Lac qui Parle County Historical Society has collected county's and peoples' stories over past 150 years
The museum showcases a wide variety of people, places and things from the 150 years of the county's past.
MADISON — While every county in Minnesota has its own unique history and history makers, Barb Redepenning, curator and director of the Lac qui Parle County Historical Society and History Center , thinks her county is just a tiny bit special.
Over its 150 years, Lac qui Parle County has been the birthplace of and home to several well-known individuals — including a Minnesota Governor, state poet laureate and even a baker in the Minnesota Bakers Hall of Fame. Then there are the stories themselves, like a group of men from Madison hitching up a wagon, going to the village of Lac qui Parle and literally stealing the courthouse to bring it back to Madison.
"The history of Lac qui Parle County, it is a very interesting history," Redepenning said.
The historical society was formed in 1948 and made its home for the first 24 years in a few different places, with only a couple of rooms to showcase its artifacts.
"They had a museum in the courthouse, a museum in the city hall," Redepenning said.
In 1972, on land donated by the Lac qui Parle County Fair Board, the current building was built and opened to visitors. The building, which has had three additions, is located adjacent to the county fairgrounds. Inside are exhibits filled with thousands of artifacts and a research library, and the grounds boast various outbuildings with their own interesting stories.
"We have a lot of stuff here," most of it having been donated by people over the decades, Redepenning said.
Inside and outside
The exhibits are numerous and varied. Right at the front of the main museum gallery is a display dedicated to Theodore Christianson , who became the 21st governor of Minnesota from 1925 to 1931. Christianson, a Republican, served two terms. He was born in Lac qui Parle Township , died in Dawson and held many positions both private and public during his life, including publisher and editor of the Dawson Sentinel newspaper.
"People must have liked what he was writing; he eventually became governor," Redepenning said.
The museum has a small display for each of the 22 county townships. There are also displays on agriculture, military, school and inventions by county residents. Other exhibits showcase Native American artifacts, an impressive collection of hunting trophies — including a moose — and displays for various businesses. There is even a model train, created by Vern Maslow to represent the city of Nassau .
"He made all the buildings; he said it is an exact replica of Main Street," Redepenning said, except, of course, the large mountain. "He said every train display has to have a mountain."
A popular exhibit are the rooms filled with the furniture and dolls of Ethel Mellum, dubbed "The Doll Lady" by her fans. She created dolls dressed as famous people, sometimes creating costumes with fabric directly from the stars she wrote to. In addition to her dolls and Victorian furniture, Mellum donated the funds to build an extension of the museum — the rooms where her collection now fills.
Outside the museum are various outbuildings including a log cabin that is said to be the first school from Hantho Township, the District #43 school house, a machine shed, outhouse and a little gas station.
A gem of the collection is the Robert Bly Study.
Bly, an internationally-known and respected poet, donated his writing studio in 1999 — including all the furniture and thousands of books. Bly was born and raised on a farm near Madison and lived a significant portion of his life in Madison. Bly was named the state's first poet laureate in 2008. Bly died in 2021, after having published 25 collections of his own poetry, along with several non-fiction books and translations of other poets' work.
A researcher's haven
The society protects generations' worth of family histories, along with other county records including newspapers and church records. The society prides itself on providing a researcher-friendly collection and offering a multitude of sources for people to use to uncover their own pasts.
"My goal is always to send them away with more than they think they will ever find, and they usually do," Renepenning said.
Family research is big business for the Lac qui Parle Historical Society. People come from all around to delve into the records looking for a familiar name. It is one of the main reasons historical societies need to exist.
"So people can find their heritage, find their story," Renepenning said. "We have thousands of stories that were written by people."
And that collection continues to grow, with more records, artifacts and stories arriving all the time. Society staff and volunteers work to organize donations to add to the library and museum.
"To me, it doesn't do any good unless you know what you have and make it easy to find," Renepenning said.
There is also constant attempts to find the backgrounds and stories for items brought into the society or those already hanging on the walls. A crazy quilt known as the "Hannah quilt" had been in the museum collection for decades but it wasn't until someone reached out that the story of the quilt unfolded. And a mixer donated by Elder Molstad now includes the story about Molstad's career as a Hall of Fame baker.
"We try to connect the item with the story," Renepenning said. "That is so important."
This spring and summer, the historical society is planning for a few special exhibits, including the return of the World War I exhibit created by the West Central Minnesota Historical Association. It focuses specifically on west central Minnesota, and the staff at Lac qui Parle will add even more local stories, including those of the Gold Star Mothers who traveled to France to see the graves of their fallen sons.
"We don't want those stories to fade away," Renepenning said.
There will also be a bridal show in June, and the historical society celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Lac qui Parle County Fair with special exhibits and events this summer.
The historical society and museum wouldn't be possible without the hours of work volunteers put in, and the support, artifacts and stories from the community. Renepenning said there is great support for the society and its mission.
"They are interested in history, interested in their heritage," Renepenning said.