Minnesota Trail: 20 places to learn about our state's history

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2014 - 12:47 PM

These 20 Minnesota museums offer 20 essential lessons on our state's history.

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1. Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. Two large-scale attractions celebrate the Moorhead region’s Norwegian roots. The Hjemkomst, a replica Viking ship, was built by a local guidance counselor in the 1970s. The Hopperstad Stave church, completed in 1998, is a full-scale copy of a 12th-century timber-framed church in Vik, Norway. Head indoors for gallery exhibits on contemporary quilting, watercolors, plus Clay County history during World War II. (202 1st Av. N., Moorhead; 1-218-299-5511; hcscconline.org.)

2. Beltrami County Historical Society. Get an eyeful of downtown Bemidji’s Great Northern Depot, built by James J. Hill in 1912. With marble floors and arched windows, the museum’s building is the main attraction. Noteworthy artifacts include American Indian canoes of varying styles, antique logging tools and a MK23 practice bomb dropped by the U.S. military over Big Bog State Recreation Area in the 1940s or ’50s. (130 Minnesota Av. SW., Bemidji; 1-218-444-3376; beltramihistory.org.)

3. Forest History Center. Step inside a replica 1900 logging camp, complete with horse-drawn sleighs, two-man bucksaws and history actors. “You’ll learn about a typical day in camp,” promised site manager Jeff Johns. “We’ll put you to work finding logs, working with horses or perhaps working in the cook shack.” Bonus: This doubles as an environmental learning center, with 170 acres of wildlife-rich grassland, wetland and forest. (2609 County Road 76, Grand Rapids; 1-218-327-4482; mnhs.org.)

4. Minnesota Discovery Center. Interpretive displays and outdoor exhibits re-create the lives of turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) immigrants who flocked to northern Minnesota for work in the iron mines. Also learn about mining methods, the area’s geology and one of the region’s favorite sons, former Gov. Rudy Perpich. Then hop a trolley to an old mining community on the 660-acre site. (1005 Discovery Drive, Chisholm; 1-218-254-7959; mndiscoverycenter.com.)

5. Bois Forte Heritage Center. Located on the grounds of Fortune Bay Resort and Casino, this museum focuses on the culture and history of the Bois Forte band of Ojibwe. Look for birchbark canoes, murals, paintings, even a traditional wigwam by a local artist. Learn about prayer, treaties, fur trading and Lake Vermilion’s 19th-century Indian boarding school. (1500 Bois Forte Road, Tower; 1-218-753-6017; boisforte.com.)

6. Soudan Underground Mine and State Park. Start the tour by descending via elevator into the state’s oldest iron mine (1882), located a half-mile underground in total darkness. Or buy a ticket to Soudan’s subterranean physics lab. End the tour by exploring the park’s 1,322 acres of rugged parkland in hiking boots, or settling along the shore of Lake Vermilion with a picnic basket. (1302 McKinley Park, Soudan; 1-218-753-2245; dnr.state.mn.us.)

7. Two Harbors Light Station. Built in 1892, this is the state’s oldest operating lighthouse. Now it’s a modest museum with interpretive displays covering the lightkeeper’s life and duties. Climb the stoic red brick tower or book a room at the B & B in the old keeper’s quarters. Tip: Come back after museum hours to catch the beacon’s blue-green glow on Lake Superior. (1 Lighthouse Point, Two Harbors; 1-218-834-4898; lakecountyhistoricalsociety.org.)

8. St. Louis Heritage & Arts Center. This 1892 building (aka the Duluth Depot) serves up a tasting menu of arts, cultural and history organizations, including the well-known Lake Superior Railroad Museum. A lesser-known resident is the St. Louis County Historical Society, with galleries sprinkled throughout the depot. A new Lake Superior Ojibwe Gallery opens in June, featuring paintings by Eastman Johnson, who spent time with the area’s Sioux community in 1856-57. Other galleries feature mining, logging and a re-created 1910 Duluth street scene. (506 Michigan St., Duluth; 1-218-727-8025; duluthdepot.org.)

9. Minnesota Military Museum. Located at Camp Ripley, this independent museum collects memories and artifacts from Minnesota service members. Outdoor exhibits include tanks, aircraft and cannons. Step indoors for “Minnesota’s Two Civil Wars,” about the state’s simultaneous participation in the Civil War and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Artifacts include 200 years of weaponry, old Jeeps and Medals of Honor. (15000 Hwy. 115, Little Falls; 1-320-616-6050; mnmilitarymuseum.org.)

