Cultural IMPACT (October 2022)

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Definition of impact

1a: to have a direct effect or impact on Merriam-Webster Dictionary

to have a strong effect on someone or something.

Oxford Languages



Definition of culture

1a: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time

b: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization

c: the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

d: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

2a: enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training

b: acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills

Culture is all around us. It’s in our food, our entertainment, our architecture, our history. It’s in the languages we speak, and the words we use to describe ourselves and others. It’s in the stories we share, and the projects we choose to take on.

Our culture — and that of those around us — shapes us, informs us and inspires us to make the world a better place for those who will come after us.

contents Stories and photos by IMPACT 2021 A publication of West Central Tribune, OCTOBER 2022 2208 Trott Ave S.W., Willmar, MN Tom Cherveny / reporter Jennifer Kotila / reporter Shelby Lindrud / reporter Dale Morin / reporter Linda Vanderwerf / reporter Macy Moore / photographer PUBLISHER: Steve Ammermann EDITOR: Kelly Boldan MAGAZINE EDITOR: Kit Grode MAGAZINE DESIGNER: Christopher Johnson AD MANAGER: Christie Steffel Welcome
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06 Renville Friends of the Arts celebrates two decades 12 DiversityUSA brings cultural connection to Montevideo 16 Pandemic sparks a community resource through Facebook 22 Prairie Pothole Day aims to support conservation efforts 26 Cultural liaisons bridge divide at Willmar Public Schools 30 GAR Hall offers a window to Litchfield’s past 34 Dakota Wicohan works to preserve a way of life 38 Association works to bring the arts to rural western Minnesota 40 Norway Lake tells stories of first pioneers, new immigrants 44 Annual Meander connects communities with the artists among them 48 Country store offers a smaller, more personal way to shop 52 Community orchestra going strong after 65th year 56 YES House building a space for Granite Falls arts community 58 Litchfield group hard at work reviving Opera House 4 | WEST CENTRAL TRIBUNE - OCTOBER 2022

20 years and counting

Renville Friends of the Arts going strong after two decades

RENVILLE — In January 2002, a group of art lovers from around the city of Renville gathered together to form an organization that for the next two decades would play a huge role in the promotion of the arts in the region.

“I know people were really inter ested in the arts and wanted to keep them alive,” said Raye McKim, a founding member of the Friends of

the Arts organization.

Twenty years later, while the Friends of the Arts board has gotten smaller, the group’s dedication to the arts has never wavered. The hope is the group can soon call on the next generation of artists and art fans to move Friends of the Arts into the future.

“You need new people with new ideas,” said member Deanna Doerr.

Over the years, Friends of the Arts has sponsored a variety of events and programming including variety shows, bus trips to see shows and exhibits, an annual photo contest, a book club and fundraisers such as the chicken dinner. In February 2019, the group put on a Dad-Daughter Dance at the Renville Community Center, an event they hope to put on once again.

Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune Renville Friends of the Arts presents “The Trip to Bountiful” as its spring production in May 2022. Fittingly enough, it was the organization’s 20th play in its 20th year. Playing mother and son Carrie and Ludie Watts are long-time FOTA actors Bev Raske and Paul Knapper, who work through a scene during an April 30 dress rehearsal.

Founded in 1956 by Carl Marcus. Ross Marcus joined the family business in 1984 and took over as CEO in 1995. Today we are excited to announce Ross has welcomed Taylor Marcus and Darin Bushard to join him in ownership.

Founded in 1956 by Carl Marcus. Ross Marcus joined the family business in 1984 and took over as CEO in 1995. Today we are excited to announce Ross has welcomed Taylor Marcus and Darin Bushard to join him in ownership.

Founded in 1956 by Carl Marcus. Ross Marcus joined the family business in 1984 and took over as CEO in 1995. Today we are excited to announce Ross has welcomed Taylor Marcus and Darin Bushard to join him in ownership.

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Marcus Construction is made up of two business units, Agribusiness Industries and Commercial/Industrial. Agribusiness Industries includes dry fertilizer storage, chemical & seed warehouses, office and training centers, and complex renovation projects. Commercial/Industrial includes commercial, retail, industrial, health care, financial, corporate, restaurants, educational and worship facilities.

