A look at 150 years of Kandiyohi County through 150 items

While the celebration had to be postponed due the pandemic, the Kandiyohi County Historical Society is officially kicking off the county’s sesquicentennial with a new exhibit — a look at 150 different objects that help tell the story of the last 150 years.

Some of the earliest documentation of the present day Kandiyohi County is on display at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society as part of the 150 Things for 150 Years exhibit. The county was founded back in December 1870, when two counties formed into one. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The Kandiyohi County Historical Society is a treasure trove of items, documents and photos showcasing the history of the county, from the common to the significant. That county history has now stretched over 150 years, and a new exhibit is set to open to showcase that history by putting on display many treasures that don't always get the chance to shine.

The society had plans last year to celebrate the county's sesquicentennial, when Kandiyohi and Monongalia counties merged to form the present-day Kandiyohi County on Dec. 15, 1870. The pandemic caused necessary changes to those plans. However, the 150 Things for 150 Years museum exhibit was always part of the design. It just had to be put off until it was safer for people to once again congregate and visit the museum.

The Kandiyohi County Civil Defense van is finally going on display at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum as part of the exhibit marking the county’s sesquicentennial. The plan is to keep the van as part of the permanent museum layout, after the special exhibit is taken down. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

In the early days of planning for the exhibit, the decision was made not to do a traditional chronological countdown of the past 15 decades. Instead, museum staff and volunteers dug through the museum's storage to find special items to showcase.


"There are over 50,000 things in there," said Kandiyohi County Historical Society director Jill Wohnoutka. "It took us a while."

Kandiyohi County Historical Society Director Jill Wohnoutka stands in front of one of the display cases housing items from the 150 Things for 150 Years exhibit, showcasing some of the history of Kandiyohi County. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The items chosen range from small to huge and cover a vast array of subject matters. They can be found in nearly every display case, mixing in with the society's permanent exhibits.

"You have to go through the museum to find them," Wohnoutka said.

The largest is the 1950s Civil Defense van, which has been stored in the museum's warehouse for years, being used as storage itself for other items. On the other end of the museum, an old loom sits amongst a spinning wheel and a few different models of Singer sewing machines.

"The loom was never set out," Wohnoutka said, until the new exhibit. "It is very fragile."


A loom from the mid-1800s has been put on display for the first time at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum, as part of the 150 Things for 150 Years exhibit. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

There is a case with a doll, and another one that shows the history of the phone — from an early wall model to a smartphone. There are farming implements, tea sets, dishes and school memorabilia. In the museum's community room, there is a small collection of the society's art collection, including a stained glass window from a county church.

"We wanted a little variety," Wohnoutka said.

All of the items, and the vast majority of what the museum owns, are donated from the public. So the exhibit not only helps tell the county's history but that of its residents as well.

The 150 Things exhibit will be up at the museum through December 2022, giving the public plenty of time to come enjoy it. To celebrate the unveiling, an open house will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Aug. 3 at the museum, located on Business Highway 71 in Willmar, near Robbins Island Regional Park. The event is also the official unveiling of the Willmar Kaffe Fest coffee pot , which now sits proudly on the museum grounds.

"It is a day to come enjoy the museum and have a coffee and doughnut," Wohnoutka said.

The 150th exhibit is only one of the ways the Kandiyohi County Historical Society has commemorated the county's 150th birthday. On the official anniversary last December, the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners took a few minutes out of their meeting to mark the occasion . Throughout 2020, as the museum was closed due to the pandemic, Wohnoutka filled the society's social media pages with posts , many connected to the anniversary.


The next big event will be the Kandiyohi County Fair, where a more traditional exhibit about the sesquicentennial will be on display, and then available for other organizations to check out to display themselves. Also at the fair will be the all-important birthday cake.

"We are going to have a birthday party at the fair," Wohnoutka said.

A silver serving dish on display at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

While there was some disappointment that not all of the commemoration events ended up being possible due to the coronavirus, the historical society never wavered from wanting to mark the anniversary. And, in the end, the society is proud of what it achieved, despite the challenges.

"We've done a good job with the exhibit," Wohnoutka said.

And following the fair, the historical society will continue its mission of preserving and protecting not only the last 150 years of Kandiyohi County history, but the next as well.

"We'll move on to what our next adventure will be," Wohnoutka said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email or direct 320-214-4373.

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