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Pioneer Village: What's the future for facilities celebrating the past?

The Grandview Heights ballroom is increasingly becoming a source of revenue for the Pioneer Village.

North of Perham, there lies an expanse of acreage, structures and facilities that is one of the the most extensive, non-profit-managed properties in the community.

Yet, the maintenance and the future of the Pioneer Village rests in the hands of only a handful of people.

The Pioneer Village includes a dozen historic structures and large parcels of wooded and open grassland. Also at the site is the shooting range and camping area, used by the Pine Mountaineers Blackpowder Club.

Governing the facilities is the East Otter Tail County Historical Society, which has declined to fewer than two dozen members.

The historical group's board met last week to discuss strategy for the Pioneer Village.

"There is a public misconception that we are a large organization," said board member Mark Lenius, at an August 26 meeting.

But in reality, the group is struggling--despite the fact that almost everybody who visits the Pioneer Grounds agrees that there is great potential.

The group hopes to rekindle interest in the grounds--and the organizaiton. One simple way to gain momentum is to increase membership--which is a paltry $5 a member and $10 for a family.

Another initiative is a survey of the community, which will be circulating in the coming weeks.

"The Historical Society has been a part of the Perham community for many decades, doing our best to preserve the unique and vibrant past of the county and of the community," states the letter with the survey. "The buildings and stories of our past would have been torn down long ago if not for the determined efforts of society members, and generous support of individuals like you....Now, more than ever, we need your help to preserve history for future generations."

$50 Savings Bond drawing encourages filling out survey

So intent on gathering public input is the society that all those who complete the survey will have a chance at winning a $50 U.S. Savings Bond.

The survey will be available at the History Museum, Veterans Museum, Perham Area Chamber of Commerce, Perham City Hall, Ma's Little Red Barn, and other locations.

The survey will gauge public awareness of the Pioneer Village and its annual Heritage Festival. The survey also asks what events they have attended, and what events people would like to see in the future.

Heritage Festival suffers losses, poor weather a factor

In assessing the present and future of the Pioneer Village, there are both positive and negative factors:

----Attendance at the August "Heritage Festival" has declined in recent years. Mother Nature has been a major factor. The 2009 festival was hampered by rain, wind and cold both days. Finally, the sun came out about 2 p.m. Sunday--in time for the Native American Pow Wow, which was fairly well attended.

----Financial losses following the Heritage Festival depleted an already skimpy bank account for the Historical Society. The "Heritage Festival" has been the Society's signature event.

----Fundraising has been difficult. An event earlier in the summer, a "Back to the 60's" dance-concert with the Unbelievable Uglies attracted a near-capacity crowd, but was essentially a break-even endeavor--after expenses.

----Membership increases are necessary, both from a monetary standpoint and to increase participation and public awareness.

----There is some public confusion over the two East Otter Tail history organizations. The Historical Society is a separate group, with management of the Pioneer Village being one of its primary missions. The History Museum of East Otter Tail, which also includes the ITOW Veterans Museum, is a separate organization--though the two groups collaborate.

----There are a number of repairs and maintenance items that are needed at the Pioneer Village. Most notably, re-shingling and additional structural support for the roof.

Ballroom a centepiece for Pioneer Village history site

There are some optimistic developments and trends:

----The Grandview Heights Ballroom is becoming a centerpiece of the Pioneer Village, and a source of revenue. The ballroom and grounds are available for rent for weddings, receptions, reunions and other events. With its rustic, resort-era appeal and large, wood dance floor, the ballroom offers a larger space than similar rooms in the area, and consequently doesn't appear to compete directly with other banquet-reception facilities.

----"Piggy-backing" and collaborating with other organizations is emphasized by board member Mark Lenius. On Oct. 3, the Pioneer Grounds and ballroom will host an archery shoot and a dinner in conjunction with the fall Harvest Festival. The event concludes with an 8 to midnight dance in the ballroom. This is essentially a three-way collaboration, involving the Historical Society, the new Sportsman's Club and the Perham Chamber of Commerce Retail Committee.

----In order to revive the Heritage (formerly Pioneer) Festival, the board is considering several ideas. Among them, scaling back to a one-day event, changing features, and moving it to a different date--possibly earlier in the summer. "Later in the summer, people just say they are 'festivaled out,'" commented board member Stephanie Ellingson.

----Though it is still in the planning stages, the Pioneer Village may play host to a sanctioned, competitive barbecue event next summer.

----A Halloween "Haunted House" is under consideration, as a means to expose more people to the facilities and as a modest fundraiser. Board member Holly Baker is also planning a bonfire and "S'mores" sale during the Oct. 3 Harvest Festival.