Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One grand old WPA gym in West Concord April 6, 2015

The original, non-digital, scoreboard that uses light bulbs still graces the 1936 former West Concord School gym.

The original, non-digital scoreboard that uses light bulbs still graces the 1936 former West Concord School gym.

YOU CAN ALMOST HEAR the rhythmic bounce of basketball upon wood floor, hear the roar of the crowd as the ball swishes through the net and two points are added to the scoreboard.

Instructions on the stage wall for operating the curtain.

Instructions on the stage wall for operating the curtain.

You can almost hear the resounding applause of proud parents as performers bow and the heavy curtain sways, pulled shut by hand-over-hand action of a stage hand running thick ropes.

This beautiful gym was once home to the West Concord Cardinals.

This beautiful gym was once home to the West Concord Cardinals.

You can almost hear the clear diction of graduates’ names pronounced before they proceed onto the stage to receive their West Concord High School diplomas.

The former gym now houses the West Concord Community Center.

The former gym now houses the West Concord Community Center. Today the West Concord Historical Society’s research center is located on the second floor, former site of the school library and a study hall.

Echoes of the past linger inside the old West Concord School gym, built in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project. The school closed in 1991.

The gym is now a multi-purpose facility open to the community.

The gym is now a multi-purpose facility open to the community.

Today this grand gymnasium houses this southeastern Minnesota town’s community center. The space is now used for a middle school athletics program and rented out for class reunions, festive gatherings by the area’s Hispanic community and more, according to Janis Ray, director/gambling manager for the adjoining West Concord Historical Society museum.

The original ticket booth remains just inside the front entry.

The original ticket booth remains just inside the front entry.

I applaud West Concord for saving this impressive auditorium and the connected school. All too often such grand structures are demolished because of the cost to maintain them. They are worth saving for their history, memories and architectural significance.

This massive WPA project painting hangs as a stage backdrop.

This massive WPA project painting hangs as a stage backdrop.

Gymnasiums aren’t built like this any more. Imagine the hands of formerly unemployed men laboring to build this gym. How happy they must have been to earn a paycheck. Preserving this gym is a tribute to them, too, to hard work and building a sense of community.

Students involved in theatrical productions signed the stage wall behind the stage curtain.

Students involved in theatrical productions signed the stage wall behind the stage curtain.

I hope future generations will always remember that.

BONUS PHOTOS:

The building on the left, built in 1902 with a wing added in 1914, houses the West Concord Historical Society. On the right is the 1936 WPA project gym, 60 percent of its cost funded by the government.

The former school building on the left, built in 1902 with a wing added in 1914, today houses the West Concord Historical Society. On the right is the 1936 WPA project gym, 60 percent of its cost funded by the government. It is now the West Concord Community Center.

Imagine the students and their families who have walked through these doors.

Imagine the students and their families and others who have walked through these doors. They were locked when I visited.

What I assume is an original light fixture. Beautiful.

What I assume is an original light fixture. Beautiful.

Looking across the gym floor toward the original fold-up chairs and the entry into the auditorium.

Looking across the gym floor toward the original fold-up chairs and the entry into the auditorium.

Handcrafted detail on the vintage seating.

Handcrafted detail on the vintage seating make these works of art.

A sticker, "Educating Everyone Takes Everyone," on a sturdy wood door reminds visitors of this structure's original purpose.

A sticker, “Educating Everyone Takes Everyone,” on a sturdy wood door just off the stage reminds visitors of this structure’s original purpose.

In a narrow hallway off the gym, leading to the women's bathroom, I discovered these rows of lockers painted in the school color.

In a narrow hallway off the gym, leading to the women’s bathroom, I discovered these rows of lockers painted Cardinal red, the school color.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II: Preserving memories in West Concord April 1, 2015

WHAT DEFINES A MUSEUM?

Collections? History? Preserving the past?

All three fit the definition. Yet, it is memories which make a museum personal.

A commemorative plate from West Concord.

A commemorative plate from the small southeastern Minnesota farming community of West Concord.

The West Concord Historical Society, housed in a former school, boasts an incredible museum that showcases West Concord area history. I didn’t grow up here. I don’t live here. Yet, I connected.

