God's Country

In 1979 Louis Malle, the much respected French film director, visited the town of Glencoe, Minnesota, population 5,000. I have no idea why that town. But while there he made a 90-minute documentary, God’s Country, of some of the residents who lived there. I was totally engrossed by each of the individuals he interviewed.

Glencoe is about 60 miles west of Minneapolis and is a farming community with a population that is mostly of German extraction. We meet seed farmers, dairy farmers, those who raise and bred cattle and pigs. There are 9 churches and most of the people are religious.

Malle spends a fair amount of time probing the individuals he depicts in the film—an elderly woman who tends a large garden, a free-spirited woman who works in the Social Security office, a policeman, residents of a nursing home and several farmers. He is amused by how much lawn mowing they do. (Soon the communities in drought-stricken California will be forbidden to have lawns.}

What struck me most about these people was how articulate they were, the intelligence and downright wisdom they display in responding to Malle’s questions. Several had not graduated from high school, none had attended college. And yet they conveyed the kind of intelligence you might find in any group of college graduates.

Yet, not everyone in Glencoe is so open-minded. No African Americans live there, and there appears to be a great deal of prejudice against them, as well as gays. One farmer makes it clear he resents Jews who, he claims, govern the market for his products. A bright young woman claims that Glencoe men “have never had a conversation with a woman.” I doubt Glencoe is unique in that respect.

Many of the younger people are moving elsewhere, giving up on a long family tradition of farming. They feel there is no longer any financial future is staying on the land. One seed grower reported he lost $100,000 the year before he was interviewed.

I imagine the people who live in Glencoe and the life they lead there are not a great deal different than anywhere, big city or small. People get by, they have successes and failures, some years are better than others, and everyone keeps dreaming.

Six years later, Malle returned to see if anything had changed. To some degree it had. Farm prices were down even further and the economy was struggling. The film concludes at the family dinner of a Glencoe lawyer, who says the country now has,

an obsession with greed… it’s horrible but good people won’t take it much longer: They aren’t going to subscribe with this philosophy of greed.”

Sounds pretty contemporary, doesn’t it?


Stefanie said...

Glencoe! It's changed a little since the film. The population has grown by about 600 and some intrepid people live there and commute to the Twin Cities. They now have a few black people in town but 14% are Latino. Not great diversity but given that it is still mostly a farming town, it's gotten better.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you Stephanie. I thought you might have more information. Also the gardener reminded me of you.

cath said...

The United States has quite a few very interesting communities in Pennsylvania I knew, also from German origine. I had not heard about this one in Minnesota. With a name like Glencoe I would have thought it's origine would be Scottish rather than German though. Other than the documentary, do you know if there's something in writing about this community? How did you come across this, just curious?

Richard Katzev said...

Catherine: I am sorry but I do not know any writing about Glencoe. But I will check and email you anything of interest I find. I spend a lot of time now streaming films and am a admirer of Malle's work.. In searching his films, I chanced upon God's Country and was surprised that he came to the US to make the documentary.

Stefanie said...

Heh! That gardener actually looks like she could be a family member so who knows. I might look like her one day. My dad's side of the family is German and they are all Minnesotan, not from Glencoe though, much further north, Backus, an even smaller town of only a few hundred.

And Cath, Glencoe was named for its resemblance to a valley of the same name in Scotland and is the first official city to be founded in McLeod County. I can't find any information on who created the city but that it eventually became mostly German is no surprise. There are a lot of German communities in Minnesota, lots of German immigrants came here in the mid to late 1800s my dad's side of the family included :)

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you for the additional information, Stefanie.