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Ode to Joy: Becker County Historical Society honors rural Ponsford man with first-ever 'Community Historian' Award

BECKER COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY PRESIDENT Ann Shroyer, right, formally presented Wilbur Joy with the Community HIstorian Award at the society's annual meeting in October.

When it comes to the history of Becker County, there are few who know more about it than rural Ponsford resident Wilbur Joy.

So it was only fitting that the Becker County Historical Society would bestow him with its newest honor, the Community Historian Award, at its 2011 annual dinner.

A Detroit Lakes native who grew up on the shores of Lake Sallie, Joy has been fascinated with local history since his early days as a 4-H member attending the county fair.

It was there that he met Otto Zeck, who was in charge of running the conservation building -- one of Joy's favorite places to hang out at the fair.

"He used to bring in arrowheads, stone hammers, other artifacts that he would find -- that started a lifelong friendship," Joy said.

"He spent many holidays with our family."

Joy also found a host of Civil War-era family mementos in his grandmother's attic -- "mostly documents like commissions, discharge papers, commendations," from his ancestors' service in the war.

"My great grandfather, Silas Joy, was a (Civil War) veteran, and two of his sons, Samuel and Emery, were as well," said Joy.

In fact, it was the Civil War that brought Joy's family to Becker County -- at that time, many soldiers received some of their service pay in the form of land, which was known as "soldiers homesteads" or "bounty land," Joy noted.

"At one time, there were 364 Civil War veterans living in Becker County," he added.

In fact, said BCHS executive director Amy Degerstrom, "Wilbur has a display about it at the museum."

Joy has been a member of the Historical Society since 1945, when he was still in high school.

"The county board provided space for the Historical Society in the basement of the courthouse -- that was our first museum," Joy recalled.

The organization moved to its current location at 714 Summit Ave. in 1989, after purchasing the building where the Assemblies of God church had been located there.

"I worked long and hard to get us out of the basement," Joy said with a smile.

The Historical Society had originally made plans to move into the former Holmes School building next door to the church, and to have the facility placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Then, on Sept. 20, 1980, fire ravaged the building and rendered it virtually uninhabitable (though the theater portion of the building was preserved and eventually restored, to become the Historic Holmes Theatre).

Though he moved away from Detroit Lakes and lived in several different places during his tenure with what would eventually become the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"I grew up at the fish hatchery (on Lake Sallie) -- my dad was the manager there," he said. "I got into working with the state fisheries before I was even out of school. When I graduated, I just continued right on with them.

"Besides Detroit Lakes, I lived in several other places in the state -- Waterville, Brainerd, Bemidji, Duluth," Joy said. "I was with them for 25 years."

Eventually, his job brought him back to Detroit Lakes. When he left the DNR, Joy said, he spent a couple of years with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before retiring.

"I live on Many Point Lake," he said. "It's what kept me coming back here all those years -- it's such a beautiful area."

Through all those years, however, Joy remained a member of the Becker County Historical Society, and while long since retired -- "very much so," Joy said -- he volunteers with the organization as much as he can.

"We call Wilbur a lot -- he's a good memory (source) for us," said Degerstrom.

"I felt great about getting this (Community Historian) award," Joy said. "But I have to share it with others who did so much over the years.

"Otto Zeck was a remarkable man -- the greatest historian this part of the county ever had."

Joy also said he would like to honor the contributions of Walter Bird, Herb Colmer, George Peoples, Louise Weston, Alton Stearns and Frank and Hildred Long, among others.

"I would like to share this award with them," Joy said.

He also thanked BCHS Board President Ann Shroyer and the rest of the Historical Society board for honoring him.

According to Degerstrom, the Community Historian Award was started this year by the Historical Society's board of directors, as a means of honoring those local residents "who help keep our history alive."

"We wanted to start a new tradition of honoring one of these people each year. Without them, we wouldn't have the variety of resources and artifacts available to this museum that we have today."

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.

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