Marcus Construction is made up of two business units, Agribusiness Industries and Commercial/Industrial. Agribusiness Industries includes dry fertilizer storage, chemical & seed warehouses, office and training centers, and complex renovation projects. Commercial/Industrial includes commercial, retail, industrial, health care, financial, corporate, restaurants, educational and worship facilities.

Marcus Construction is made up of two business units, Agribusiness Industries and Commercial/Industrial. Agribusiness Industries includes dry fertilizer storage, chemical & seed warehouses, office and training centers, and complex renovation projects. Commercial/Industrial includes commercial, retail, industrial, health care, financial, corporate, restaurants, educational and worship facilities.

“That was really well attended. The girls and their daddies, grandfathers, uncles came and had a great time,” said member Bev Raske.

Another program geared toward the children that the group wants to bring back after a coronavirus hiatus is the Prairie Fire Children’s Theater. The theater group comes and gives schoolchildren the chance to put on a show, usually a fairy tale such at Peter Pan or Aladdin.

“They come with all the props and everything,” Raske said. “We hope to have it next spring.”

Then there are the scholarships that have helped doz ens of students over the years continue their arts educa tion, including financial assistance to attend competitions or receive additional training. Friends of the Arts has awarded more than $12,000 in scholarships in the past 20 years.

“It promotes the arts,” McKim said.

Friends of the Arts was also instrumental in providing funding for improvements at the Renville County West small gym, which is also used as the main theater per formance space in the community. Two grants from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council helped pay for both a mobile sound system and stage lighting.

“We don’t have a theater where the seats remain there — it is in the small gym — but it is kind of a classic,” said member Paul Knapper. “It takes some effort but it is worth it to have a production there.”

The value of entertainment

Friends of the Arts knows the value of good lighting and sound when putting on a play. Since about 2005 the group has staged 20 productions, sometimes two shows a year.

“The performances here are very professionally done,” Knapper said.

Friends of the Arts is probably best-known for its per formances of the “Don’t Hug Me” series of plays, which are musical comedies based in the fictional town of Bunyan Bay, Minnesota, in the North Woods.

Other plays the group has performed include a few different Christmas shows, along with “Leaving Iowa”, “Cemetery Club”, “Savannah Sipping Society” and “Clue.” Most of the plays are comedies or musicals. In May 2022, though, the group tried their hand at a drama, “The Trip to Bountiful.”

“The reputation is out there,” said member Joel Bak ker. He said he is always being asked when the next play will be.

The group has a dedicated number of actors who have shared their talents on stage for many different produc tions. Knapper, Raske and Bakker have shared the stage together many times. That closeness is one of the reasons why they keep coming back for more.

“It is a very strong and amazing ensemble,” Knapper said. “Not many towns can say that.”

The current members of the Friends of the Arts, based in Renville, are dedicated to keeping the organization going. Pictured are Joel Bakker, Bev Raske, Raye McKim, Deanna Doerr and Paul Knapper.
The key word is access, [and to] have something else to do than sit in front of your computer and not socialize with anyone.
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Photos contributed / Friends of the Arts

Top: In November 2019, Friends of the Arts staged a performance of the “Savannah Sipping Society.” Middle: Friends of the Arts presented the play “Polyester the Musical” in April 2018.

Bottom: The series of plays Friends of the Arts is probably best well known for is “Don’t Hug Me.” In April 2019, the group presented “Don’t Hug Me We’re Family,” the fifth play in the series.

Taking part in a stage pro duction is both a challenge and an enjoyment. Those who have acted on stage in Friends of the Arts shows said they like the feeling of putting on a good show and enjoy the reac tions they get from the audi ence. The talent and experi ence of the actors is something audience members can see.

“I’ve never seen a spot when someone didn’t know what to do,” Doerr said. “They do a good job.”