Join me on a photo tour showing snippets of what this museum holds.

IN THE HERITAGE ROOM:

I expect many visitors would image Sunday dinner at Grandma's house when viewing this scene.

I expect many visitors will remember Sunday chicken dinners or holidays at Grandma’s house when viewing this scene.

IN THE CARDINAL ROOM:

The school was once home to the West Concord school Cardinals. An entire classroom is devoted to all things Cardinal. this proves a popular place during class reunions.

The school was once home to the West Concord Cardinals. An entire classroom is devoted to Cardinals memorabilia. This exhibit proves a popular place to tour during West Concord High School class reunions. The school closed in 1991. West Concord is now part of Triton Public Schools where the mascot is a cobra.

A cheerleading uniform.

A cheerleading uniform.

A majestic band uniform preserved.

A majestic band uniform displayed along with school trophies.

I was thrilled to find a collection of school yearbooks.

I was thrilled to find a collection of school yearbooks.

Wearing Cardinal pride.

Wearing Cardinal pride.

IN THE FARMERS & MERCHANTS ROOM:

From a local beauty shop.

From a local beauty shop.

IN THE VETERANS ROOM:

Between two military uniforms, I shot this view of a 48-star American flag.

Between military uniforms, I shot this view of a 48-star American flag.

Books and documents are also displayed in The Veterans Room.

Books and documents are also displayed in The Veterans Room.

IN THE SHELL ROOM:

Old radiators in The Shell Room, which features a collection of shells donated by Burton Goddard and Miriam Goddard.

Old radiators in The Shell Room, which features a collection of shells donated by West Concord alumni Burton Goddard and Miriam Goddard.

IN THE 50’s & 60’s ROOM:

Feelin' groovy...a snippet of 1960s art.

Feelin’ groovy…a snippet of 1960s art.

A fondue pot. I remember using a fondue pot in my high school home economics class.

I remember using a fondue pot in my high school home economics class in the 1970s.

Sit a spell in this 60s corner or lose some inches on that exercise equipment, left.

Sit a spell in this 60s corner or lose some inches on that exercise equipment, left. Well, consider it, but don’t actually do it.

A 1950s place setting. I collection vintage tablecloths.

A 1950s place setting. I collect vintage tablecloths.

IN THE FASHION ROOM:

Clothing and sewing equipment from times past suggests how far a generation or two have come.

Clothing and sewing equipment span generations in The Fashion Room.

IN THE HALLWAY:

An old radiator and old windows.

An old radiator and old windows show the character of this aged former school.

IN THE MARY DELZER ROOM:

Remember making these silhouettes from black construction paper? I hadn't thought about these in decades. Janis Ray had her students create these profiles each year as a gift to their parents.

Remember making these silhouettes from black construction paper? I hadn’t thought about these in decades. Former educator and WCHS director Janis Ray had her elementary aged students create these profiles each year as a gift to their parents. These are displayed in a room dedicated to education and in which Janis taught.

IN GRANDMA’S ATTIC:

In Grandma's Attic you can buy garage sale type items, like these lamps, with proceeds benefiting the WCHS.

In Grandma’s Attic you can buy garage sale type items, like these lamps, with proceeds benefiting the WCHS. I really should have purchased the two matching lamps. Aren’t they fabulous?

IN THE OFFICE:

A recent donation awaits research and placement.

A recent donation awaits research and placement.

School letters left-over from West Concord High School are available for purchase.

School letters and numbers left over from West Concord High School are available for purchase. West Concord is now part of Triton Public Schools (West Concord, Dodge Center and Claremont). West Concord Public Charter School, however, is open in the community.

FYI: If you missed my first post on the West Concord Historical Society museum, click here. Today’s post is the second in a three-part series.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I: Keeping the history in West Concord March 31, 2015

EVERY COMMUNITY NEEDS a Janis Ray and a team of equally enthusiastic volunteers.

Janis Ray sits at the desk in a former classroom turned office space.

Janis Ray at her desk in a former classroom turned office space.

“We’re the keeper of the history,” says 86-year-old Janis, former educator and a current director/gambling manager of the West Concord Historical Society.

