It was cool in summer and warm in winter. But not much else sounds comfortable about the dirt-lined, 10-by-10-foot dugout where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived with her parents and two sisters from 1874 to 1876, a period she describes in "On the Banks of Plum Creek," one of her classic "Little House" books. The eight-building museum includes a re-creation of the dugout, passages in Ingalls' handwriting, quilts she owned, buildings from the era and TV show memorabilia. Stars of the show visit from time to time (Alison Arngrim , who starred as Nellie Oleson, will be there July 20 to 22), said collections manager Nicole Elzenga. "We have to explain that there's the book Laura, the TV Laura and the real Laura."
Though Minnesota's memory of it has faded, the Hinckley fire of 1894 "was an international event," said curator Sandy Hinds, that appeared on the front page of the London Times five days in a row. A drought, and a ground covered with logging debris, teamed to create a tornado-swift firestorm that could be seen from central Wisconsin. Hundreds were found dead right away, but bodies turned up for years. "I love to have people here so I can tell the stories," Hinds said, such as that of heroic train engineer James Root, who backed his train out of Hinckley in time to save hundreds of passengers, even as the train's windows exploded from the heat, piercing him with glass shards, and his hand stuck to the blazing throttle.
A Swedish immigrant family built the castle-like mansion in 1908 and donated it to the community just 21 years later as a museum and cultural center. Today, it's a place to explore Swedish and Nordic arts and culture, and to learn about the role of Swedish and other immigrants in Minnesota's history. The collection includes archives with books, photos, and recordings -- many in Swedish -- and Swedish glass, textiles and artworks. Current exhibits focus on textiles and furnishings designed by Josef Frank, and Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking. The grand opening of a long-planned addition to the institute, the Carl and Leslie Nelson Cultural Center, is scheduled for June 30. The addition will increase space for cultural and community programming.
"Gammelgården" is Swedish for old, small farm. The museum preserves a handful of log buildings from the mid-19th century to tell about the immigrants who swapped harsh lives in Sweden for lives that were only slightly less harsh in Minnesota. Noting that a home measuring just 10 by 12 feet might house several generations, museum director Lynne Blomstrand Moratzka explained that these early Swedes "weren't used to the concept of privacy" that we take for granted. Nor our materialism, judging from what they brought -- a few tools, a change of clothing, seeds and a Bible -- to settle in a state composed mostly of small villages and a lot of undeveloped space. "When they came here there wasn't anything else," Moratzka said. "We owe them a great deal of respect."
The museum and its restored 93-year-old trading post depict the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's history and culture. Life-size dioramas portray the Indians living in accordance with the seasons: gathering maple sap, fishing and picking berries, harvesting wild rice. The mannequins were molded in the 1960s from actual band members. Exhibits and programs explore a culture that continues today in music, dance, cooking, crafts and language. Fishing rights and sovereignty issues are also examined. "People who come to the museum might come in with very limited knowledge or a neutral stance will come out of there saying, 'Wow, I really support the rights of Indians to fish,'" said site manager Travis Zimmerman.