Crow Wing County history museum unveils new sesquicentennial exhibit

The new sesquicentennial exhibit at the Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and Research Library’s grand reopening Friday, Sept. 24, in Brainerd was part of the city’s sesquicentennial

The new sesquicentennial exhibit at the Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and Research Library features items such as a section about Baby Face Nelson robbing the First National Bank, a wooden water main from 1881, a small room that looks like an old-fashioned mercantile, and the original door from the historic Brainerd Water Tower. The exhibit was debuted Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, as part of Brainerd's sesquicentennial celebration week. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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Elaine Leach made the trip from her Lake Shore home to see the new exhibit at the Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and Research Library in downtown Brainerd.

The sesquicentennial exhibit was unveiled Friday, Sept. 24, at the grand reopening of the facility during Brainerd history week — an event 150 years in the making.

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“I have been a visitor here before the pandemic. … And then when I read — for the anniversary — this would be open for an open house, I just thought ‘If I can get there, I’ll be there,’” Leach said Friday as she looked upon the Brainerd-based exhibit.

The 87-year-old traveled from Cass County to Crow Wing after the recent restoration and renovation of the three-story museum housed in the former sheriff’s residence on Laurel Street in Brainerd.

“There were things in the museum previously but they were ‘here and there,’ and then with the sesquicentennial coming up, I thought ‘Let's put all of those things in one space to celebrate Brainerd.’” said Hillary Swanson, executive director of the society.


New exhibit

The sesquicentennial exhibit includes, for example, a small room made up to look like an old-fashioned grocery store complete with an old-time cash register and common household goods many might recognize today if it were not for the packaging.

“We came up with these wonderful pictures that are all up — every photo in here is from our collection, I should say that first of all — photos of stores that all existed in Brainerd at one time, and I tried to recreate that feeling here,” Swanson said.

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Leach said, “I grew up on a farm near a small town in southern Minnesota, and this is the way this store was. I do not remember a cash register, but then I didn't work behind the counter … but I knew the people.”

Leach is a member of the League of Women Voters and said the museum gave its permission to store some of the league’s records that were on display at the museum inside the facility.

“This brings back fond memories of being there with my parents or — when I was older — going in alone to get what was required,” Leach said of her hometown grocery store in West Concord in Dodge County, a town that had a population of 782 residents in 2010.


Elaine Leach, 87, of Lake Shore, reminiscences as she looks at the new sesquicentennial exhibit unveiled Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, at the Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and Research Library's grand reopening and open house in downtown Brainerd. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Open to the public

The Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and Research Library in downtown Brainerd had a soft reopening in June. The museum was closed since March of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The historical society earlier received a $47,649 grant to replace the storage shelving in the attic and second-floor closet, a grant made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund of the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment.

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“And in order to accomplish that we had to move literally every object that was in there. And I started coming across so many different things that were Brainerd things that weren't in a cohesive exhibit,” Swanson said of the idea to create a new sesquicentennial exhibit.

The permanent museum exhibits include ones related to lumber, railroad, farming, mining and education, while the library includes thousands of photographs, microfilms, books and historical documents.

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The three-story museum and library are housed in a single building adjacent to the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse, and attracted 2,309 visitors in 2019, according to Swanson.

The building is owned and maintained by the county.


Executive Director Hillary Swanson talks about a bike made in Brainerd during the 1890's and other items on display in the Brainerd sesquicentennial exhibit Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, at the Crow Wing County Historical Society as part of the sesquicentennial week celebration events. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Open house

Frequent patrons of the tourist attraction will notice updates to the museum’s pre-existing logging exhibit and the military exhibit, updates that were made during the pandemic. But the sesquicentennial exhibit will be another reason for longtime visitors to explore the museum.

“This fantastic bicycle was actually made here in Brainerd in the 1890s,” Swanson said of a bicycle in the exhibit. “We were able to find a map of where that store was, an advertisement for the shop, and then photographs and newspaper articles talking about cycling in the 1890s.”

Sesquicentennial Exhibit at Crow Wing County history museum

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Swanson said an ordinance was passed in 1899 that said all bicycles must be licensed for a fee of $1 and all of those funds went to creating trails or paths for the cyclists so that they would not use the sidewalks. That kind of historical trivia is also included and displayed in the new exhibit.

“The fun thing is that most of the information comes from the Brainerd Dispatch,” Swanson said of the hometown, award-winning newspaper that was founded in the 1880s.

“The fun thing is that most of the information comes from the Brainerd Dispatch.”

— Hillary Swanson, executive director of the Crow Wing County Historical Society

Other notable items in the new sesquicentennial exhibit include an 1881 wooden water main and bottles from the Brainerd Carbonated Beverage Co., which was created when Joseph Cibuzar purchased a bottling plant in 1921.

“He eventually sold out to Coca-Cola, but these Coca-Cola bottles are still stamped ‘Brainerd Minn.’ on the bottom, so they're from here specifically,” Swanson said.

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The grand reopening and open house Friday also included a dedication of the James Olav Saboe Library in the basement of the building. The late Saboe was a frequent research library patron and the new library features his collection of roughly 350 books related to the county.

“We've had an incredible turnout today, which is just great — awesome to see people wanting to see their local history — but definitely that interest shows in our research library with people doing genealogy,” Swanson said Friday.

The Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and Research Library is located at 320 Laurel St. in Brainerd. For more information on how to become a member or other details, call 218-829-3268, send an email to or visit .

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

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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