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Architects to help Chippewa County Historical Society protect Swensson Farm house

The Chippewa County Historical Society remains committed to telling the story of Olof Swensson and the area's pioneer heritage at the Swensson Farm Museum. A grant will make it possible for architects to provide an assessment on how to best preserve the three-story, 22-room brick farmhouse built on the site by the Norwegian immigrant and his daughter at the turn of the last century.

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The Chippewa County Historical Society has operated the Swensson Farm site as a museum for the public since 1967. The 22-room house built by Olof Swensson and his daughter from 1901-1903 and the timber-frame barn they had also erected there help tell the story of the area's pioneer heritage as well as that of Olof Swensson, an innovator who arrived in the U.S. as an immigrant from Norway at age 29 in 1871. Photo courtesy of the Chippewa County Historical Society

WEGDAHL — Olof Swensson was 60 years old when he started building the 22-room brick farmhouse he called the Governor’s Mansion on the Prairie.

The Norwegian immigrant and his daughter, Katie, then in her 20s, worked from 1901-1903 to erect the home on the prairie in Chippewa County. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Father and daughter had done much of the heavy lifting in the preceding decade, when they used horsepower to haul the granite boulders they collected for its foundation.

There might be some heavy lifting ahead for the Chippewa County Historical Society as well. It is committed to preserving the house and the story it tells of Swensson and especially the area's rural agricultural and immigrant heritage. The Minnesota Historical Society recently announced it was awarding a $20,000 grant from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Chippewa County Historical Society. It will allow the local group to hire an architect to conduct a condition assessment of the Swensson Farm House.

The assessment will provide the Chippewa County Historical Society with a list of work needed, as well as estimates for the costs. That’s where the heavy lifting comes in: Celeste Suter, the local society’s director, said the estimated costs could possibly be in the six digits to properly restore the structural and historical integrity of the house.

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Getting the assessment will help the historical society prioritize its work ahead, as well as begin the work to seek grants and public support for the work, she said.

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Olof Swensson and his daughter Katie built this timber-frame barn of post and beam construction. Today it is the only barn in the state that is in its original condition, on the National Register of Historic Places, fully restored and open to the public. Photo courtesy of the Chippewa County Historical Society

The Chippewa County Historical Society has operated the Swensson Farm site as a museum since 1967. It has invested $600,000 to date in preserving the site, with a large share of the funds used to rehabilitate the barn. The timber-frame barn of post and beam construction is the only barn in the state that is in its original condition, on the National Register of Historic Places, fully restored and open to the public. It too was built mostly by Olof and Katie.

The 22-room house holds a private chapel on its second floor, where Olof Swensson once preached as a self-appointed lay minister. Suter said one visitor to the site told her how as a young girl she attended a service in the chapel and ran down the stairs and to her home in fear after Olof Swensson thundered at her.

In so many ways, Olof Swensson epitomized the agrarian, pioneer spirit of the time. He proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have limited farms to 320 acres in size, in part a reflection of his belief in the importance of family farms as well as the realization that land resources are finite.

He was also an advocate for foreign exchange programs. He considered the U.S. Constitution “the most perfect thing ever created, ” said Suter, and wanted to acquaint youth from other countries with our government and way of life. He also aspired to become the state's governor, which is why he called his house "the Governor's Mansion on the Prairie."

Along with the house and barn, Swensson built a grist mill on the site to compete with the flour mill in Granite Falls, roughly 10 miles to the south. The flour mill there was operated by the Pillsbury family.

The Swensson House fronted a dirt roadway that would become part of the original Yellowstone Trail linking the East and West Coasts of the country. These and many other stories are all part of the important history offered at this site, and Suter said the historical society remains committed to telling them through preservation of the structures.

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