WILLMAR -- It started with a simple quest. Stephen and Laura Deleski, owners of West Central Printing, were looking for historic photos of their 1890s-era building in downtown Willmar.
They uncovered some vintage postcards depicting many of the grand brick buildings that graced the downtown business district. One thing led to another and Stephen Deleski's interest grew.
"We travel a lot, so when we're camping in summer we hit all the antique stores," he said.
He began collecting old local photos through auctions and online sales. Now, almost 10 years later, he's reproducing these historic photos and selling them as prints.
It's a window on Willmar's commercial past that, until now, has mostly been available only through the Kandiyohi County Historical Society and private collections.
"The people that come in here just love them," Deleski said. "A lot of times people come in and say, 'I remember this. I remember that.'"
He has prints of the old Italianate-style Kandiyohi County Courthouse, the Carnegie library with its elegant domed roof, and the brick hotels that were once a short walk from the Great Northern Railroad depot.
The collection, taken mainly from old postcards, contains numerous vintage street scenes from downtown.
Some date back to the early 1900s. Others, such as a group of photos depicting the former movie theater on Fourth Street, are from the 1950s.
Nearly all of Willmar's historically significant buildings can be found within the central business district, Deleski said.
Some have undergone alterations over the years and are scarcely recognizable in the old black-and-white photos.
Many, such as the former library and courthouse and most of the hotels, have simply vanished.
"Downtown's been here 100 years. It's evolved," Deleski said. "There's very few towns that didn't escape the proverbial urban renewal axe."
Using commercial-quality scanning and printing equipment, Deleski retouches the original photos, removing old scratches and creases. Then he makes high-resolution prints that can be framed or even reproduced on canvas for his customers.
The retouching alone can take two to four hours for a single photo, he said.
Long hours went into the creation of a pair of custom collages. One contains seven photos of some of the most significant downtown buildings. The other consists of eight pictures from a private collection featuring historic photos of downtown businesses decked out for the annual Kaffe Fest celebration.
They're all displayed in a small retail gallery that was remodeled a couple of years ago in the West Central Printing building at 101 Fifth St. S.W., where the Deleskis also sell office supplies, rubber stamps and specialty candles, along with some of Deleski's own photographs.
For the Deleskis, who live above their printing shop, downtown Willmar isn't just a trove of history; it's home.
"I've been in this building longer than anyone so far," Deleski said. "It's not for sale. I plan on dying here."
So far, he's had no luck with his original quest of finding a high-quality historic photo of the West Central Printing building. He has acquired a handful of photos of the commercial buildings along Fifth Street, but none have a good front view of his own building.
Deleski said he keeps hoping the right picture will turn up.
In the meantime, he continues to scour auctions and the Internet in search of more vintage photos. His latest find, a 1930s-era postcard of the original Rice Memorial Hospital building, arrived in the mail last week.