Keeping art accessible

Providing community mem bers with access to the arts is one of the main missions of Friends of the Arts, and one the group takes seriously. They want members of the commu nity to be able to experience the different types of art — and perhaps share their own talents. After all, one doesn’t have to be a great painter or singer to enjoy the arts.

“It makes the community more rounded,” McKim said. “There is just something about the arts.”

The arts also give the com munity a chance to experience a performance or exhibit together.

“The key word is access,” Bakker said, and to “have something else to do than sit in front of your computer and not socialize with anyone.”

As Friends of the Arts enters its third decade, the dedicat ed group of board members that are keeping it running continue to plan for its future. Raske is already working on the holiday play, to be staged sometime in late November, and has ideas for the show in spring 2023. The group is also putting out a call for new actors and board members.

The members of Friends of the Arts are certainly proud of the work they have done and are hopeful for the future.

“We need to keep going,” Raske said.

You may contact the author at


Culture at center stage

Montevideo-based nonprofit brings cultural diversity to live performances

Contributed photos Leo Gunner Baker, a member of the Upper Sioux Community, and his children perform a Dakota prayer for attendees at a cultural diversity council celebration at the Hollywood Theater in Montevideo

MONTEVIDEO — Cultural diversity has taken cen ter stage in Montevideo and the Upper Minnesota River Valley.

That’s by design — and for the sheer fun of it.

There’s just no better way for people of different cul tures to get to know one another and build friendships than to join and make music and put on a show togeth er, according to Debra Lee Fader, board member and one of the founders of the Council Diversity Council of the Upper Minnesota River Valley, now going by the name Diversity

“It really works,” Fader said. “Everybody loves to go out and celebrate.”

That’s what the nonprofit group of citizens in Mon tevideo and the Upper Minnesota Valley area have been doing for more than a decade now.

The group hosts an annual holiday or Christ mas-themed show on the stage of the Hollywood Theater in downtown Montevideo. Local talent from different cultural backgrounds put on live performances featuring music, theatrics and more.

The council has supported a variety of other events to promote cultural diversity and friendships in the valley as well. The group hosted an exhibit by Granite Falls artist Jammie Niemeyer, “Diversity an Eye on Our Growth,” in which she explored her African American roots following the death of George Floyd.

Niemeyer’s exhibit is now on display at the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council in Marshall.

The group has hosted and supported musical events, such as a mariachi band performance, and has also brought people together in prayer during Montevideo’s annual Fiesta Days celebration.

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Just a fraction of the region’s diversity

That tie to Fiesta Days is important.

Fader, who previously served as mayor in Mon tevideo, pointed out that the community has the nation’s longest-standing sister city relationship by virtue of its ties to Montevideo, Uruguay, that date to 1905. A statute of South American liberator Jose Artigas, a gift from Uruguayan school children, has been standing over downtown Montevideo since 1949.

This long-standing relationship, and its empha sis on celebration, has played a role in helping Montevideo welcome and embrace its Latin com munity today, Fader noted. Roughly 8% of the community of more than 5,000 people are of Latin heritage today.

The Upper Minnesota River Valley area is much like the state as a whole when it comes to growing diversity in its population. The Micronesian com munity represents roughly one half of the popula tion of nearby Milan, and has a strong presence in Appleton as well.

The region is also the home of the Dakota people and the Upper Sioux Community. One of the most powerful moments in the annual celebration at the Hollywood occurs when Upper Sioux Commu nity member and artist Leo Baker shares a Dakota prayer with those who join, Fader said.

The diversity council stumbled on its formula for promoting friendships in 2010, when current mem bers Ruth Ann Lee — owner of the Hollywood — Fader and others decided to host a Christmas party featuring local talent at the theater.

“What we found is the people that were in our show were of so many diverse cultures,” said Fader. “We just started adding to it every year.”

Lee said the organizers decided to make things more formal, and obtained a nonprofit status to allow it to move forward.

“Music brings us together,” said Sandy Lynn Erickson, a member of the local group’s board of directors. She said communication comes down to two things.

One is a smile, she said, explaining that it is an immediate welcome to the other person.

And the second is music, which is the univer sal language.

