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History of our own making: New exhibit to highlight Beltrami County’s past

The new exhibit “Beltrami County Then & Now” has impressive displays on the first American Indians, lumberjacks and fur traders from the early days to the present. Above, Linda Babcock looks at the history of the Lumberjack display. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Artifacts and manuscripts aside, the Beltrami County Historical Society has seen quite a bit of history in its 61 years of operation.

Since its opening at the James J. Hill railroad depot in 2001, the county history center has housed five main exhibits that have brought the past into the present for its visitors to enjoy and learn from.

The museum’s newest exhibit, “Trails Through Time,” — which opened Wednesday — is expected to continue the trend of resurrecting the past, according to exhibit project manager Nicole Foss.

“We (the historical society) kept hearing people wanted a deeper look into the county’s history,” she said.

With a $30,000 grant from the George W. Neilson Foundation and additional funding from the city, county, membership and admission fees, the history center has spent the past six months working to bring the Beltrami county population that “deeper look,” said Foss.

The “Trails Through Time” exhibit features a variety of displays that cover Beltrami county history from the time the glaciers receded to the mid-20th century.

With many of the pieces featured in the display donated or on loan from area citizens, Foss said the new exhibit is one of the first the museum has had that the community can claim to be their own.

“We wanted to have a permanent structure for the exhibit,” said Foss, who is stepping down from director of the history center after four years. “The community can donate to this and make it their own.”

Differing from previous exhibits, “Trails Through Time” will have a prominent presence at the history center, according to Foss.

Whereas past exhibits were staged for about a year and then replaced with a new exhibit, the new display will be housed for “several years,” said Dan Karalus, new director of the history center.

“The exhibit was built in portions, so we can constantly change things up bit by bit,” said Karalus, who is writing his dissertation to receive his doctoral degree in history from Northern Arizona University. Karalus has a master’s degree in history from the University of Idaho.

According to Karalus, each display was built so that they could easily be taken down and adjusted to accommodate incoming history objects without having to revamp the entire exhibit.

Furthering their efforts to make the exhibit feel like the county’s, the history center commissioned Steve Sundahl, local artist and associate professor of technology, art and design at Bemidji State University, to design and construct the exhibit.

“I just hope that the exhibit opens people’s eyes to all that’s happened here,” Sundahl said. “The Beltrami County we see today is so different now than what it used to be.”

Growing up in the Bemidji area, Sundahl said he has seen a lot of change here in just the short time he’s been around, and that the exhibit can explain a lot about county’s origins.

“This exhibit explains a good share of the history of the Native Americans here,” said Sundahl, an artist and designer for more than 30 years. “It does a much better job of representing them and their part of history than they are sometimes credited with.”

Noting this same evenhandedness, Berry Babcock is responsible for writing portions of the text that appear on the displays within the exhibit.

“This exhibit gets down to some of our most interesting bits of history,” said Babcok, of Laporte.

Babcock, who is a citizen historian, has served on the Beltrami County Historical Society board for 10 months. He is credited with writing explanations for three separate displays in the exhibit.

“Everybody on the board is thrilled with this exhibit,” he said.

Wanting to bring a “fresher” look to the exhibit, Foss said the displays were not placed in chronological order, whereas old exhibits flowed in that style.

“I knew I wanted to do a different kind of exhibit when I became director,” she said. “I wanted to make this exhibit feel more open and make it more student-friendly.”

In the past, exhibits have usually been staged in the center of the room, but now, the majority of exhibit utilizes wall space; and as for the “student-friendly” aspect, three touch screen computers now accompany various areas of “Trails Through Time.”

The equipment, brought in specifically for the new exhibit, has made history more interactive for children, Karalus said.

Providing interactive graphics and sound to its users, the screens feature a variety of elements, such as a presentation of rural schoolhouses in the county and Native American flute recordings by John Romer.

“We’re moving forward in the technology age, even though we focus so much on history,” said a laughing Foss. “We’re trying to move our way of serving the people that’s current with the times.”

Additionally, the history center is working to digitize their research library, which according to Foss, houses about 20,000 images, 10,000 manuscripts and 7,000 objects. To date, Foss estimates 5,000 images and 100 manuscripts have been digitized.

Wanting to continue Foss’ efforts to make the history center available to a broader audience, Karalus said he hopes to one day make the history center the go-to place people turn to in order to answer their questions.

“We should be the authority on the history of Beltrami County,” he said. “I want to bring the history center to the people, instead of them having to come here.”

Suggesting the possibility of creating a touring exhibit to travel the county, Karalus said since the history center is located in the southern part of the county, sometimes it’s easy to localize the history center’s events just to Bemidji.

Hoping to receive more grants in the future, Karalus said as director he would like to expand the history center and open a smaller exhibit to further promote the county’s history. According to Karalus, there is unused space in the eastern portion of building that is being used as a storage area.

“There is more room for collaboration between the community and the history center,” he said. “Our mission is to connect people to the Beltrami County heritage and I want to continue building that.”

With the mission to showcase and spread the knowledge of the county’s lengthy history, the society itself has quite an interesting past.

Founded in 1952, the original history center was housed in what is presently the tourist center next to the Paul and Babe statues. In 1993, the historical society moved locations to a building next to the fairgrounds, until it began pursuing interest to relocate back downtown. In 1999, through state legislative appropriations, local government investments and business and community funds, the James J. Hill railroad began to undergo restoration to house the history center. In the spring of 2001, the history center opened its doors at its current location at 130 Minnesota Ave.

To celebrate the building’s history, Karalus said trains and the railroad industry will be the theme of this year’s Depot Day on Aug. 10.

“We’re really trying to make connections to that (the railroad industry),” Karalus said.

According to Karalus, the last passenger train passed through the Hill depot in 1959, with the last freight train making a stop there in 1990.

“I envision this as a place for people to come and find their heritage and have their questions answered,” said Karalus. “I’ve always had an interest in history, and I want others to have an interest, too.”