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Curator seeks artifacts and stories within Brainerd school walls

A 1938 football signed by the Brainerd High School football team. A 1923 school curriculum book. These are just a few of the items of the school's history being preserved to be shared with the many generations to come.

John Erickson, Brainerd Public Schools official curator and historical archivist, holds a 1923 curriculum book used at the elementary schools. The book now is preserved in the Brainerd Public Schools Archives. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
John Erickson, Brainerd Public Schools official curator and historical archivist, holds a 1923 curriculum book used at the elementary schools. The book now is preserved in the Brainerd Public Schools Archives. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

A 1938 football signed by the Brainerd High School football team. A 1923 school curriculum book. These are just a few of the items of the school's history being preserved to be shared with the many generations to come.

Over the years, Brainerd Public Schools kept school artifacts within its school buildings but none of it was preserved or documented in an appropriate fashion.

Until now.

John Erickson, a longtime Brainerd resident and a 1967 Washington High School graduate, is changing the way the school's history is being collected and displayed. Erickson, a Brainerd retired attorney, is volunteering his time to the school district to be its official curator and historical archivist.

For the past year, Erickson worked on collecting historical items to display in school buildings. He continues to seek more school history, such as historical photographs, trophies, art, official papers and books, uniforms, posters and game balls from the public.

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Erickson often is inspired by a quote from Winston Churchill, who states: "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."

The idea of preserving the school's history began when Erickson was preparing for his 50th high school class reunion in August 2017. He wanted to gather some photographs of the former Washington High School, now called the Washington Educational Services Building. Erickson, also a professional photographer with a studio at the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd, met with Earl Wollert, the district's building and grounds director, to tour the Washington building to take photographs for his class reunion. During the tour, he noticed the lights in the display case in the hallway were out and the case was in disarray. Erickson offered to fix the display cases.

Wollert discussed Erickson's request with Steve Lund, who was the district's director of business services at the time. This conversation lead to Lund calling Erickson to see if he wanted to volunteer his time as the school's first curator and historical archivist.

Erickson immediately said yes.

"Warrior pride is powerful and our quality schools serve as a cornerstone of our community," Lund said in an email last spring. "The significance of these items is not the item alone, but the story it tells. Enhancing the showcase of these items, centering on the stories they tell, further reinforces the valuable bond between our schools and our community. With John's efforts, our ultimate goal is to effectively showcase items across our district and community."

Erickson, who attended Brainerd schools and spent his entire life in the community, has great pride in Brainerd and wants to help the district in preserving its history.

"History is happening every day, it never stops," Erickson said last spring in his office the district supplied him with at Washington. Fast forward to this fall season, and Erickson continues to keep busy collecting more historical items for what the school now calls its Brainerd Public Schools Archives.

The mission of Brainerd Public Schools Archives is: "To protect and preserve the history of Brainerd Public Schools, its students, graduates, teachers and staff through the collection and display of related artifacts, to make available to the public those artifacts consistent with best archival practices, to foster community and student interest in Brainerd Public Schools' student, graduate, teacher, staff and institutional history as a valuable, critical aspect of life, and to support the missions of Brainerd Public Schools in serving its students and community."

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The Brainerd Public Schools Archives currently has an exhibition of two and three dimensional art from faculty on display through Nov. 11 at Brainerd High School. This exhibition coincides with the 2018 Brainerd Homecoming-a weeklong communitywide celebration-beginning Monday, Oct. 1. Erickson changes out the theme of the exhibits, which are located in between the media center and the TV Productions studio.

Part of Erickson' mission in his role as the school's official curator and historical archivist has been educating staff and employees in the Brainerd School District to not throw anything of relevance away. Erickson said if a teacher or employee does not know if an item would be worth preserving, they should drop it off in his office and let him be the judge.

Erickson has seen many artifacts come through the doors this past year and has heard many stories. He also does oral histories with Brainerd graduates, through sound recordings stored in the archives before people pass away.

One such oral history recording was with Jackie MacDonald, who graduated from Washington High School in 1941. MacDonald's husband, Lee MacDonald, was a member of the 194th Tank Battalion deployed in 1941 to the Philippines in support of its defense from a possible Japanese attack. The battalion's mission was to defend Manila Bay. The 194th Tank Battalion fought during the Battle of Bataan and its survivors endured the Bataan Death March. MacDonald was one of 32 in the Brainerd battalion who made it home; the other half of his battalion did not, according to the Minnesota National Guard.

Erickson and Larry Osvold from the 194th Regiment interviewed Jackie MacDonald at her home on South Seventh Street in Brainerd to talk to her about her school memories and her marriage.

"Her 94th birthday was coming up when we interviewed her," Erickson said. "She died three days later. She was a widow for 50 years. She was the homecoming queen in 1940. That is part of the school's history. The people who attended the school, the people who work at the school, they are what makes this institution. It's people who sign the football and go off to war. People who went to school here and have written books. They are all part of Brainerd school history."

Erickson said oral histories are important to the school's archives and he plans to interview many more people in the future, including retired 9th Judicial District Court Judge Fred Casey.

Erickson also is compiling more information on Hall of Fame alumni to be archived in Brainerd's history, as well as more current school news. For instance, Erickson will create an exhibition featuring 2011 BHS graduate Joe Haeg, who played football at BHS, then played football at North Dakota State University and was drafted into the National Football League where he currently plays for the Indianapolis Colts.

