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80 years in the making: Renville County's history told one artifact at a time

The Renville County Historical Society, established in 1940, has been collecting, cataloguing and sharing its county and cities' history for 80 years. It is a county rich with history, and the society's museum illustrates that with exhibits ranging from the area's geology, military history and the day-to-day lives of its residents both past and present.

Exhibit at Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
The Renville County Historical Society tells the county's stories through a wide array of artifacts, displayed here at the society's museum in Morton on April 4, 2022.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
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MORTON — The majority of visitors to the Renville County Historical Society, hidden away in Morton near the Minnesota River, are usually there for three reasons — family history, the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 and Morton Gneiss. There are also those who just stumble upon the museum on their travels, making a short detour to learn a bit about an area of Minnesota with a rich past.

"The history and culture we have here is huge," said Nicole Elzenga, executive director of the society. "We are very diverse in our county, an interesting history."

Nicole Elzenga at Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
Nicole Elzenga, photographed April 4, 2022, at the Renville County Historical Society Museum in Morton, has served as the executive director of the Renville County Historical Society for seven years.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Elzenga knows the society and its museum, established in 1940, are well-hidden at 441 North Park Drive, but that hasn't stopped her and its board of directors from continuing to pursue its mission.

"Our mission is to preserve, disseminate and collect the history of Renville County," Elzenga said. "We preserve the history of Renville County from yesterday to tomorrow."

RCHS tells the county's history through its buildings, pictures, artifacts, research and exhibits. The society also doesn't just focus on the "big stories" such as the war or rocks. It puts as much effort, if not more, in what happened across the various school districts and churches and the stories of the many families that built the county. Something as simple as a coffee mug commemorating a church's anniversary, or a brick from a torn-down building, can help tell many interesting and important stories. That is why RCHS does what it does.

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"So people know these churches were here even though they were torn down years ago. These are stories that should be remembered," Elzenga said. "It's important to have it so people can look back on their history."

School Houses Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
These two school houses on the grounds of the Renville County Historical Society, as seen April 4, 2022, were the original museum buildings.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

If walls could talk

Formed out of the Old Settlers organization, RCHS first displayed exhibits in the courthouse in Olivia before World War II put a pause on the group's activities. Following the war, the historical society was able to create a organization to represent the county's past.

"They kind of kept growing," Elzenga said.

The museum grounds are made up of several buildings, some with interesting stories of their own.

There are the two school houses from Norfolk Township, which were the society's first permanent home and still used today. They were joined over the decades by the Lerud Log Cabin, built in the 1860s in Sacred Heart Township; the Machine Shed, built to house a lot of the museum's agriculture and business exhibits; and the Heritage Building, constructed over the Lerud Cabin to protect it and add space for exhibits.

Main Museum Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
The main museum building at the Renville County Historical Society, photographed April 4, 2022, was built in 1988-1989, though the cornerstone says 1988. Today, it is also where most of the artifact cataloging is done.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The main museum building, with its stone mural of Minnesota, was built in 1989, Elzenga said, despite what the 1988 cornerstone says. The building provided the society not only expanded exhibit space, but also a place for board meetings and shelf space for the expanding family history library.

Today, it is also where most of the artifact cataloging is done, which takes up quite a bit of space all on its own.

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Church at Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
The building pictured here has a complicated past, and a more complicated name: The 1891 Beaver Falls Christ Episcopal Church / 1909 Olivia St. John's Episcopal Church. The church was first located in Beaver Falls, then moved to Olivia and then finally landed in Morton, on the grounds of the Renville County Historical Society, where it remains.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The 1891 Beaver Falls Christ Episcopal Church / 1909 Olivia St. John's Episcopal Church is rather mobile for a building without wheels or an engine. From about 1909 to the late 1990s, it moved from Beaver Falls to Olivia to Morton.

It was first moved in the early 1900s, when its congregation in Beaver Falls followed the county seat to Olivia and wanted their church to come with them. The church's final move, to Morton, was caused by the construction of the present-day Olivia Public Library, on whose site the church had been sitting for decades.

RCHS took over the church's care, and it is now one of the jewels of the society.

"It took six months to get to Olivia," back in the early days, Elzenga said. "It took two hours to get downhill to here."

