The Historical Side of the Willmar Lakes Area

By Bailey Hovland

So often, we focus on the here and now. We’re looking to try all the newest things — new restaurants, new stores, and new events. Because we are always looking forward, we often forget that looking back can be just as much fun. The Willmar Lakes Area has a rich history, and exploring the area’s past can give you a whole new appreciation for how the communities have grown over the years. Fortunately, the Willmar Lakes Area has plenty of museums that highlight the unique history of the area, from an automobile centered perspective to an outlook that caters to the mind of a child.

The Sperry House, in a great photo captured by Erica Dischino of the West Central Tribune, has stood as a Willmar landmark since 1893.

Of course, the first museum that comes to mind is the Kandiyohi County Historical Society and Museum. Originally founded as the Old Settler’s Association, this historical society began its mission to preserve the history of Kandiyohi County in 1897.The museum complex is six buildings in total, including the main museum building; a community room and research library; the District #18 Schoolhouse; the Sperry House; Grandpa’s Shed; and Agriculture Building. With the mission of “discovering, preserving and telling the story of Kandiyohi County and its people,” the main museum building has military exhibits, transportation features, and other showcases relating to the rich history of the local community. It’s marked by a large steam engine just outside its front entryway — a homage to the days of old in the Willmar Lakes Area. The Sperry House is a testament to what it was like to live in rural Minnesota in the 20th century, built by the pioneer couple, Albert H. Sperry and Jennie Sperry. The museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on weekdays and from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on the weekends. Admission is $3.00, but children 12 and under get in free.

Inside the Atwater Rexall Drug Store in the early 20th century, where local residents went to get their medications, household goods, and more. This is Justine photo featured at the Atwater Historical Society Museum.

Over at the Atwater Historical Society and Museum, the exhibits are centered around rural community life. Through items like old baseball uniforms, antique record players, and black and white photographs the museum shows guests what life was like for a rural Minnesotan in the 19th and 20th century. The Atwater Historical Society and Museum also boasts a unique military uniform collection, representing the Minnesotans who served their country in years past. To visit the museum, please call 320-974-1074 to make an appointment.

Schwanke’s Car, Tractor, and Truck Museum is a privately owned museum focused on the mechanical side of the Willmar Lakes Area. With 100 antique cars, 200 tractors, 15 trucks, 70 gas engines, 18 gas pumps and so much more, Schwanke’s homage to history in Kandiyohi County is a perfect place to stop for anyone interested in vehicles and the history of transportation. For over 50 years, the museum has provided the vehicular days of old to all its visitors, showcasing all your favorite machine brands: Ford, John Deere, Massey-Harris, Caterpillar … you name it, Schwanke’s probably has it. The museum is open May through September, unlocking its doors Monday through Saturday from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. It can also be booked by appointment for groups of over 20 people.

At The Village Children’s Museum, the focus is on the cultural, academic, and physical education of kids. Created by a group of parents and community members, this children’s museum has an art corner, a global learning area, and a soft play area to help kids’ minds flourish. Your kiddos can play in a miniature grocery store, mechanics garage, obstacle course, restaurant, doctor’s office, theatre, hardware store, and more! The general museum focuses on learning areas with targeted displays, educating kids on math, science, geography, music, and even history. The Village is open from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; from 3:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Day passes per person are $5, with a $15 family max. Children under the age of one get in free.

The Willmar 8, a group of local women who picketed for almost two years in front of their downtown workplace seeking pay equity, has their own exhibit at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.

If you want to take a trip more on the wild side, you can visit the Raptor Ridge Museum of Spicer. Barb and Larry Levin have spent years collecting natural history items for visitors to see. They feature collections of butterflies, seashells, rocks, minerals, Native American artifacts, and dinosaur bones, but the fun doesn’t end there. Visitors can even touch some of the items to get a hands-on experience with history. The museum is located on County Road 40, 2.8 miles east of State Highway 23 on the North side of the road. Admission is free, but the museum is only open by appointment. So call 320-354-8820 to start your next historical adventure.

And of course, we can’t forget about those who were here in Minnesota long before any settlers brought their wagons across the grassy terrain: Native Americans have called this land home for centuries. Before the Sioux Uprising, local Native American tribes were not happy about the new settlers coming to take their land. The Guri Endresen cabin stands as a testament to the building tension before the uprising. A group of Dakota men attacked the Endresen cabin in 1862, killing two family members and taking two children captive. Guri Endresen, her infant child, and son Ole were the only survivors. Visitors can visit the cabin and learn more about the U.S. government’s conflict with the Dakotas.

The Willmar Lakes Area is rich with history, ranging from Native American tribes to rural life on the plains to the industrial ages of trucks, trains, and tractors. And the local museums and monuments help visitors and community members learn more about that past. So, take some time to look back on the historical side of the Willmar Lakes Area. You might be surprised what you find.

Fish our lakes

The possibilities are endless on our 30 recreational lakes…boating, swimming, fishing, water skiing, tubing, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boating, hydro biking, paddle boarding and so much more!

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Surrounded by beautiful lakes and scenery…who wouldn’t take a hike or a leisurely bike ride to enjoy the view? With miles of trials to choose from, you can always find new places to explore.

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