“Sometimes we don’t understand each other, but that smile and twinkle in their eye says I care about you,” she said.

Good food helps too, she noted, and the council’s events and works always feature opportunities to enjoy the foods of the various cultures.

The COVID pandemic interrupted the group’s work last year. Fader put together a video presenta tion from the previous years of holiday performanc es to take the place of the annual get-together.

This year, it’s back to form. The Hollywood The ater will be hosting a salute to “Hometown Heroes” featuring performances by local people of diverse cultural backgrounds on Friday, Dec. 2, and every one is welcome.

Details on this and other activities by the group can be found on its website, You may contact the author at

Music brings us together. Sometimes we don’t understand each other, but that smile and twinkle in their eye says I care about you.
-Sandy Lynn Erickson
Jammie Niemeyer exhibited her 44 art works exploring social justice and her Afro-American Heritage with support from the Cultural Diversity Council of the Upper Minnesota River Valley, now known as Her exhibit is currently on display at the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council center in Marshall.


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‘It takes a village’ Facebook group grows out of pandemic, continues to be community resource

Contributed photos / West Central Tribune

The logo for the It Takes a Village — Willmar Facebook group, which started at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 and still remains active in the community two years later.


WILLMAR — People in the Willmar area may not have realized they needed something like the Facebook group It Takes a Village — Willmar until it was here.

The group launched in March 2020 just as many parts of the community were closing down at the beginning of a global pandemic.

Since it started, the group of 6,100 area residents has shown a caring and generous side in the community. It was always there, but the Facebook group brought that spirit into the open.

Renee Bart, a relative new comer to the Willmar commu nity, started the group in 2020 as a way for people to help each other at a time of short ages and uncertainty.

“I was hoping to find a centralized place for people to post their needs and resources in the community as things might be getting hard in the near future — no such luck,” Bart, 30, wrote in her first post on the group. “So, if the impending health crisis means your family is now in need of some extra support, you have some resources to share, or you see something in the com munity that could help, your posts are welcome here.”

Need advice on hiring a handyman? Want to know if a contractor does good work? Not sure how to get your kids registered for school or find school supply lists? Someone in the group will probably be able to help.

Advice and offers of help can pile up quickly when some one asks a question. Sometimes the first response shows up in minutes.

Posts remind people of food distributions or community center events.

We moved to Willmar just over two years ago and knew no one. I stumbled across this Facebook group and found incredible service opportunities in Willmar. As a result of that service I’ve felt connected to the community of Willmar as a whole and met some amazing people that I now call my friends. — Jacob and Sarah Miller, members of the It Takes a Village Facebook group

Posts about missing pets or found pets are frequent. So are posts about stolen bikes. Pets are frequently found. Bikes are found, too, but not as often.

The generosity in the com munity can be impressive. Several people will offer a ride to St. Cloud when someone asks for it.

If someone posts about a family starting over from scratch and needing every thing for a new home, offers of beds, dressers and tables are numerous.

A discussion about the best school supplies can grow to dozens of posts.

At first, the group was a way for people to find face masks, canning jars, toilet paper and other items in short supply. Restaurants and other businesses used it to tell people when they were reopening.

Over time it has helped members find someone willing to help move furniture and become a go-to source for finding lost pets.

People in all stages in life use the site. A woman of lim ited means seeks some help in finding work-appropriate clothing to wear to her new job. A mom wants to know who might have a paying job for her 14-year-old.

To someone asking for large rocks for their garden, a reply included a photo of a farm’s rockpile. Come on over, the post said, and if you want more, you can pick up more in the pasture.

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Top: Farmers markets in the area post photos and reminders on the It Takes a Village — Willmar group page on Facebook. Middle: Requests like this can be found on the It Takes a Village — Willmar group on Facebook. They usually draw numerous responses from people offering furniture and household goods. Bottom Left: Milo the cat snuck out of his Willmar home in September. With his photo on the It Takes a Village — Facebook group page, he was found and returned home. Bottom Right: This so-scruffyhe’s-cute dog was lost last summer and found after his photo was posted on Facebook, including on the It Takes a Village — Willmar Facebook group.