US Dakota War Exhibit at Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
The Renville County Historical Society does have artifacts on the U.S. Dakota War and Morton Gniess, as seen in this April 4, 2022, photo, but also likes to focus on the lesser-known history of the county.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

History in objects

Inside these buildings are both static displays — which are always available for viewing — and also rotating exhibits, giving the museum a fresh look at least once a year.

For the past several years, the society has focused on one of the 10 cities within the county, creating an in-depth exhibit about each of the cities' history. This year, it is the city of Renville's turn in the spotlight, including a display at the Renville County Fair.

Elzenga has also been saying "I do" to certain gowns over the last several months, working on a special fashion exhibit of wedding dresses from the late 1800s to 2020.

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Wedding Dress Exhibit at Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
One of the new exhibits in progress at the Renville County Historical Society is one on wedding dresses across the decades. Some of the dresses pictured in this April 4, 2022, photo are from the late 1800s. Others are as recent as 2020.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

The museum usually has exhibits on display about the Morton Gniess rock, the county's military history and its pioneer history. It also has some artifacts and information about the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, though Elzenga said she usually makes sure to point visitors in the direction of the battle fields, monuments and the Lower Sioux for a more in-person experience with the war. She feels visitors will get more out of standing on the battlefields then just reading a small description on a cannon ball in the museum.

"I am a hands-on history person. I don't think you can learn history by just reading about it," Elzenga said.

Pile of donations at Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
The Renville County Historical Society receives donations from the public on a weekly basis. Cataloging them all is a bit of a job, according to RCHS Executive Director Nicole Elzenga.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

RCHS is always open to, and actually encourages, public donations to the museum, something that happens usually a few times a week. One never knows what will be found in those boxes full of stuff, usually uncovered when cleaning out homes.

It is also important that RCHS receives information and items from events happening today, so they are available for future generations.

"A cow bell was one of our first donations," back when the society was first formed, Elzenga said.

Probably one of the most unique items in the society's collection is a 1900 petition, looking for support to move the county seat from Beaver Falls to Olivia. While there looks to have been enough signers to support the idea, Elzenga said the petition may not have been done properly, and before the petition was taken a group of residents had already taken it upon themselves to clandestinely move the official documents to Olivia. The move eventually stuck in 1901, after votes and even a court battles which reached the state Supreme Court.

"It is a great story," Elzenga said, who hopes to one day digitize the document so visitors with a connection to the area can look up ancestors.

County Seat Petition Exhibit at Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
This April 4, 20220, photo shows a 1900s-era petition regarding moving the Renville County seat from Beaver Falls to Olivia, now on display at the Renville County Historical Society in Morton.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Into the future

While it focuses on the past, RCHS has plans for both the present and the future.

In the short term, the society plans to install a large fan in the Heritage Building for improved air circulation; sand blast and paint the Morton jail cell and move it into the Machine Shed; and improve the flag pole area in front of the school houses by adding flowers, lighting and a few benches. There could also be new paint jobs in store for the main museum building and the red school house.

"Everything always needs a little spruce up," Elzenga said.

A long-term goal is to construct a brand-new museum building, with all the needed ventilation and environmental systems needed to safely display items. The new building would be constructed on the empty lot the society owns, and RCHS would in turn use the current structure for dedicated storage.

Finding a place to catalog items, create exhibits and just store the thousands of artifacts and books is always a challenge, and a new building would help.

Danube Exhibit at Renville County Historical Society April 4 2022.JPG
Pieces of the 2021 city of Danube exhibit at the Renville County Historical Society are on display April 4, 2022. It will be replaced with an exhibit focusing on Renville.
Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Elzenga would also like to improve signage to the museum, as there is very little direction to the complex. While the society has been around for 82 years, every year while manning the fair booth, Elzenga said she meets people who have no idea the museum exists or, if they do, believe it is just for the city of Morton.

"Here, we are a secret," Elzenga said.

Despite the challenges of running a successful county historical society, especially over the last few years with pandemic closures and event cancellations, Elzenga believes the work is worth it and important.

"We are preserving the history of the whole county; that is my key goal," Elzenga said. "It is a lot of fun, a lot of different stories."

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 slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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