The 1902/1914 school is on the left, the 1936 gym on the right. Museum left, community center right. To enter, use the door between the buildings, in the area where the red car is parked in this photo.

The 1902/1914 school is on the left, the 1936 gym on the right. Museum left, community center right. To enter, use the door between the buildings, in the area where the red car is parked in this photo. The school closed in 1991.

My husband and I met Janis recently while on a meandering day trip to several small towns in southeastern Minnesota. In West Concord, population hovering near 800, we happened upon the historical society and community center housed in an old school. After the school closed in 1991, the WCHS purchased the 1902/1914 building and the attached 1936 gym for $1, saving the complex from planned demolition. Several years later, the museum opened in this hulk of a multi-story brick building, the kind that can never be replaced in character and visual strength by a new facility.

A West Concord Centennial poster hangs in a hallway outside the research room.

A West Concord Centennial poster hangs in a hallway outside the research room.

I appreciate this museum, this building, even though I have no personal connection to the West Concord area.

Clothing and more of yesteryear grace The Heritage Room.

Clothing and more of yesteryear grace The Heritage Room.

Beautiful handmade quilts are displayed.

Beautiful handmade quilts are displayed.

The Veterans Room honors local men and women who served their country.

The Veterans Room honors local men and women who served their country.

This structure houses not only local history, but everyone’s history. Or at least everyone who grew up in rural Minnesota. I delighted in room after former classroom themed to topics like veterans, fashion, farmers and merchants, education, the 1950s and 60s, heritage and more. Even hallways hold small town rural treasures.

Pull-down maps like this one of Minnesota remain in some classrooms.

Pull-down maps like this one of Minnesota remain in some classrooms.

Reminders of the building’s former use linger in blackboards, globes, pull-down maps and the “Principal’s Office” sign above The Farmers & Merchant Room doorway. You can almost hear students slamming locker doors and shuffling across worn wood floors.

The roof of the aged school is topped with this unique architectural structure.

The roof of the aged school is topped with this unique architectural structure.

I know I missed a lot simply because we arrived too late to study the three stories of collections in detail. The place closes at noon Saturdays and Janis was gracious enough to let us stay a bit past closing. Yet I left impressed. This is one of the finest small town museums I’ve ever toured.

A drawing of the 1902 school hangs in a hallway.

A drawing of the 1902 school hangs in a hallway.

And, Janis will tell you, the largest in the area. She is proud of what this community has created. She graduated from this school and taught elementary school students here for 36 years. Her roots run deep.

Admission cost is a donation.

Admission cost is a suggested $4 or a donation.

Perhaps that is what appeals to me—that personal connectedness spawning passion unquelled. You can’t match small town enthusiasm that brings locals like Janis here to volunteer 25 hours a week. She manages the liquor store pulltab fundraising which brings in $10K-$12K yearly to help meet annual historical society expenses of around $70K. Membership (there are 260 members from 24 states) and donations provide the remaining bulk of financial support. There’s no paid staff.

The museum includes The Cardinal Room filled with West Concord High School activity memorabilia.

The museum includes The Cardinal Room filled with West Concord High School activity memorabilia.

Janis is serious about this business of keeping the history. She delights in young people coming here with their parents or grandparents, generations passing along the histories of this community and building to another generation.

The museum feels living room comfortable, like this 1950s living room set up in The 50's and 60's Room.

The museum feels living room comfortable. This 1950s living room staged in The 50’s and 60’s Room includes the first TV (a 1950 model on the left in this photo) sold in West Concord.

I felt at ease here, unencumbered by rules. Photography is allowed. You can meander among the exhibits; no ropes or half-walls fence you out. There’s a certain comfortableness that prevails, as if everything here belongs to you, even when it doesn’t. But perhaps it does.

There's even a room to do research.

There’s even a room to do research.

FYI: The museum is open from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. weekdays and from 10 a.m. – noon Saturdays. Or call 507-527-2628 for an appointment. The museum is located at 600 West First Street, a block west of Highway 56 at the intersection with Olive Street. Click here to reach the WCHS website.

I will showcase the museum in two more posts because I have way too many images for a single story. And then I’ll take you into the West Concord High School gym built as a WPA project in 1936. It’s a treasure, too.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling