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In this small Minnesota town, volunteers keep history alive

Like many rural agricultural communities, Winnebago's population has been shrinking. There are less than 1,300 people living here now — down about 16% in the last decade.

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Volunteer Pete Haight demonstrates how to set up an antique Graphophone in the Winnebago Area Museum.
Ben Hovland / MPR News
We are part of The Trust Project.

WINNEBAGO, Minn. -- WINNEBAGO, Minn. -- Main Street Winnebago is empty on a Tuesday morning.

But inside the Winnebago Area Museum, volunteers are making coffee, sharing stories from their weekend and examining some new donations.

Museum board member Steve Miner, holds up a framed but faded document.

“Today, we got this land grant from Winnebago City, signed by Andrew Johnson,” he says — as in the Andrew Johnson who assumed the presidency after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. “The challenge is trying to figure out when was this made? Or where did this come from?”

Miner is among a dozen or so volunteers who keep this museum vital. It is a tribute to the town and region’s history and by extension this small farming community 45 minutes west of Albert Lea.

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Winnebago Area Museum board members and volunteers sit in the museums lunchroom. The close knit group of caretakers and volunteers have helped the museum persist for nearly 50 years.
Ben Hovland / MPR News

Like many rural agricultural communities, Winnebago's population has been shrinking. There are less than 1,300 people living here now — down about 16% in the last decade.

The impact of demographic and economic shifts can be seen in the shuttered storefronts that dot Winnebago’s main drag, said City Council Member and Board Treasurer Jean Anderson.

"When I left town in 1965, there were restaurants and things to do, and lots of families and stuff. But not so much anymore, so that's one of the biggest challenges," she said.

Like many of the other volunteers, Anderson grew up in Winnebago, lived elsewhere as a young adult and moved back in retirement.

"The changes from when I left to when I came back are significant. And so you lost a lot of the history,” she said. “It’s interesting to put it back together."

Donated objects, donated stories

In the years Winnebago shrunk, the museum grew.

Opened in 1976, it is a non-profit supported entirely by the community, grants, donations and unpaid volunteers. Since it opened, it's moved to a bigger space, a winding series of storefronts on Main Street.

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Cases of ancient and historic Indigenous artifacts sit on display in the Winnebago Area Museum.
Ben Hovland / MPR News

And its impact is growing too: the vast space is now also used as a community and educational hub.

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When something closes in Winnebago, chances are pretty good parts of it will end up in the museum, said museum board President Hazel McCrury. The objects are important because they tell a story about the community.

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Winnebago Area Museum board President Hazel McCrury listens during an interview.
Ben Hovland / MPR News

“Our stated purpose is for education of the community, of history, what has come before,” she said. But also “to help understand where we're going, where we're headed to.”

Miner said a good story came with a donated jail cell from the old city hall about how the town got out of the business of locking people up, courtesy of the former police chief.

"Someone had checked into the jail, and they forgot that he was there, and left him there over the weekend. Shortly after that, it came to not be in use anymore,” he said.

Among a group of board members who have dedicated decades to volunteering here, Miner is newer to the group. He enjoys cataloging stuff that's just been donated, and it can be challenging to know what's valuable and authentic.

He said it’s sometimes also challenging to say no to donations, especially when the donation is important to the donor.

“You have to be kind of tactful with what you can take and what you can take in are some things that we have multiples of,” he said — like the four pump organs on display there.

“Bless their hearts for wanting to donate to stuff, but we only have so much room.”

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Not just artifacts

In addition to multiple pump organs, the Winnebago Area Museum also has also ended up with a lot of old hats, memorabilia from the high school that closed in the late 1980s, farm equipment, and an entire room of indigenous artifacts found in the region — and that’s just a shortlist.

And it’s not just artifacts the Winnebago Area Museum collects.

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Winnebago Police Department artifacts decorate an authentic jail cell that was restored from the town’s historic jail.
Ben Hovland / MPR News

The genealogy room is lined with six shelves of binders full of obituaries, wedding announcements, reports of incidents and tragedies, each organized by family or local business.

Colette Meidinger said anyone can come here and learn more about their extended family.

“I love digging,” Meidinger said. “I had a man on the phone a couple of weeks ago, he was looking for the house where his relatives lived.”

Her investigation turned up even more members of the caller’s family — news Meidinger said she enjoyed delivering.

“And then it's like, well, here's a name. It just escalated,” she said.

Volunteer Jeanne Kortuem said through her genealogy research, she can detect patterns in how people are living — and dying. For instance, fewer families list the cause of death, she said.

“One thing that I've noticed is a lot of people don't have where they're buried,” she said. “They're gone in the wind.”

Cremated, she said — or still sitting on someone’s mantle.

Later, over coffee, peach cake and cookies, the group talks about why this volunteer-driven museum has lasted for nearly 50 years when so many other institutions in their region have been lost.

“We have good lunch,” said long-time member Pete Haight, pointing to the treats on the table.

But really, he said, it’s the mix of people in that room.

“We’re committed, and we get along.”

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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