“It’s been cool to watch it kind of grow and develop into its own thing,” Bart said. She had moved to Willmar for a job several years ago. During the pandemic she started a graduate program online and has since moved back to her hometown of Albertville. She is pursuing her license in alco hol and drug counseling.

Even after moving to Albert ville, she has continued to be one of the moderators. She also moderates a Buy Nothing group in Albertville.

As the group grew and expanded from the original purpose, she has added moder ators to help keep up with the volume of traffic.

When she wondered if the group should continue recent ly, she asked the group if anyone would be interested in becoming moderators. “I had tons of people say how much the group has impacted their lives and would be willing to help in whatever capacity they could,” she said.

Bart said she’s not aware of another group quite like it. The area has many sell/swap groups and groups that post free items. None of them seem to offer what It Takes a Village does.

“When I talk to people, there’s nothing quite like this group in the community,” she said. “Now that I’ve moved, there’s nothing quite like the It Takes a Village group down here. ... It’s a cool concept to have in a community.”

Bart, 30, seems a little sur prised herself at how the group has evolved.

If she wanted to start one somewhere else, “I don’t even know how I would go about doing that, because it came about so organically.”

Another feature of It Takes a Village — Willmar is its lack of political comment.

“When we started, the only rule or expectation I had for people was to be kind,” Bart said.


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Early on, she said, she called the group a no-judg ment zone, and her atti tude was “the world is crazy right now, we don’t need another space to be judgmental, we don’t need to be putting people down; we need to be supportive of each other.”

A handful of people who couldn’t follow the rule to be kind are no lon ger welcome in the group, she said.

Facebook has filters that have helped moderators catch certain words or block outside websites, and they have helped.

“My philosophy with groups in general is it’s not for everybody,” she said. “The space is unique to the people it serves, and some times it’s not a good fit.” You may contact the author at

It was 10 years ago today that we left California and headed here to Minnesota. Best thing ever! I love the fact that Willmar is a great community that loves and cares for its people. After my hubby had his stroke back in 2014, so many offered to help us out. Then when he passed away 2 years ago, again, the people here stepped up and helped me out. It’s still so hard for me to grasp he’s gone, yet, the friends I’ve made here in Willmar are there for me. I love Willmar, and this group has shown that all you have to do is ask. Everyone helps everyone. — Carol Small, member and administrator of It Takes a Village — Willmar Facebook group

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Inspiring generations

Prairie Pothole Day created to support conservation efforts, outdoors recreation

NEW LONDON — Families and outdoors enthusiasts from all over west central Minnesota flocked to Stoney Ridgey Farm near New Lon don on Saturday, Sept. 10, to take part in the 39th annual Prairie Pot hole Day.

The event, hosted by friends and volunteers of the Prairie Pothole Conservation Association, helps raise money for conservation efforts in surrounding communities.

“This year would have been the 40th,” year for the event, said Tom Hanson, 61, president of the conser vation group, but the group opted not to host the event in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Prairie Pothole Day is designed to get Minnesota families to spend a day outdoors and learn about sporting and conservation through activi ties and exhibitions. Admission has always been free, and different raffles are held throughout the day to help raise money for conservation efforts.

Despite the event’s long history, the Prairie Pothole Conservation Association is adjusting to a new peri od in its life.

According to Hanson, the associ ation formed out of necessity. The group used to be a chapter of the now defunct Minnesota Waterfowl Association, which dissolved in 2019. Hanson said the association is still

looking for other conservation groups with which to collaborate.

“We’re kind of in the fledgling states of getting our name out to dif ferent areas,” he said.

Even with the new uncertainty, the association has been able maintain Woodie Camp, an outdoor summer camp for kids at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls. Han son said a big portion of the day’s proceeds will go toward that camp, as well as the wood duck house building and maintenance that the group does all year.

Hanson said Prairie Pothole Day raised around $15,000 in 2021 and, based on the day’s turnout, he

Photos by Dale Morin / West Central Tribune Cole Nelson, 10, of Willmar, takes aim at a target during Prairie Pothole Day on Saturday, Sept. 10 at Stoney Ridge Farm east of Sibley State Park.
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expects a similar fundraising result from 2022. The event attracts thou sands of people each year, and Han son estimated a 2022 attendance upwards of 5,000 people.

