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Brainerd YMCA begins with Northern Pacific Railway offer

The Young Men’s Christian Association in Brainerd — better known as the Brainerd Family YMCA today — had its beginnings at Sixth and Front streets when the Northern Pacific Railway offered to build a wholesome place for the young men of the railroad and the community to spend their leisure time.

An old photo from the Brainerd Family YMCA shows families playing in the lap pool shortly after its opening in 1962. (Contributed photo)
An old photo from the Brainerd Family YMCA shows families playing in the lap pool shortly after its opening in 1962. (Contributed photo)
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The Brainerd Family YMCA’s mission to enhance lives in the Brainerd lakes area dates back to 1885, the year the Northern Pacific Railway offered to build a YMCA in Brainerd so its workers and the community would have a wholesome place to spend their leisure time.

Years later, a building was constructed at the northwest corner of Sixth and Front streets where GuidePoint Pharmacy is today. More than a century ago, that early YMCA facility included two reading rooms, a lounge and a gymnasium area.

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The Young Men's Christian Association in Brainerd at Sixth and Front streets was constructed in 1889 and included two reading rooms, a lounge and a gymnasium area.

The library, reception room and parlor were on the first floor, according to local historian Ann M. Nelson, and the assembly room and kitchen were located on the second.

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“The gymnasium was furnished with all the latest conveniences and appliances,” Nelson wrote in her 2019 publication “Brainerd’s Northern Pacific Railway Buildings.”

“The bathroom was to be for the convenience of the members, who would have access to them at any and all times.”

Besides granting a lease for the ground at no cost and providing $500 a year for annual expenses, the Northern Pacific gave $1,000 to aid to construct the building, provided enough money, an estimated $2,500, could be raised by subscription to finish the building.

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The building was opened to the public for the first time in mid-September of 1888 at a total cost of about $5,000, according to Nelson, which would amount to about $145,573 today.

“By mid-December of 1891, the YMCA was offering large, well lighted and heated social and game rooms, a reading room with over 50 of the leading papers and magazines on file, free to the public,” Nelson wrote.

Membership cards costing $5 entitled the all-male members to the use of the bathrooms with three fine tubs and one shower (hot or cold), and the use of the gymnasium with three sets of standard pulley weights, parallel bars, traveling rings, dumbbells, and more.

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“This was one of the first, if not the first gymnasium, in Brainerd,” according to the Brainerd Family YMCA’s website. “It served the Brainerd community until 1946 when it was torn down. Plans were immediately made to start raising funds for a new building.”

Louis Hostager of Brainerd died in 1953 and left $200,000 to build a new YMCA. With the initial gift and through the efforts of the board president and the entire community, an additional $315,000 was raised to build the first phase of the new YMCA building.

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“The new YMCA included the first Olympic-size swimming pool in the city of Brainerd. The Brainerd High School swim team used the pool for several years at 6 a.m. for practice. … Programs and services were developed for the entire family,” according to the Brainerd Y.

A community fund drive was later inaugurated to obtain funds to build the addition of a gym, handball court, and additional locker rooms. Some $330,000 was pledged, and construction was completed in 1970.

Children learn to swim in an undated photo of the lap pool at the Brainerd Family YMCA. (Contributed photo)
Children learn to swim in an undated photo of the lap pool at the Brainerd Family YMCA. (Contributed photo)

“This new addition includes a 106-foot x 72-foot gymnasium, two regulation handball … entrance and balcony, exercise area for girls and women, and a future locker room for boys and men,” according to the “Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).”

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A fundraising capital campaign to rebuild the nonprofit’s facility at Oak and South Sixth streets was publicly unveiled earlier this year at its “Back to the Future” event in October at Camp Vanasek in Baxter.

The projected cost of improvements is between $16 million and $18 million.

The proposed construction and improvement projects include a new YMCA facility at its present downtown location, a new child care center, an indoor year-round sports complex and making Camp Vanasek a year-round attraction for all and not just children associated with the YMCA.

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Brainerd Family YMCA’s “Back to the Future” event Saturday, Oct. 3, 2021, hosted at Camp Vanasek in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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