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Minnesota Valley History Center offers opportunity to understand the events that shaped the area

Carl Colwell, whose family history charts four generations in Renville County, returned home after a 28-year career as a U.S. Army member and civilian employee. He is currently the mayor of Morton and the director of the Renville County Historical Society. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny2 / 2

MORTON -- Service with four U.S. Army infantry divisions led Carl Colwell to the Pentagon as a strategic planner. There was always a crisis somewhere.

Colwell said he would escape to Arlington National Cemetery when he needed to remind himself why he was doing this difficult work.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he no longer had to leave the Pentagon to regain that sense of purpose.

Colwell, who family goes back four generations in Renville County, put off plans to move his family home to Morton and stayed with the Pentagon for another 3½ years because of the attacks.

After a 28-year-career in the military, Colwell is now home in Morton, where he serves as mayor and the director of the Renville County Historical Society.

Coming home opened his eyes. He says the same inspiration he found at Arlington is all around him in Renville County and he is working to help others discover it.

The Minnesota Valley History Center is all about giving people the opportunity to understand what came before them, "so they can understand that they are in fact standing on the shoulders of giants,'' Colwell likes to tell groups.

Those giants are the Dakota people, white settlers, soldiers and others who devoted and sometimes gave their lives for what they believed.

No matter what culture or place they may have come from, they made great sacrifices and did remarkable things at a critical time in our nation's history, said Colwell.

Part of that history is told by the more than 200 monuments scattered about the region telling of the Dakota War of 1862.

Teaching young people about the area's Native American culture is among the chief goals for the History Center, according to Colwell.

So too is teaching people about the area's unique geology that attracts scientists from around the world. There is no other place in the world where the 3.5 billion-year-old, gneiss rock from the earth's earliest formation is as accessible, said Colwell.

And there are very few places where the glacial history as revealed by the Minnesota River can be so readily viewed.

Not least, the Minnesota Valley History Center also aims to tell about the production agriculture that shapes the region and in many ways, has been shaped by it.

The History Center has helped acquire a nearly 14-acre, granite outcrop area in Morton that is now protected as a Scientific and Natural Area.

Colwell also purchased the former Morton School building, where today the Dakota Wicohan immerses Dakota youth in the study and preservation of the language and culture. Someday, the History Center could share space in the building.

Yet this is about anything but classroom instruction, according to Colwell.

The emphasis will be on experiential education in the outdoors. His plans include the possibility of a zip line on which youth could glide over a quarry of 3.5 billion-year-old rock at 35 mph.

Canoe trips on the Minnesota River, travel to Fort Ridgely and other historic sites, and hikes on the rock outcrops are among the plans.

Colwell said the History Center anticipates hosting students and teachers on day and week-long programs, much like a residential environmental learning center. Curriculum is being developed with the University of Minnesota to meet Department of Education standards for K-12 education.

Colwell said the goal is for the Center to be economically self-sufficient. It should serve as an economic engine to bring visitors to the area, he said.

As for how students will react, Colwell already knows. He's hosted students from the BOLD and Cedar Mountain Schools. He watched their mouths literally drop open as they learned about the natural and cultural history of the area. "It's just an experience to watch these kids,'' said Colwell. "And that is what we're after.''

History Center side

The board of directors for the Minnesota Valley History Center:

Carl Colwell, Mayor of Morton, director Renville County Historical Center;

Pauline Nickel, University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center, head;

Teresa Peterson, executive director Dakota Wicohan;

Kenneth Speake, reporter emeritus, KARE 11 TV;

Ted Suss, superintendent of Wabasso Public Schools;

Dr. Susan Weller, director of the Bell Museum;

Dan Reed CEO of Rural Connections.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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