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Exhibits are always changing at the museum

The Becker County Museum is hosting a traveling, interactive exhibit in April and May called Storyland. Photo by Brian Basham

Besides the public library, another historical location and resource in town is the Becker County Historical Society.

The Historical Society Museum, located at 714 Summit Ave. in Detroit Lakes (next door to the community center) contains the Walter D. Bird Memorial Library  — filled with many archived files, newspaper clippings, photos and more.

The Historical Society can offer history on townships, churches, cemeteries — compete with a cemetery database online — and plat maps.

The public is welcome to come research on their own, or the society employees can do searches for a fee. The Heart O’Lakes Genealogical Society is also a tool for finding family history.

At its website,, visitors can do a search of historical photographs contained in the museum’s database. The website also contains information on the Historical Society’s board of trustees, calendar of events, research fee schedule and more.

The Historical Society building itself houses a museum with periodically changing exhibits, along with a gift shop and a meeting room.

Under the leadership of director Amy Degerstrom, who started with the museum in 2010, the facility has gone through many improvements in the past couple of years.

One of the biggest was the completion of the Marty Rislund Traveling Exhibit Gallery, so named for a Historical Society volunteer who contributed many hours toward the project.

“He’s 83 years old — and he did a lot of the demolition and construction work himself,” Degerstrom said. “I think that’s pretty awesome. He’s been an excellent volunteer for us.”

Since opening last year, the new 400 square foot gallery has been used to house traveling exhibits from the Minnesota Historical Society, Minnesota Children’s Museum and Minnesota Humanities Center, National Museum of the American Indian and Minnesota’s Historic Northwest, to name a few.

“Having these exhibits here also allows us to feature things in our permanent collection that we wouldn’t get to otherwise,” Degerstrom said, adding that the traveling exhibits also “draw out stories from people in the community that our permanent exhibits might not spark.”

The gallery is housed in an area that used to contain what Degerstrom called “a water feature,” but it was shut down a few years ago because it caused mold.

“When I started two and a half years ago, it was just an empty space,” she said. “We used it for overflow storage. It was an odd space — it wasn’t that useful.”

What the museum lacked, however, was “a nice, big, open space for traveling exhibits, speakers, meetings and programs like our Brown Bag Lunch series,” Degerstrom said. “So many of the exhibits here are permanent, and not very movable.”

To make the space usable again, Degerstrom applied for, and received, a Minnesota Beautiful grant from Valspar, which supplied about 10 gallons of paint for the venture.

“Then I talked with the staff and volunteers about a plan to make it happen, and I talked to the city to make sure we didn’t need a permit,” said Degerstrom. “Then we just started ripping it part.”

Malstrom Electric helped by moving some  wiring that had been located underneath the flooring, which was ripped out, and Laney’s came and removed the plumbing that had been used for the water feature, as well as for steam heating.

With those exceptions, however, “almost all the work was done through volunteers, and donations,” Degerstrom said.

“We managed to get a large, beautiful, usable space for less than $1,000,” she added. “We use it for our Brown Bag Lunch series, which is every second Wednesday of the month at noon.”

The rest of the natural history exhibit area was renovated through donations as well — including $500 from the family of Jerry Sevada, a former Becker County DNR official.

With that donation, the museum staff added a large photo mural on one wall, depicting a deciduous forest, and an informational display about the county’s three natural biomes.

“We cleaned the taxidermy mounts, added foliage, labels, had some new stands built, and we used the rest of the Valspar paint on the walls,” she said. “We finished that in May 2011, and the exhibit gallery was finished in September 2012.”

Besides the Brown Bag Lunch Series — which was launched as an adjunct of the 2011 traveling exhibit, “Why Treaties Matter,” and continued by public request — the museum has also added one new activity, and continued an old one.

“We started a Museum Day celebration in May 2011, and we still have a Kids Day every Thursday in August,” said Degerstrom.

The third annual Museum Day is set for Sunday, May 5 from 12 to 4 p.m., and will include such kid and family-friendly activities as face painting, cookie decorating and horse and buggy rides.

Last year, the museum also held its first formal fundraiser, “Keeping History Alive,” which had its second annual incarnation in March.

Proceeds from the 2012 event went toward new traveling exhibit cases that can be used for portable displays, “so people living far from our county museum can get a glimpse at a little bit of our history.”

The 2013 fundraiser proceeds will be used to expand the museum’s outreach programming in area schools, by revisiting the old “History in a Trunk” program.

“These are self-contained lessons that teachers can either check out, or we can come and present them in their classrooms on request,” said Degerstrom. “These lessons are focused on early Becker County pioneer history, Native American history and the World War II homefront. And for our younger students, we have one about genealogy and learning your place in history.

“The remainder of the funding will be used to make podcasts available on our website for teachers to use in relation to their (classroom) history lessons. The podcasts will draw on local stories.”

Other future museum projects will include:

  • Digitizing the museum’s collection of over 14,000 photos.
  • Purchasing archival supplies for preserving historical objects “in a way that allows the objects to survive for many generations.” “We have about 18,000 artifacts in all,” Degerstrom said.
  • A larger facility.

“We have a 10,000-square-foot building, and we have about 15,000 square feet of artifacts,” said Degerstrom. “We’ve outgrown this building, so that’s something that’s on the horizon.”

For more information about the Becker County Historical Society and Museum, call 218-847-2938, visit the website at, or stop by during regular museum hours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday (the museum is closed on Saturdays during the winter months).

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454