Roger Strand, 86, who owns Stoney Ridge Farm near New London, has been involved with the Prairie Pothole Day since its inception. According to Strand, it developed out of a group of out door enthusiasts wanting to host an event similar to the Game Fair, another outdoor and conservation event held yearly.

“I said if we’re going to do that … then we can hold it at my place.” Strand said. “The rules would be there’s no admission charge and all the children’s events are free.”

Having a permanent location like Stoney Ridge Farm has allowed for generations of people to come to the event to help build an entire community of outdoor enthusiasts.

“Without this property, we can’t exist,” Hanson said. “(Strand) opens up the whole (area) to us and says ‘do what you guys need to do.’ We turn around and, if we see a trail or some thing we want to do different, we take him out, show him and he says, ‘yeah, do it.’”

Strand said the vision for Prairie Pot hole Day was a family-focused event.

“It starts when they’re about that age,” he said, pointing to a small child playing in the sandbox across from his exhibition stand of wood ducks and wood duck shelters. “Then, as they get older, they start to volunteer here and race around the property doing the chores, and now we have third-generation committee mem bers, and nobody makes a dime. It’s all volunteers.”

Strand’s property is a remarkable place for an outdoor event. There are surrounding lakes, rolling hills where the firearm ranges have been set up.

Heavily wooded areas host a camp of Boy Scouts, and other activities including an archery course. Strand’s uniquely designed wood duck shelters dot the entire area.

“It’s unbelievable,” Hanson said. “When we’re out here at the start of August, we see deer, ducks, swans, turkeys, squirrels (and) numerous other birds. It’s just a wildlife habitat out here.”

The 40th annual Prairie Pothole Day is scheduled for Sept. 9, 2023, and organizers have plenty to consid er in the year ahead.

“Lots of different ideas (are) being talked about,” Hanson said. “We basically end up with a core group of exhibitors every year, but we want to expand that and bring in different types of outdoor activities that will just go, ‘wow!’”

You may contact the author at

Kids descend from the rock-climbing wall using their harnesses during Prairie Pothole Day. A series of shooting ranges are set in preparation for Prairie Pothole Day on Sept. 10 at Stoney Ridge Farm east of Sibley State Park. Cattails and reeds help camouflage wood duck shelters near the lake.

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Community connection

Willmar Schools’ cultural liaisons help kids and their families adjust, get involved

WILLMAR — The bilingual cultural liaisons employed by Willmar Public Schools are there to help immigrant or refugee students make their way through school in a new language and new country.

But there’s more to it than that.

The liaisons’ work reaches beyond the schools to help the whole com munity.

Most school buildings in the dis trict have a Spanish-speaking and a Somali-speaking liaison on staff. Sev eral more are assigned to the school district office, including one who speaks Karen. Willmar has a growing population of Karen people, an ethnic group from Myanmar.

Some current liaisons were kids who needed liaisons’ help when they moved to Willmar.

Abdullahi Ibrahim, 26, a liaison at Willmar Senior High School, said his family moved to the United States when he was in fourth grade. After sev eral months in Dallas, the family moved to Willmar.

He had learned some English in school in Kenya, but everything else was new, he said.

For Ifrah Sabri, 27, a cultural liaison who spoke the same language as she did helped her understand, at the age of 12, that people speaking English around her were not talking about her or laughing at her.

Sabri said she is happy to be helping other children now as a liaison at Lake land Elementary School.

Newcomer children can feel as though they’ve walked into a dark room, “and we are the light,” she said. Another part of a liaison’s job is to help children’s families understand the school system in their new country. They translate for conferences and translate notes to be sent home.

“It starts with ‘all children must go to school,’” said Sary “Miny” Miley, a liaison at Lakeland Elementary. Not all countries have that requirement, she said.

