A storyteller’s story

Published 7:00 pm Saturday, November 24, 2012

Michael Cotter has told plenty of stories in his time, but the path taken to get to become a storyteller wasn’t planned. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Michael Cotter turns the pages back to look at a life of relating stories

Storyteller Michael Cotter says everyone has a story. The story of how the longtime farmer became a storyteller who would host storytelling festivals and take numerous stages to share his stories isn’t exactly conventional, as Cotter would say.

“To me it seems like an incredible, random story,” Cotter said. “One thing led to another.”

Cotter was born at home on the farm in 1931, and he was the only child in his family not to attend college. Instead, he worked on the farm for more than 60 years near Austin, and he’s still involved with the farm.

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Though he lived in Austin for many years, Cotter now lives in Albert Lea.

“I went to a workshop just accidentally,” he said.

 An accidental beginning

Cotter’s wife told him about an event a team of storytellers from New York was hosting in St. Paul, and told him it sounded like something he’d enjoy.

“I went there mainly to see what a storyteller looked like, and they were all types,” he said.

At the time, therapists, clergy and different professionals were finding that stories were effective tools, but many of the stories focused on things like religion and politics. Many of the stories were very dramatic and theatrical.

“I thought, ‘This really isn’t for me,’” he said.

Because he had a farm and many responsibilities waiting for him back home, Cotter planned to leave. But before he could, Cotter met a woman over lunch and sparked a conversation as if they’d known each other for years.

To his surprise, Cotter learned she was running a workshop and decided to attend.

“First of all, she said we’re all storytellers,” Cotter said, something he now tells to many people. “She said we need to tell our own story for our sake and for the world.”

The workshop consisted of about 20 people, and they went around in a circle to each tell a story.

Many of the men told light, campy stories. Cotter had a story in mind, but the stories gradually became more intense as Cotter’s turn approached, and he realized the story he had planned no longer fit the tone.

When it was his turn, Cotter told the group he had no story and waited for them to pass him by.

But Cotter decided to share the story of something close to him: his farm.

The potato market had collapsed, and through a government program, Cotter signed up to receive 45 tons of potatoes to use as cattle feed as long as he wouldn’t try to sell them. In the spring, trucks started coming in with beautiful, perfect potatoes.

As he was telling this story, Cotter connected his experience to his family history.

“In 1850, my grandfather as a little boy with a widow mother and two older brothers got on a sailing ship in northern Ireland because of the potato famine — they had no potatoes,” he said.

After a terrible passage, the family made it to Philadelphia and eventually moved to Minnesota, where they started farming and would have given anything for potatoes for farming, according to Cotter.

“His grandson, that he would never see, would pile up 45 tons to feed to his cattle,” he said.

After the storytelling event ended at 4:30 p.m., most attending the workshop, all strangers, ended up going out to eat and talking until after 11 p.m.

“We became a community … I drive home thinking, ‘What the heck happened?’” Cotter said.

That started Cotter on a journey thinking about stories, and he eventually started sharing the stories at festivals and around the county.

 Stories of the farm

As Cotter started his journey in storytelling, he centered on two things: Many of his stories focus on the farm or rural life, and he only tells true stories.

Storyteller Michael Cotter shares the story of a family funeral at open mic night at the Brickhouse Coffee Shop in October of 2010. Herald file photo

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing Cotter went through the farm crisis, a divorce, and he lost some land.

“I ended up losing a lot of stuff,” Cotter said. “But out of that, I’m still here, and this stuff all happened.”

Though many of Cotter’s stories focus on farming, his stories have not always gone with the grain. Because Cotter runs a commercial farm with big equipment, he said he’s painting a true picture of life on the farm.

“The storytellers that were into these nostalgic stories said I was ruining farming for them,” he said. “I was telling them how it really was in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Eventually, Cotter decided to hire someone to help write his stories. Because Cotter said he’s a talker and not a writer, he’d hire Beverly Jackson to help him write these stories. They were later married. The two would write an “Oral History of Growing Up on a Minnesota Farm,” along with other books.

One story Cotter tells is of growing up on the farm during the Armistice Day of 1940, which killed more than 50 people. The day started warm and raining, and the day had changed to snow by the time Cotter’s father and worker came in for dinner.

His family had cattle in a pasture two miles away, and his father said they’d have to get the cattle and move them.

When Cotter and his father got out of the woods where they lived, they saw the storm was much worse than they’d anticipated.

Cotter was 9, but when he was telling the story years later, he said he felt sweat on his brow, because all the memories and emotions came back.

“If you were out in it, you never forgot it,” Cotter said.

 Family tales

Not all Cotter’s stories focus on farming.

Cotter tells one story of when his uncle, who lived in Oregon but has a stake in the family farm, died.

His aunt, wanted to hold funeral services in home, but the funeral director wanted to hold them in his new establishment.

After a few disagreements with the director, it was agreed to hold services in the home, but Cotter said he learned a valuable lesson.

“I found you don’t want to cross a funeral director,” he said.

The casket and body had to be left in the home overnight with the lid open, since it would seal once shut.

The only room for the casket to be stored in was the room Cotter was sleeping in. So as Cotter tried to sleep, he could look over and see his uncle’s face in the moonlight.

“It was really amazing in the dark, all the — first of all — the smells, the sounds and all that,” he said. “Of course I couldn’t sleep.”

 Still going at 81

Even at 81, Cotter isn’t retiring as a storyteller.

On the first Friday of every month, Cotter still helps with an open mic night at the Brickhouse in Austin.

Cotter said he’s primed to tell his stories at other venues.

“I would like to get back on the stage a little,” Cotter said. “I’m 81 now, and I don’t want to start getting forgetful of these stories.”