will be held at St. Mane Theatre in Lanesboro. The videos will also be uploaded to Smithsonian Institution’s Stories from Main Street program online at https://museumonmainstreet.org/.