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Willmar is America: Local author pens town history in new book

Erica Dischino / Tribune Jason Grabinger talks about his book, “Willmar: Images of America,” at The Goodness Coffee House in Willmar. 1 / 11
Erica Dischino / Tribune Jason Grabinger shows off his book, “Willmar: Images of America,” June 21 at the Willmar Fests Downtown Block Party. Grabinger will be signing copies of his book tonight at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in Willmar.2 / 11
Erica Dischino / Tribune Jason Grabinger released his book, “Willmar: Images of America,” in early June. 3 / 11
Post Office employees are hard at work in this Willmar Tribune photograph taken on December 24, 1957, perhaps the busiest day of the entire year. Mailman Luther Norbie, left, picks up a large package, while Less Herrick sorts a group of smaller ones. Herrick was the contract mail hauler, carrying packages from the train depot to the Post Office.4 / 11
The railroad was a major employer in Willmar and continues to be today. This photograph was taken in 1930. It shows the Empire Builder passenger train pulling into the station near the Willmar depot. The train was inaugurated in 1929 by the Great Northern Railway to honor founder James J. Hill. Workers in the yard wait to ice the train for its journey to the Pacific Northwest.5 / 11
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The warm and inviting atmosphere of the millinery store can be seen in this image from 1920. The store was operated by Emma Berkness. The women of Willmar at that time had an excellent selection of beautiful hats right in line with the fashion of the day. 7 / 11
Photo courtesy of Kandiyohi County Historical Society This photograph taken in the 1890s shows a picturesque downtown. In the background, the Willmar High School stands stoically alone, the only break in the vast prairie spanning the horizon. While many of these buildings are gone today, they portray a budding new city filled with promise.8 / 11
War savings stamps were issued by the US Treasury Department to help fund the country's participation during World War II. Two men and two women from Willmar sold war stamps from a booth in 1945. From left to right are: Martin Leaf, Harold Lindell, T.O. Gilbert, unidentified, Dan Brennan, two unidentified, and Fran Osteraas.9 / 11
Erica Dischino / Tribune Jason Grabinger talks about his book, “Willmar: Images of America,” at The Goodness Coffee House in Willmar. 10 / 11
This September 1911 photograph shows the front of the Willmar Hardware Comapny at 118 Sixth Street, between Pacific and Benson Avenues. From left to right are: unidentified, Albert Lund, Martnus Hanson and Chris Otterness. Willmar Hardware Company was registered with the State of Minnesota on April 25, 1902. Albert Lund was listed as president of the firm. A sign proudly announces De Laval Cream Separators, and machinery lines the sidewalk.11 / 11

WILLMAR — Despite being a town for almost 150 years, there has never been an official book detailing the town of Willmar. Our local history, preserved at the Kandiyohi County's Historical Society and the Willmar Public Library and in the family photo albums, has never been compiled into one accessible volume for people to learn about Willmar.

That is, until now.

"Willmar: Images of America" is a book recently published by Jason Grabinger that takes readers through the history of Willmar, from its humble beginnings as a home to Native Americans — along with one Swedish settler — to the town it is today. The book also demonstrates how Willmar, a town not often known outside the state of Minnesota, represents the evolution of America as a whole, transitioning from small settler societies of immigrants to the bustling towns and cities of today.

Although Grabinger is new to the area, his passion for Willmar resembles that of a longtime resident.

"The smaller community, very close-knit, and tradition and different stories, all of that represents Willmar. It's such a neat town, different from anywhere else I've lived," he said.

Originally from Jamestown, North Dakota, Grabinger and his family moved to Willmar after his wife accepted a job at Northern Radiator. Since the move, he has been enamored with the town and its unique history.

"We moved to Willmar about two years ago and when I got here one the first things I did was start researching the history of the town. And it just kind of morphed in this idea of 'Hey, why don't I write something?'" Grabinger said. "The little snippets of stories and the pictures that I was running into were just so unique and interesting that I was inspired."

The project took about 10 months from start to finish, including the intensive research, writing, editing and, finally, publication.

With four kids at home and a full-time job, Grabinger pieced the book together over late nights and any other spare time he could find. And those evening hours were often spent matching pictures with little to no details to more developed stories.

"There were some pictures that I found at the historical society that didn't really have any explanation but they were such great pictures that I would have to go look to see if I could find them, you know, to try and determine what the time was and what was happening in those pictures," he explained, giving credit to a number of local historians including Jill Wohnoutka and Bob Larson at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.

"Jill and Bob went through to help me to fact check and make sure all my information was accurate, and they caught a few things that could have been embarrassing, so I was very glad to have them," Grabinger said with a laugh.

As a history buff and an articulate writer, Grabinger felt his book was the perfect opportunity to combine both of his passions. And with the proud and rich history Willmar has, it was a challenge to distill the town's past into a 128-page book.

"The most difficult portion was deciding what to put in it. I had so much more that I would have loved to have included, but just for space reasons I had to pick and choose," he said, "and even the stories, some of the pictures especially or some of the people in the pictures, I could write chapters on. To narrow those stories down into one little caption was the hardest part."

Yet in time, Grabinger managed to do just that, capturing the essence of this Minnesota town in eight chapters: Willmar Begins, Willmar Works, Willmar PLays, Willmar Serves, Willmar Prays, Willmar Learns, Willmar Survives and Willmar Looks Ahead.

"Willmar: Images of America" unveils a detailed history of a rural Midwestern town, founded by immigrants and built upon their strength and tenacity. Through grasshopper plagues, the Great Depression, multiple wars, tornadoes, fires and numerous other adversities, Willmar has held on, steady in the hands of the people who call it home.

Grabinger believes people should understand the background of their town for two reasons.

"I think it's important to know your history, especially in the place you live. The first reason is that you can learn from past experiences. Also I hope that it builds some pride in people that weren't there because I hope that they can see just what a gem Willmar is and that they would be inspired to continue the tradition of making this a great place to live."