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Chasing our tales: Museum and its volunteers preserve Perham area’s stories

Lorraine Weatherhead, a long-time volunteer for the History Museum of East Otter Tail County, demonstrates how to use the museum’s Microfilm reader. Elizabeth Huwe/FOCUS1 / 4
First Avenue North in Perham is home to the History Museum of East Otter Tail County. Elizabeth Huwe/FOCUS2 / 4
Microfilm copies of newspapers dating more than 100 years back are kept as part the museum’s genealogy lab. Elizabeth Huwe/FOCUS 3 / 4
Eight of the museum’s regular volunteers are, front row, left to right: Sue Delaney, Mary Pfeffer and Sara Canada. Back row: Marion John son, Pat Waskosky, Dorothy Roes, Linette Grismer and Lorraine Weatherhead. Other groups, including the Perham VFW and Auxiliary, often assist with events and tours. Submitted photo4 / 4

Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series of stories spotlighting some of the lesser-known or often oveshadowed people, groups and places in Perham.

Tucked away on First Avenue North in Perham is a structure built in 1887.

Its facade consists of stones that were hand-picked by farmers from their fields.

This building was once an Episcopal church, and then a library. Currently, this historic location is home to the History Museum of East Otter Tail County.

In 1998, community members created the museum in order to preserve artifacts and stories from the area.

Now, 15 years later, the museum and its volunteers are going strong – and still growing.

One of the museum’s main attractions is its genealogy lab.

“Genealogy is very popular right now, said Darla Ellingson, the museum’s executive director. “We’ve actually had people come from across the country and use our lab.”

Ellingson has been told that the museum’s online database of digitized local records is one of the largest in the country.

“That’s a big thing for a little museum,” she said.

The genealogy lab’s resources are extensive and reach two centuries back in time.

Microfilm copies of newspapers, some of which were first published 120 years ago, are wound up on reels. Otter Tail County plat books dating back to 1884 rest on a shelf next to local cemetery records and family histories.

Sue Delaney is one of the long-time volunteers at the museum. She began helping in the genealogy lab when the museum first started.

“I like it when people come in to find out about their own history,” she said.

Sometimes, visitors discover that they are actually Delaney’s own distant relatives, she said, or they have another unexpected connection to the area.

One Saturday morning, a woman whose last name was Wick came in to use the lab.

“We started talking, and I realized she was the daughter of the man who my father bought his farm from,” Delaney said. “She just walked in out of the blue. That was an amazing moment. We both grew up on the same farm, at different times.”

Lorraine Weatherhead also works at the museum. She began volunteering her time in 2005.

“I like the history, and along with that comes the artifacts and genealogy,” she said.

During her time at the museum, Weatherhead has worked on tracing her own ancestry, along with her husband’s.

“Getting back into his (her husband’s) side, I found that they had moved from Canada,” said Weatherhead. From there, she was able to trace the family ‘across the pond’ and to Scotland.

The way the family named their children gave Weatherhead a lead, which took her back to the 1700s.

“That was an awesome moment,” she said.

Exhibits featuring wide-reaching aspects of East Otter Tail County’s history are also featured in the museum.

One of Weatherhead’s favorite exhibits is a compilation of local telephone artifacts and historical tidbits.

“Speak slowly, clearly and directly into the telephone, with your lips about one inch from the mouthpiece,” state instructions from Olga Weickert, the owner and manager of Perham’s telephone exchange in May, 1930.

“Obscene or profane language” was not allowed and calls were limited to a length of five minutes.

Other exhibits look back at the history of “forgotten towns” in the county, local baseball, and resorts on Big Pine Lake.

The History Museum of East Otter Tail County is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Admission is free, with donations appreciated.

More information about the museum can be found on Facebook, or at