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Four generations of memories found in 1885 log home, now in Perham's Pioneer Village

Perham's Shirley Davidson believes stories are preserved in historical structures, and if those structures are lost, there's no way to get some of those stories back. Perham's Pioneer Village, however, is now preserving four generations of history with an 1885 log home that was recently donated to their organization.

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Shirley Davidson with the ITOW Veterans Museum shows of the new Terfehr log home located in Perham's Pioneer Village.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus
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PERHAM — Most that is left of pioneer log homes from the early days of America are just in the imaginations of many history buffs. Actually seeing a real structure from this time period is a rarity, but, for the people in Perham, it will now be a regular part of their community. The Pioneer Village, located near Arvig Park, recently acquired an 1885 log home from Otter Tail County at no cost.

"The reason I really wanted this was to maintain it, and we will never be able to get a building that old — with this huge of an amount of growth — ever again," said Shirley Davidson with the ITOW Veterans Museum and the History, Arts, and Cultural Association of Otter Tail County (HACA), which operates the Pioneer Village. "We just wanted something unique."

This structure, known as the Terfehr log home, was donated to the Pioneer Village by the Terfehr family themselves, whose ancestor Johann Terfehr built it in 1885 when he and his wife Marie bought 40 acres of land in Effington Township, Otter Tail County. When HACA was unable to get the $22,000 needed to transport the structure all the way to Pioneer Village, the family raised it themselves in order to preserve the historic structure.

"You can't go back," Davidson said, explaining the importance of preservation work. "To preserve anything today is an art. You know, you can't go back and wish you would have saved it." Stories and memories are held in structures, and Davidson wants those stories preserved. That way, they can be passed down through families.

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Siding was removed from the Terfehr log home to expose the original logs, which have likely been a part of the structure since prior to 1885.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

The story of the Terfehr log home itself is quite vast. According to Davidson, the logs used to build the original wooden structure of the home are likely around 400-500 years old because the planks are each about 29 inches wide. The building itself has been changed throughout the many years since the Terfehr family moved in, the size increasing and siding being added. Because of that, Davidson and other members of HACA are currently working on removing some of the newer siding to expose the original logs. That way, they can physically show the public how the building changed throughout the years to accommodate the family inside.

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When Johann and Marie originally moved to their Otter Tail County township from Shakopee, a rudimentary log cabin already existed on the site. Likely with the help of some neighbors, Johann increased the cabin's size in April 1885 to suit their four children under seven years old. According to the Terfehr family, this cabin became the center of the family's life as they began to farm their new land.

Throughout their time living in the log cabin, Johann and Marie had eight more kids, meaning they had a total of 12 children — ten of whom survived to adulthood. The home had no indoor plumbing, but the kitchen had water from a hand pump, thanks to a cistern outside. Another outdoor cistern was used for watering flowers and an apple tree, washing vegetables, rinsing clothes, and more.

Eventually, Johann and Marie passed this house, farm, and land on to their son Frank and his wife Rose. Together, they had ten kids, meaning that a total of 22 children were born in the home. All of these kids in the newest generation slept in the two bedrooms upstairs, and the home later had electricity in 1946 thanks to the Otter Tail Power Company. Eventually, they even had telephone service in the 1940s.

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The old photograph shows Johann Terfehr, who added onto the log home structure in 1885 when he moved to the Effington Township in Otter Tail County.
Contributed / Shirley Davidson

While Johann and Mary eventually passed away, the family continued to live on the farmhouse. Eventually, in 1954, the farm was passed onto the youngest son William and his wife Elaine. Together, these two had seven children in local hospitals who all grew to adulthood inside the house. Finally, the family even got an indoor bathroom in 1958 and a black-and-white television in 1959.

It was certified as a Century Farm by Otter Tail County after it turned 100 years old, and, while William passed away in 2002, Elaine continued to live in the home until her passing in 2020, the last of four generations to live in this house.

"Hundreds of cousins share the memories of this house," Tom Terfehr, Elaine's son, wrote to Shirley Davidson.

Because of those memories, when the house was set to be demolished after Elaine's passing, the family did everything they could to find a place that could preserve it. Luckily for them, they were able to raise the funds, and the Pioneer Village has the space. While HACA is still working on the structure, it now sits on the grounds of Perham, so the stories of the four generations of Terfehrs can live on in Otter Tail County.

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This up-close shot shows the logs of the original log home, which was originally built in the 1800s. Shirley Davidson said that the logs are believed to be around 400-500 years old, considering that they're about 29 inches wide.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Davidson and HACA plan to create signs to display around and throughout the structure to tell its story. Thanks to Tom and some other sources, the Pioneer Village will also be receiving antique furniture from the time period in which the home was built and used. That way, the inside can be set up and decorated like homes from the 1800s for a more immersive experience.

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The Pioneer Village also hopes to use this structure as a more comfortable place for brides to get changed and ready during wedding events hosted at the park. While volunteers still have a lot more to complete before this display is ready, Davidson hopes it will be ready for showing by spring 2023.

Because HACA is a nonprofit comprised of volunteers, they could always use more passionate people for extra help. If you're interested in donating or volunteering, reach out to the ITOW Veterans Museum at 218-346-7678 or visit them at 805 West Main Street in Perham. HACA's mailing address is 230 First Avenue North, Perham, M.N. 56573.

"We work hard to save (history)," Davidson said. "I do love it, though. I do."

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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