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A state of success: The innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs of northwest Minnesota

The innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs traveling exhibit is showcased in the Becker County Museum from now until Feb. 16, when it will then leave and be displayed in various other museums throughout northwest Minnesota. The next traveling display from Minnesota’s Historic Northwest will be about the fur trade and Ox Cart Trail. DETROIT LAKES NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham1 / 4
Innovators, Inventors and entrepreneurs from throughout northwest Minnesota have helped build the state to what it is today. Some of those people include, Mark Fritz and Mike Hutchinson of Becker County. DETROIT LAKES NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham2 / 4
Innovators, Inventors and entrepreneurs from throughout northwest Minnesota have helped build the state to what it is today. Including Francis Keahna of Mahnomen County. DETROIT LAKES NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham3 / 4
Innovators, Inventors and entrepreneurs from throughout northwest Minnesota have helped build the state to what it is today. Including Widmans Candy Shop of Polk County. DETROIT LAKES NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham4 / 4

The Becker County Museum has gotten traveling displays from some well-known sources in the past couple years. Now, staff is helping create local displays — along with a consortium of other rural Minnesota museums — to not only bring new information to Becker County, but to share this county’s stories with other parts of the state. Minnesota’s  Historical Northwest’s newest traveling display, Innovators, Inventors and Entrepreneurs, is at the Becker County Museum through Feb. 16. It features local entrepreneurs Mark Fritz and Mike Hutchinson with Lakeshirts. If it weren’t for the innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs of rural Minnesota, the state wouldn’t be what it is today.    

Organization of museums

In about 1996, “a group in the furthest northwest counties decided to hold workshops because they were so far removed from the state historical society,” Becker County Museum Director Amy Degerstrom said. So seven county museums got together and held workshops on general topics that would benefit them as rural museums, like organization, collections care, internal projects, best practices, etc. After a few years, they officially formed a non-profit and hold quarterly meetings. Several more counties have joined the group to equal 13 counties and 15 sites. (A couple counties have two museum sites.) Locations include Becker County Museum in Detroit Lakes, Beltrami County History Center in Bemidji, Clearwater County Museum in Shevlin, Kittson County Museum in Lake Bronson, Lake of the Woods County Museum in Baudette, Marshall County Museum in Warren, Mahnomen County Museum in Mahnomen, Norman County Museum in Ada and Shelly, Pennington County Historical Society in Thief River Falls, Polk County Museum in Crookston, East Polk Heritage Center in Fosston, McIntosh Heritage and Arts Center in McIntosh, Red Lake County Historical Sites in Plummer and Oklee, and  Roseau County Museum in Roseau. “We are geographically apart, so this gives us a chance to have a community of support,” Degerstrom said of joining the non-profit consortium. Once a larger group, they started applying for more grants that could be split between the counties. They worked to get supplies, exhibit hardware, light fixtures, etc., and they also have a mutual advertising campaign in travel magazines, encouraging people to stop in at the various museums in northwestern Minnesota. Degerstrom said that with that large of a group, there’s always someone who has dealt with any questions or situations that may arise. Those running the museums take on a wide range of ages and experiences, as well. “It’s a good networking group as well,” she added. “And our voice is louder as a group.” The museums can share collection items amongst themselves if needed. “It makes your collection that much bigger and makes your resources that much bigger. “It used to be a grassroots type of thing. Over the years, it’s gotten more organized even though it’s still (grassroots),” she said.

Traveling displays

“Every year we try to make a traveling exhibit,” Degerstrom said. Last year was about faith and revolved around churches in the 13 counties. This time around, it’s Innovators, Inventors and Entrepreneurs. Next year, it will be the fur trade and Ox Cart Trail. The displays started a few years ago during the Minnesota Sesquicentennial celebration, and the group wanted to have a traveling display that would “feature our little corner of Minnesota.” The next couple displays were granted through Legacy dollars. Degerstrom said that not only do the exhibits give the museums a chance to share their history with others, it also provides a piece of equipment the museum gets to keep after the display is over. For instance, with the next project, each museum will get a display case for their fur trade and Ox Cart Trail pieces and then will be able to keep the display case after it’s done. When Minnesota’s Historic Northwest group brainstormed ideas for broad topics that each county could showcase, Inventors, Innovators and Entrepreneurs was an easy one for each county. “We wanted to broaden the perspective because there are a lot of meaningful, useful things that came from our neck of the woods,” Degerstrom said. Some of the examples include Don and Bea Ricke of Clearwater County and Team Industries. Others include Mattracks out of Kittson County, Andy Wells of Wells Technology out of Beltrami County and Coya Knutson, Minnesota’s first congresswoman and the person who created student loans, out of Red Lake County. Degerstrom chose Mark Fritz and Mike Hutchinson of Lakeshirts for Becker County’s feature. She said she had a couple entrepreneurs in mind, but she was impressed with the two friends going from the basement of Fritz’s parents’ house to the 275,000-square-foot operation they have now. She said those who live in Detroit Lakes see Lakeshirts and the growth on an everyday basis so it’s taken for granted just how successful of entrepreneurs they have become — and how philanthropic they are to the town that helped them become the business owners they are today. “I just love their story, and it’s a good story,” she said. “That’s what makes history interesting.” She said it’s the entrepreneur spirit in stories like theirs that makes people want to become entrepreneurs themselves. Same could be said for all those featured in the Innovators, Inventors and Entrepreneurs display. “They made me think of the generations before them,” she said of the Lakeshirts entrepreneurs. Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.