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Historical items collected and preserved

Some of the archived data collected includes the 1938 football signed by the Warriors team. That year the Brainerd football team were unbeaten. One of the players who signed the football was Gene Bierhaus, a 1939 BHS graduate. He was the co-captain of the team in 1938. According to Bierhaus' obituary, he earned a scholarship to University of Minnesota where he played football from 1939-1942. He was also the Big Ten light heavyweight boxing champion. He received a degree in education before being drafted by the Green Bay Packers, but the Marine Corps called him to a higher duty. During World War II, Bierhaus was a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He was on the battlefield at Iwo Jima, and saw the first flag raised at Mount Suribachi.

Another writing on the 1938 football stated "Good Luck boys, From Jack Dempsey."

"Is this the Jack Dempsey we think it is?" Erickson asked. Dempsey was a former heavyweight boxing champion.

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CLARIFICATION: This story from the Sunday, Sept. 30, edition of the Brainerd Dispatch about the Brainerd Public School Archives should have stated though the 1938 Brainerd High School football team was undefeated it did not go to the state playoffs.
There was no official state championship during that time. The Minnesota State High School League started having state playoffs in 1972.
The Dispatch regrets the error.

---   ---   ---   ---   ---

Other items submitted into the archives includes a 1960 band uniform; and an 1880 spelling bee book, submitted by Brainerd resident Laurie Potvin Wig who found it at a neighbor's house where she grew up.

Erickson also has many yearbooks of the past, including one from the Class of 1954 and the one from the Class of 1967, where he served as the editor-in-chief.

"I had all the original proofs from the 1967 yearbook," Erickson said. "I signed off on every one of those pages in 1967 and preserved them."

Erickson shared one of the photographs he took for the yearbook in Tornstrom Auditorium, where several people have since identified themselves. Two teachers were in this photograph-Bob MIller, who is now deceased, and Mervin Jensen, who is living. Erickson said through collecting information on the photograph, he learned more about Jensen, who was a 19-year-old Marine on a crew ship off Japan waiting for the invasion, before coming to be a teacher in Brainerd.

Brainerd resident Ann Nelson and the Crow Wing County Historical Society have been valuable resources in finding information on Brainerd school history, Erickson said.

Brainerd school mysteries

Erickson is asking for the public's help in filling in some missing pieces of stories in the school's history. One involves a little brown jug with the name Oscar written on it. Erickson said the little brown jug had all the dates written on it of the Brainerd and Crosby-Ironton football games, as well as the outcomes of each game. Erickson said in the fall of 1964, Brainerd beat Crosby-at the time the two teams were big rivals. Erickson said when Brainerd won in 1964, the team brought home Oscar. The teams played again and Crosby won and the Rangers team took Oscar. Erickson said in the fall of 1966, when he was on the football team, Brainerd played Crosby in Crosby and won 7-6. Erickson said Brainerd never took Oscar home after that game.

"I've looked into this with help from various people and we can't find Oscar," Erickson said "The last winner of that game was Brainerd and Oscar should have come back. It's like a missing person. I called Crosby and they can't find Oscar."

Anyone with information on Oscar is asked to contact Erickson.

Another mystery Erickson would like to solve is locating a former Garfield Elementary School teacher from the early '60s with a name of Mrs. Dorn Kemper or Mrs. Dornkemper. Erickson said he learned this teacher was a nurse in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Manila. The nurse allegedly grabbed a machine gun and began shooting the enemy to defend the hospital. Erickson said he cannot find any validation of this story, but would like to.

"If anyone knows anything about her I am interested in finding out," Erickson said.

How to contact Erickson to donate or share

People who have an item they want to donate to the Brainerd Public Schools Archives or have a story to share may contact Erickson at bps.history@isd181.org or 218-330-1780. Erickson said if people have any doubt if the item is of value or not, they are encouraged to bring it to him and let him decide.

"We don't want anyone to throw anything away without bringing it to me first," Erickson said.

The start of Brainerd school history

Washington High School was built in 1884 at a cost of $45,000. Mary Tornstrom, a former WHS counselor, also served as principal of the school from 1922-1940. Tornstrom Auditorium bears her name. Washington served as a junior college, junior high, high school and middle school before it closed as a school.

Erickson briefly talked about the fire that destroyed Washington school in 1928 during Easter vacation. Nearly all the school records were obliterated by the fire except for those saved by Mary Tornstrom, who was the principal at the time, and Superintendent W.C. Cobb.

The school was rebuilt in 1929, but until a new high school could be built at the site classes took place at sites throughout the city-at the Methodist church, city hall, the old Crow Wing County Courthouse and even at the old jail next to the courthouse.

According to Brainerd history, the new high school, which cost $400,000 to build, was completed in 1929 and the school was dedicated during a ceremony in Tornstrom Auditorium on Jan. 28, 1930. Minnesota Gov. Theodore Christianson spoke to an audience of 1,500 at the event.

In 1960, the student population continued to grow so another addition was constructed to the high school building.

On March 1, 1966, Brainerd School District voters approved a $3.5 million bond issue to build a new senior high school. Construction of the current Brainerd High School building began in 1967 and the first classes began in September 1968. Washington officially became a middle school in 1983.

The last graduating class from WHS had 373 graduating seniors. Washington Middle School closed its doors as a school Dec. 17, 2004.

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