Sunday, July 26, 2009

History: fun facts or meaningful messages?

There's a bit of controversy in Sioux Falls about whether or not to put up historical markers remembering the city's late 1800s status as "The Divorce Capitol of the United States." Mayor Dave Munson supports the idea; some City Council Members object.

In a July 23rd letter to the Argus Leader, Robert E. Kolbe of the Minnehaha County Historical Society defended the commemoration:

"Most of those who came here seeking divorces took advantage of South Dakota laws that were lax... They generally lived well east of the Mississippi River... H.C. Woolworth of the five-and-dime fame set up his national headquarters here. The Gilmores, famous actors on the national scene, John Jacob Astor's niece, Bob Fitzsimmons, a world heavyweight boxing champion, and Lily Langtry also were here... If one is to talk about an economic stimulus for a community, the divorce dollars made Sioux Falls in those days and laid the foundation for us today."

The Episcopal Church's Missionary Bishop in those days, William Hobart Hare, was disgusted:

. . . "The rain, the deaths and, worse than all, the scandalous divorce mill which is running at Sioux Falls, with revelations of the silliness and wickedness of men and women, have made my return home a very gloomy one. I despise people who trifle with marriage relations so intensely that the moral nausea produces nausea of the stomach. I have a continual bad taste in my mouth. One of the family, after cultivating our church in Sioux Falls and playing the role of an injured woman, has turned a disgusting somersault. She was accompanied by her adviser, so called, by name, whom she married at once upon her divorce, and it turns out… She gave $1,000 to put memorial windows…in the cathedral. They are here, but I won't have them…the flaming placards of a low circus." (from Howe's biography of Hare)

This is an interesting exercise in history. Does one simply note information, or attempt to interpret it? Should the marker just report that Sioux Falls grew by by providing easy divorces to affluent people, or should it include value judgments about the "industry"? Or are the minority on the City Council right - this bit of history should not be commemorated at all?


Anonymous said...

Definitely see nothing in Sioux Falls 'history' to be proud of not agree with those six city council members allowing the 'landmark' sign. I would think it would be something we as current citizens here should not be proud of, but the way our society is going 'anything goes'! Also another 'sign' that we are putting God last in our thinking and lives.

Scott said...

I'd say that a sign would be appropriate, considering The Episcopal Church in South Dakota has pretty much destroyed the legacy of Bishop W.H. Hare. This may be an obtuse way to collectively remember that legacy.