“We have had great disappointments, but fortunately, the good Lord has never let us both become discouraged at the same time.” — Minnie K. Guenther, Extracts from the “Diary of a Missionary’s Wife,” 1929
On a bright Thanksgiving morning in 1910 Wisconsin, a knock at the door interrupted Minnie Knoop as she prepared for church. She opened the door to young E. Edgar Guenther, the tall, shy Lutheran seminarian who had been sparking Minnie for some time. With no preamble whatever, he said, “I have a call to the Arizona Territory; will you go with me?” The simplicity and directness of her reply was characteristic. “Sure,” she said and thus took up her role in Arizona history.
Edgar and Minnie Guenther would devote the rest of their lives to the care and development of the White Mountain Apache Tribe of east central Arizona. Although early missionaries had initiated some social work on the reservation, when the Guenthers settled there permanently, real progress began. In the early years of this century, the Guenthers’ life was a continual challenge. With nothing but begged materials and ingenuity, they immediately reopened the mission school, with rough desks built by Edgar. Students were sent by parents who responded to the care and love they saw given to their children. After the school was established, Minnie and E. Edgar Guenther opened the East Fork Orphanage, the first of its kind in the Southwest.
By this time, Minnie had entered a pattern of activities which would remain unchanged in essence for half a century. The backbreaking daily labor of homemaking under harsh, primitive conditions hauling water, growing food, chopping wood for heat and light was actually secondary to Minnie’s chosen path: she would type all school lessons and every sermon her husband would deliver, cook daily hot meals for the students, teach Sunday school, learn to speak Apache, make calls by horseback on outlying camps, teach herself to play hymns on a portable pump organ, nurse the sick, and counsel Indians caught in a changing world.
The scarcity of medical help in the early days and recurrent killer epidemics created a serious health threat on the reservation. The constant, selfless response of Edgar and Minnie reinforced the Apaches’ confidence in the Guenthers’ commitment to them. Of the paralyzing winter of 1914-15, Edgar Guenther wrote, “My wife and I spent many weary days in the saddle … Having no medicine of any kind I trapped skunks, rendered the fat and mixed it with turpentine and coal oil. To give the concoction a pleasant odor, my wife added some of her precious perfume. For chest pads … our long winter underwear was dedicated to the cause.” (Guenther, Autobiography, 1956) Minnie Guenther also worked to help Indian children afflicted with a laming congenital hip disorder, eventually sending many to Phoenix for surgery. As the Guenther’s work expanded, so, too, did their family.
Throughout her life, Minnie considered children her greatest gift. Aided by Shima, her devoted Apache nursemaid, Minnie raised nine children of her own, and numerous Apaches. The impact of Minnie’s character and values shaped strong individuals. Several of the children she raised were trilingual in English, Apache, and German. Occupations pursued by her children and those she adopted included engineering, nursing, a librarianship, the military, medicine, and education. One the Guenthers’ sons succeeded Edgar as a Lutheran pastor on the reservation.
In 1961, Minnie lost her life’s partner when Mr. Guenther died. She continued working among the Apaches for another 20 years. Minnie’s exemplary motherhood was widely recognized and nationally honored, when she was selected the national 1967 Mother of the Year.
Inadvertently, she became an entrepreneur. Minnie was often the only source of ready money on the isolated reservation, and she regularly exchanged cash for Indian handcrafts. She then sold the craft items to recoup her investment, and so a bustling tourist enterprise was underway. Besides purchased items, 70 years on the reservation brought Minnie a vast personal collection of traditional Apache cultural materials. Sought by several institutions, this unique collection was given in Minnie’s will to the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona, already the repository of the Grenville Goodwin Apache collection. Together, the Goodwin and Guenther collections probably comprised the most comprehensive record of Apache material culture in the world.
Illness and advances in age saw Minnie spending more and more time with her children off the reservation, near needed medical facilities. Irritated at her confinement when her pioneer spirit still saw work to be done, she needled her children constantly, usually playfully, to take her back to “her” reservation.
Minnie Knoop Guenther died at 91 on January 8, 1982, in her house, on her reservation. A few days later, people came through a mountain snowstorm by the hundreds, to show their love for a woman whose life was spent loving them.