Kandiyohi County Historical Society celebrating 125 years of telling the county's story
One hundred and twenty-five years ago, a group of men from Kandiyohi County decided the time was right to commemorate the county's pioneers. Thus, the Old Settlers Association was born. Today, the Kandiyohi County Historical Society continues that tradition by preserving and protecting the county's vast and varied history. On Aug. 20, an anniversary celebration will be held at the Kandiyohi County Fairgrounds to mark the society's important birthday.
WILLMAR — Kandiyohi County has been around, in its present-day configuration, for nearly 152 years. For 125 of those, the Kandiyohi County Historical Society — or the Old Settlers Association as it was first known — has made sure the county's history isn't lost to time.
"Preservation is our job. Without preservation, we can't tell the story," said Jill Wohnoutka, executive director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.
To mark the historical society's anniversary, a celebration with a Civil War camp, music, food and a pie auction is being held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20, at the Kandiyohi County Fairgrounds in Willmar.
"That is where our first physical museum was located," Wohnoutka said. "In the pioneer cabin, the big cabin on the fairgrounds."
The Kandiyohi County Historical Society got its start back in 1897, when a group of men decided the time was right to celebrate the county's founding families. They held an event at Diamond Lake to commemorate the 40th anniversary of European settlement in Kandiyohi County. After the success of that day-long party, the decision was made to make it a yearly occurrence, and thus the Old Settlers Association was officially established.
The association also worked to publish a history of the county and mark significant historical sites across the county. The association's historical markers are still visible, with about 40 scattered across the county.
Wohnoutka said about half are connected to the U.S.-Dakota War, while the remaining 20 are of other important sites, such as the Kandiyohi County Courthouse. The history book, titled "The Illustrated History of Kandiyohi County," was published in 1905 and today is a rare find. An online version of the book can be found on the Minnesota Digital Library website.
"It was just awesome ... and big," Wohnoutka said as she paged through one of the copies the historical society has. "There were 1,500 made, and we never did a reprint."
In 1940, the Old Settlers Association officially became the Kandiyohi County Historical Society and it moved into the log cabin on the fairgrounds, which was built by the association in 1927. The society started exhibiting artifacts, and eventually membership to the society was open to everyone, not just descendants of the old settlers or those who lived in the county.
The fairgrounds remained home until 1969, when the Kandiyohi County Historical Society moved to its present-day home at 610 Highway 71 N.E.
The grounds of the historical society are county history lessons all on their own.
First, there is the train engine, which came to the society in 1965, showcasing how important the railroad was and is to Kandiyohi County. The railroad depot building arrived in 1967 and it was incorporated into the construction of the main museum building, completed in 1969. The schoolhouse was moved to the grounds in 1970, followed by the log cabin in 1971. More recent additions were the windmill and the Kaffee Fest pot, which was installed in 2020.
Then there is the Sperry House, which was built in 1893, four years before the establishment of the Old Settlers Association. The house's original owner, Albert Sperry, was a charter member of the association and his sons Ray and Bryan were also involved in the historical society.
When Bryan Sperry, the youngest of the Sperry children, died in 1970, he bequeathed the house to the society.
"The Sperrys have been very involved in our organization," Wohnoutka said.
The focus on Kandiyohi County history continues inside the main museum building, with exhibits covering everything from transportation and railroad history, Native Americans, the West Central Baseball Hall of Fame and Lost Willmar, which looks at historic buildings no longer standing. Another exhibit shares the story of the Willmar 8, the Citizens National Bank female employees who went on strike in 1977 over charges of sex discrimination.
Wohnoutka said KCHS staff also tries to put together new exhibits on a rotating basis, to keep the museum fresh for visitors.
Currently the exhibit on the county's 150th anniversary is still on display, with a new exhibit coming this winter. The museum building also has a small research wing, a community room and the newly constructed genealogical research library.
The community has long been a supporter of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society. When, in 1997, a heavy snow caused the museum roof to collapse, the public came to the rescue, raising money for the remodel. Donations also helped with the construction of the community room and the new research library. The city of Willmar helped pay for the rehabilitation of the Sperry House in the early 2000s and the county annually provides funding.
"The community stepped up," Wohnoutka said.
The Kandiyohi County Historical Society community can also show its support by attending the Aug. 20 celebration of the society's 125th anniversary. There will be plenty of historic fun, including a Civil War encampment led by the 2nd Minnesota Battery Light Artillery. There will be several tents set up covering different aspects of life in a war camp, along with a women's area and an apothecary tent. There will also be gun drill at 11 a.m.,1 p.m. and 3 p.m., when the re-enactors shoot off a cannon.
"People can mingle about and learn about life in the Civil War," Wohnoutka said.
Kids will enjoy the carnival games; there will be music and displays covering the last 125 years of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.
There will also be food — including pork chops on a stick and root beer floats. And those with a sweet tooth need not fear. One of the special events will be the Pie Silent Auction, a fundraiser for the historical society. Three times during the day, pies will be awarded to the highest bidders. All funds will go to the society.
Wohnoutka said the society is looking for pies, and they can be dropped off at the society on Aug. 19 or at the fairgrounds in the morning of Aug. 20.
"This is where we are asking the community to help contribute," Wohnoutka said. "You can either make a pie, buy a pie or come bid on a pie."
All that the Kandiyohi County Historical Society does — from the museum exhibits to events such as the 125th celebration — are part of its mission to preserve and protect the county's history from before its start in 1857 to its future.
"We are holding on to their history so when they need it, we can find it for them," Wohnoutka said. "I'm a true believer if you don't know where you come from, you won't know where you are going."