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Why did we choose Otter Tail County?

Wanted: Rural folks interested in preserving the history of their township.

With Minnesota's 150th year of statehood being celebrated all year long, there is hardly a better time to be thinking about history -- be it in St. Paul or in Norwegian Grove Township, Otter Tail County.

"We'd like to get more people involved. We'd like to see town boards appoint people as historians," said Chris Schuelke, executive director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society. "We had a complete list of township historians at one time, but over the years we've lost a number of them, through attrition or moving away."

The state's 150th is a golden opportunity for local communities to incorporate local history into town celebrations and other events, noted Schuelke.

A new, fascinating photo slide and talk presentation was presented last spring at the Ottertail Community Center.

The presentation is based around the current exhibit at the Fergus Falls-based museum: "Why We Chose Otter Tail County," which was created by Schuelke and staff. The exhibit continues through October 17.

Much of Schuelke's presentation was centered around township pioneers and the immigration patterns from Europe to Minnesota--as well as emigration, with established east coast "Yankees" who went west to Minnesota seeking their fortune.

The museum exhibit features material on all 62 of Otter Tail County's townships.

Township historians a valuable asset for future researchers

To continue to preserve that rural history, township folks need to recruit volunteers, whether they're on or off the town boards, stressed Schuelke.

"We see most of the township residents only once a year--at the annual meeting...Even through we're practically neighbors," said Pat Juvrud, a Leaf Lake Town Board officer.

There were nearly 20 township residents at the Ottertail Township Historian Meeting.

Nearly all of them spoke a few words on "why they chose Otter Tail County."

Jerry Greenwood traced his roots to early loggers in the Rush Lake area.

"They were rich and poor many times," said Greenwood, which was consistent with the pattern of the time--fortunes were won, and lost, very easily. "They would speculate on land, log it, and look for more."

Greenwood recalled one pioneer story of the area, when timberwolves roamed the region. "Wolves howled so loud, it shook the blankets right off the bed where the kids were sleeping," recalled Greenwood.

NY?Mills Finns and Germans collide-- in matrimony

One township resident remarked about the number of German men who married Finnish girls from New York Mills. "We used to say that, drive into New York Mills...and you'll have a carload of young ladies in no time."

Jean Schmidt, whose ancestors were the Fellerers, recalled that her relatives had worked at the beer brewery--which was a stately brick structure east of town. Interestingly, historical society director Schuelke said that Perham's Schroeder brewery once faced a lawsuit from Old Milwaukee--and lost. The Perham brew's slogan at one time was "the beer that made Milwaukee jealous."

Past Dead Lake Town Board member Ernie West's father came to the area in 1932, and bought the "Huck's Haven Resort" on Dead Lake in 1951.

Retirees returning to Otter Tail another historic trend

Those who choose to return to Otter Tail County is another trend future historians will find interesting.

"I was in a graduating class of 100 at Perham High School, and almost half of them have come back here in retirement," said Aloma Gullick, who like many of her Class of 1962 mates left the area for careers and families--but returned to her beloved lake country.

Otter Tail country schools project resulted in book

One of the most significant collaborative projects with the townships is the historical society's book "Rural Schools of Otter Tail County."

"There were 289 rural schools at the height," said Schuelke. Amazingly, historians were able to track down not only the information on those rural schools, but also a photo of virtually every one of the schools.

Schuelke would like to take an approach in capturing the history of resorts and campgrounds. "These are disappearing from our landscape," said Schuelke.

Homesteads, farmsteads, and historic buildings are other topics township historians can pursue.

Immigrants still choosing Otter Tail County

The conclusion of the photo presentation includes images of Somalian, Laotian, Hispanic and Bosnians who have come here over the past 25 years.

"People are still coming to Otter Tail County. Pelican Rapids is one community that has changed dramatically," said Schuelke, mostly because of the many jobs available at the West Central Turkey processing plant.

A century later, this new wave of immigration is bringing diverse ethnic and cultural traditions to the Otter Tail lake country. And, they too, will have their stories as to "Why We Chose Otter Tail County."

Exhibit of township history featured at county museum

"Why We Chose Otter Tail County" will be running at the Otter Tail County Historical Museum through October 17.

Created in-house by the historical society staff, the exhibit explores the question of why people have chosen to call Otter Tail County home. It begins with a look at the oldest record of human life, Minnesota Woman, and goes on to American Indians, fur traders, old stock Americans and the great European immigration.

The display also includes information on the people who settled in all 62 county townships.

The Otter Tail County Historical Museum is open Monday-Friday, 9-5, and Saturday, 1-4, (June-August). For more information call 218-736-6038.