10. Runestone Museum. “If the Runestone was a forgery, it was an awfully clever one,” said museum manager Jim Bergquist. Inspect it for yourself and read the latest translation of the markings on the 200-pound slab, unearthed in 1898 and supposedly the work of medieval Viking explorers. Other highlights include a Viking-themed diorama, replica Viking ship and more mystery — locally unearthed weaponry of uncertain origin, possibly medieval, according to Bergquist. (206 Broadway, Alexandria; 1-320-763-3160; runestonemuseum.org.)

11. Stevens County Historical Society. Located in tiny Morris, this museum lives in the town’s lovely 1905 Andrew Carnegie-funded library. The focus is prairie-related artifacts including clothing, agricultural equipment, books and art. Coming July 10: “Horizontal Grandeur,” an annual juried exhibit of contemporary art exploring the quiet beauty of flat prairie landscapes. (116 W 6th St., Morris; 1-320-589-1719; stevenshistorymuseum.com.)

12. Stearns County History Museum. Located in St. Cloud, a k a Granite City, this museum boasts a showstopping exhibit on granite quarrying. “It’s a two-story exhibit,” explained Marian Rengel, who works with dozens of historical societies for the Minnesota Digital Library. “On the main floor, it’s like you’re down in the quarry with the workers. And from the second story, you feel like you’re in a shed, looking down at the workers.” Be sure to see the Works Progress Administration-era mural depicting a granite quarry. (235 S. 33rd Av., St. Cloud; 1-320-253-8424; stearns-museum.org.)

13. Meeker County Historical Society & GAR Hall. Modeled after a fort when it was built in 1885, this isn’t Minnesota’s only surviving Grand Army of the Republic Hall (see: Mower County Historical Society) — it’s just larger and better looking. Wall-to-wall portraits of Litchfield’s Civil War veterans greet visitors. Other highlights include Civil War medals and weaponry, plus novelties from the 19th century such as Victorian hair art. (308 N. Marshall Av., Litchfield; 1-320-693-8911; garminnesota.org.)

14. Pipestone County Museum. Downtown Pipestone boasts 17 neoclassical buildings constructed from red Sioux quartzite in the late 19th century. One such showpiece is the old Pipestone City Hall, home to this museum since the 1960s. This summer, visit this beautiful building for exhibits on Indian beadwork and the Pipestone National Monument. Or meet at the museum at 8 p.m. Saturdays, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, for a walking ghost tour of downtown. (113 S. Hiawatha, Pipestone; 1-507-825-2563; pipestoneminnesota.com.)

15. Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. This museum is spread over several buildings, designed to illuminate pioneer living and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s experience in Walnut Grove. Look for an 1898 depot, chapel, settler’s home and schoolhouse. Tip: Coordinate your visit with the charming Wilder Pageant, a live, open-air performance (July 11-26) featuring Ma, Pa, Mary, even that mean Nellie Oleson. (330 8th St., Walnut Grove; 1-800-528-7280; walnutgrove.org.)

16. Brown County Historical Society. Don’t miss “Never Shall I Forget,” an exhibit on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and the New Ulm residents who survived it. “The striking thing about that exhibit is the wall of photos,” said David Grabitske, manager of outreach services for the Minnesota Historical Society and an authority on small history museums. “And they’re all kinds of people — young, old, Dakota, German, American. Just a wall of people who participated in those events.” Take a moment to admire the building, New Ulm’s 1910 German Renaissance-style post office. (2 N. Broadway St., New Ulm; 1-507-233-2616; browncountyhistorymn.org.)

17. Treaty Site History Center. The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed nearby in 1851, with Dakota elders selling massive tracts of southern and western Minnesota to the U.S. government. Some chiefs were also tricked into signing a second contract, intended to bilk them of their earnings. The museum tells the story by splitting its main gallery in two. Half the room gives the European-American perspective; the other half features recollections from Dakota elders. (1851 N. Minnesota Av., St. Peter; 1-507-934-2160; nchsmn.org.)

18. Northfield Historical Society. “We have a fully restored bank site that looks exactly like it did on Sept. 7, 1876,” said executive director Hayes Scriven. That was the day Jesse James and his gang tried to rob Northfield’s First National Bank, only to be outfoxed by townspeople and tellers. Now home to the Historical Society, the site focuses on that celebrated event, with artifacts including pistols and a blood-splattered ledger. (408 Division St., Northfield; 1-507-645-9268; northfieldhistory.org.)

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