Street signs highlight historic downtown Brainerd

There were 40 signs that were hung up in downtown Brainerd in 2017 featuring images of historic downtown Brainerd. The signs are located between Fourth and Eighth streets, and Front and Laurel streets, close to where the original photo was taken.

A Brainerd Then and Now sign, showing Laurel Street from the 1920s, hangs across the street from the subjects seen in the photo, namely the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse and the Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and Library Saturday, April 10, 2021, in downtown Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Walking the streets of downtown Brainerd can be like taking a walk down memory lane.

The Brainerd Then and Now project consists of 40 signs featuring images of historic downtown Brainerd. In 2017, the signs were hung up and tied to downtown street poles with 3-foot zip ties.

“The idea was to put the sign showing the view exactly what the photographer was looking at back in 1890 or whatever through his lens,” said Carl Faust, a local history enthusiast.

Brainerd Then and Now Signs Gallery
Faust credits former Brainerd Public Library manager Jolene Bradley with the idea of putting the signs up, while she said he played a key role in selecting the photos and hanging them.

“I had been dabbling with the ‘Then and Now’ idea for some time and found a website called something like ‘What Was There.’ It enabled you to insert your vintage photo, superimposing it into a modern Google map,” Faust said.


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Brainerd Mayor Dave Badeaux created a logo, incorporating several pieces of history, to celebrate the city's upcoming 150th anniversary in September.

The signs are located in the downtown core — between Fourth and Eighth streets, and Front and Laurel streets — close to where the original photo on the 1-by-1-foot picture was taken.

“Of course, being there’s streetlights and poles and everything and markers all over the town, most of them wound up on city poles. A lot of them were taken from the middle of the street, so we couldn’t do that,” Faust said of the signs’ close proximity to where the historic photos were taken.

The Brainerd Then and Now project honors the city's history with signs of historical pictures in the location they were originally taken. Image courtesy of the Brainerd Public Library

The project was a collaboration between the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, Crow Wing County Historical Society, city of Brainerd, Brainerd History Group, the Brainerd Public Library and the Kitchigami Regional Library.

“She spearheaded and found Legacy funding for this project,” Faust said of Bradley. “The Brainerd History Group provided site location suggestions. We decided it would be fun to post the old photo, the ‘then’ part, and the viewer would provide the ‘now’ view.”


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Given the relatively small size of the signs, each sign includes a QR code that can be scanned with a smartphone for more information from the Crow Wing County Historical Society website. Another local historian Ann M. Nelson provided the historical information.

“She has written, I’m guessing, 10,000 pages on Brainerd history … so we asked her, on all 40 of these locations, if she could give kind of a quick synopsis of what was there before, who built the building and all that kind of stuff,” Faust said.

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A couple of Brainerd Then and Now signs, showing Laurel Street from the 1940s, is seen Saturday, April 10, 2021, in downtown Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

For example, a sign at Sixth Street near Laurel Street has an image of the immediate area from the 1940s if the person was looking northeast on South Sixth Street, and includes Nelson’s following description:

“The first building on the right is the Thrifty Cut-Rate Drugstore, next the Brainerd Daily Dispatch Building, next the Land O’Lakes Cafe, the First National Bank, the Brainerd Theater and the water tower on Washington and South 6th Streets.”


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The 40 signs were hung in 2017 to help kick off the fourth annual Brainerd History Week. The Crow Wing County Historical Society provided the photos.

“It took two days and about five hours each to put them up. Miraculously, no appreciable fading has occurred, nor loss of the print or image. Not bad for an $8 placard! The only ongoing costs would be the 3-foot-long zip ties. Most were donated by Fastenal of Baxter,” Faust said.

A duplicate set of placards were made to use as replacements for the ones that were hung up in 2017 in case some were stolen, damaged or lost. The duplicates are housed in the library.

A box at the Brainerd Public Library contains duplicates of the 40 street signs made for the Brainerd Then and Now project honoring the city's history. Submitted photo / Carl Faust

“Each spring and fall, I check them all and replace any broken zip ties, and reorient some that have spun on the pole and no longer mimic the view as seen by the photographer,” Faust said.

A similar project was planned and budgeted for non-downtown locations such as parks and mines, but the coronavirus pandemic has put it on hold, according to Faust.

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“The 40 placards are done but not printed, and a more elaborate version parallels the locations to be made into a small booklet to be checkable at the library,” Faust said. “They’re all ready to go on PDFs. And if I had the funding right now, we’d email them right out to the printer.”


For more information about the Brainerd Then and Now project and the existing street signs, visit .

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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