“We try to connect them with the community,” she added. Miley, 55, was

Photos by Macy Moore / West Central Tribune Lakeland Elementary School cultural liaison Sary “Miny” Miley greets kindergartener Brissia Mejia Dubon upon her departure from the school bus bright and early on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 22.

one of the original liaisons in the mid-2000s. She is from Mexico and moved to the United States in her 20s.

Liaisons can help kids and families learn how to use public transportation, get vaccinations for children and find other things they need.

“They get the rules to survive,” Miley said.

Giovanna Martinez, 29, a liaison at Willmar Middle School, was born in Willmar to Spanish-speaking par ents. Her first language was Spanish. She was placed in English Language Learner classes at first and became a fluent English speaker through her school years.

While some might hesitate to work with kids in grades 6-8, Martinez said she likes the Willmar Middle School kids.

“They get close to you and tell you why they came, how they came,” she said. “You can build a bond.”

Lately, there have been many newcomers from Nic aragua. Some of the kids have family members who are still in their home country, and some have come to live with a parent or relative they may not have seen for years.

“You need to be there for them and listen to them,” she said. “They’re thrown here in a school with a lan guage they don’t know.”

Ibrahim said, he, too, enjoys the age group he’s working with. When they are at the 9-12 Senior High School, they know they’re “not going to be spoiled,” he said. They are more serious, working hard and focusing on the need to earn credits and graduate.

He tries to give them encouragement and talk to them about what they’ll do after graduation, he said. The high school liaisons run an after-school study hall for homework help.

He and the others recommend that students get involved in sports and activities.

Karen Douglass, who works as the assistant director of teaching and learning, left, Lakeland Elementary School cultural liaison Sary “Miny” Miley, center, and Giovanna Martinez, cultural liaison from Willmar Middle School, speak about their role in helping students adapt to Willmar Public Schools on Friday, Sept. 16.
You need to be there for them and listen to them. They’re thrown here in a school with a language they don’t know.
-Giovanna Martinez
Lakeland Elementary School cultural liaison Ifrah Sabri helps first-grade student Harper Kells feel more comfortable in her classroom at the start of the school day on Thursday, Sept. 22. Willmar Senior High School cultural liaison Abdullahi Ibrahim speaks about his work with high school students on Friday, Sept. 16.

Sabri said she tells parents the physical activity can be tied to brain/academic fitness for their kids.

Lots of kids tend to gravitate toward them, the liaisons said.

“When students see you helping, you look more approachable,” Martinez said.

Miley and Sabri greet students getting off the bus in the morning and make sure they get safely into the building. They will check on stu dents in their classrooms, and contact parents when needed.

“If you see a kid having a hard time, give them a hug, make sure they are safe,” Sabri said.

It’s not only the kids they work with who are drawn to them.

Miley said she can be holding the hand of a newcomer child on the way to the playground, and a child she doesn’t know will take her other hand.

“Kids feel safe when we are there,” she said.

All the advice they give students and send to parents spreads into the community, too.

“It’s definitely a chain, from us to students to siblings to families,” she said. She has seen kids she’s worked with translating for their families in stores.

“We view the liaisons as our link between the school and the community,” said Karen Douglass, the district’s assistant director of teaching and learning. “We want success for all the children.” You may contact the author at

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Lakeland Elementary School cultural liaison Ifrah Sabri greets Naima Hussein as she arrives at school at the start of the day on Thursday, Sept. 22.

Perfectly preserved

GAR Hall in Litchfield acts as a time capsule for Civil War veterans

LITCHFIELD — Since its construc tion in 1885 by the Grand Army of the Republic veterans, GAR Hall in Litch field remains the same as it was when being used by the Civil War veterans who built it as a place to gather, con nect and socialize.

“The building itself is the first GAR hall built in the state,” said GAR Hall and Meeker County Museum Execu tive Director Danelle Erickson. While there were other posts and groups throughout the state, they would use pre-existing buildings or gather in homes. “It’s kind of almost a precursor to the VFW, American Legion, that kind of thing. It was kind of a way for the soldiers to stay connected.”

