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A traveling exhibit on rural electrification is coming to the Becker County Museum. Submitted Photo

The history of electric power in Minnesota

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Though the city of Detroit Lakes established its first steam-powered electric plant in 1891, many families living in rural Becker County didn't have electricity until the mid-1950s.

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This is just one example of the discrepancy in power availability that existed between rural and municipal areas of Minnesota when the state first became "electrified" in the late 1800s, said Amy Degerstrom, director of the Becker County Historical Society Museum in Detroit Lakes.

"What many people don't realize is that in order to be part of the Rural Electric Association (REA), farmers and other rural residents had to pay to bring the electrical lines to their own homes," Degerstrom said.

Many farmers simply weren't in a financial position to do so when the REA was first established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934, she added.

"Companies like Wild Rice and Otter Tail Power would come in and put their power lines down the road past your home, but you had to pay to bring it onto your farmstead," Degerstrom said. "For some families, that took a long time (to afford)."

The REA and what it meant to rural areas of the state will be the focus of a new Minnesota Historical Society traveling exhibit, "Electrifying Minnesota," which opens at the Becker County Museum this Sunday, Dec. 16 with a special opening reception starting at 1 p.m.

As part of bringing the traveling exhibit to Detroit Lakes, Degerstrom said, the local museum had to agree to include a local exhibit with a similar theme that would run concurrently with "Electrifying Minnesota."

That local exhibit will allow museum visitors "to see the evolution of electricity in Becker County, from lights to household appliances to business equipment."

"If there is anybody in the area who remembers when the lights first came on (at their homes), we would love to hear from them so we can include their stories in the exhibit," Degerstrom said.

For instance, there are still many in the area who remember Christmas 1947, when the local power company had finished running utility lines through central Becker County just before Christmas.

Many families had decorated their Christmas trees with both candles and electric lights, because "no one knew when the power was going to be turned on," Degerstrom said.

As it turned out, the switch was flipped on Christmas Eve.

"I've heard stories about how magical that Christmas was, because of how everyone's trees lit up all of a sudden," Degerstrom said.

The Dec. 16 open house runs from 1 to 3 p.m., and will include refreshments as well as an opportunity to be among the first local residents to view the traveling exhibit.

"The MHS exhibit includes panels with information provided in both text and pictures, as well as an interactive element," Degerstrom said. "You can push a button (on a map of the state) to see how electric power progressed through Minnesota."

Though there are still quite a few area residents who remember what life was like before the age of electricity, for most people, electric power is something that is taken for granted.

"We are so tied to electricity and its power," Degerstrom said. "It's something that's just an everyday thing in our lives."

This exhibit should prove to be an eye-opener for many who never realized "what an effort it took to get electricity here," she added. "Today it's something that we just assume will always be there when we need it."

Holiday open house

Four days before the "Electrifying Minnesota" exhibit opening, on Wednesday, Dec. 12, the Becker County Museum will host its annual holiday open house from 12 to 2 p.m.

The open house takes the place of the museum's monthly "Brown Bag Lunch" series, though with slightly extended hours.

There will be no formal program, but people are invited to bring their own lunch -- or reserve a boxed lunch for $5 (call 218-847-2938 by 10 a.m. on the 12th) -- and come enjoy live piano music, holiday treats and beverages, and an opportunity to view the museum's holiday decorations, which are extensive, Degerstrom said.

"Our little elves have been pretty busy," she joked.

"This museum is (decorated like) a giant house, so come see all our lights and Christmas trees, and the hats on all the animals," Degerstrom said, explaining that the various taxidermy displays are all liberally festooned with Santa hats.

"You can also learn more about the history of Christmas and Santa Claus," she added. "It's all very informal -- you can come check out the exhibits, and ask questions -- our staff will be there to answer.

"It'll help get you in the mood for the holidays, and you can even do a little Christmas shopping at the museum gift shop. We have quite a few new books, and some new jewelry as well.

The Becker County Museum is located at 714 Summit Ave. in Detroit Lakes (just across the parking lot from the community center). For more information, call 218-847-2938 or visit the website, beckercountyhistory.org.

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