Currently, Erickson and the Meek er County Historical Society are waiting to hear if GAR Hall will be granted National Landmark status; it is already on the National Register of Historic Places. There are only 25 National Landmarks in Minnesota.

Today, there is only one other GAR Hall still in existence in the state, Erickson said. “So, it’s kind of the first and the last in a way,” she said of GAR Hall in Litchfield. The other remaining hall is located in Mower County.

The Grand Army of the Republic held regular meetings and had thou sands of posts throughout the United States, along with thousands and thousands of members, according to Erickson. There were close to 300 members throughout the years at the Litchfield hall.

“It’s very memorable from the out side, that fortress look. It just kind of shows a lot about the men that were here at the time,” Erickson said about the design of the brick building.

“Another thing unique about this building here is those men all knew

Photos by Macy Moore / West Central Tribune GAR Hall, which houses the Meeker County Museum, was initially constructed in 1885. Today, the Meeker County Historical Society is the caretaker of the building on Marshall Avenue in Litchfield. The Meeker County Museum is attached to the back of the building, and was built in 1961.

they weren’t going to live forever, so as soon as they built it and dedicated it, they then turned it over to the Village of Litchfield,” she said, noting the city had yet to be incorporated. “When the men were done using this after they had passed away or what ever, that then the city would take over and kind of become caretakers.”

And the reason you step back in time to the late 1800s and early 1900s when stepping through the front entrance is because the deed for the property specifically spelled out that the building was to be pre served and used in a manner that maintained its original purpose — to honor the Civil War veterans and pre serve their history.

The old wooden chairs upon which those veterans sat during meetings

are set up as if there will be a meeting tonight. The altar stands at the front of the room, waiting for whoever is going to lead the meeting. The photos that line the walls are of the members of the hall. The decor is original to the time.

Today, the Meeker County His torical Society is the caretaker. The Meeker County Museum is attached to the back of the building, and was built in 1961.

The Meeker County Museum is two stories of artifacts from the early pio neers. It contains a cabin from Acton Township and the items the family that lived in the cabin used, as well as Dakota Native American artifacts. Also on display are military artifacts from the wars in which the U.S. took part from World War I forward.


In the anteroom of GAR Hall are Civil War artifacts, including cannons, literature and photos of important players in the war.

While some of the men honored at GAR Hall were local to the area prior to the Civil War, many came to Litchfield and Meeker County fol lowing the war.

In 2021, prior to Erickson becom ing executive director, there was a group of local citizens who were concerned the history of the building was not being maintained in accor dance with the deed.

“I came in on the end of it and kind of gathered bits and pieces here,” Erickson said. “The people that were concerned, we met with them, and really, our goal is the same — to preserve the history. Just kind of different views on how that was done.”

Coming in as the new director, Erickson and the group pulled out the historic documents, including the 1885 deed, to really understand the intentions of the original mem bers when they deeded the building to the city.

There is now a handbook so every body is on the same page regarding the care and upkeep of the facility.

Programming at GAR Hall includes Civil War roundtables the sec ond Thursday of every month at 1:30 p.m., with different speakers throughout the year.

“The Civil War, especially for American history, is pretty much one of the most written about bookwise,” Erickson commented. “Each year there are thousands of books, hundreds at least, on the Civil War.

It’s very much a topic that people are interested in, and continue to be interested in.”

GAR Hall and Meeker County Museum are located at 308 North Marshall Avenue, Litchfield, and are



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Cultural connection

Dakota Wicohan works to preserve language, way of life for Lower Sioux Community

MORTON — Decorating bright orange T-shirts was the order of the day for a dozen Native American girls one Tuesday in September.

Some of the girls from the Lower Sioux Community at Morton ironed pre-prepared designs on their shirts; others drew their own artwork using fabric paint at the Dakota Wicohan building in Morton. The shirts would be worn Sept. 30, Orange Shirt Day.

The day honors both the chil dren who died in boarding schools for Native American children and those who survived the schools. The day is observed in Canada and the United States.

Boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries attempted to turn Native children away from their ancestral cultures and languages. Children were sometimes abused,

and unmarked graves are still being discovered at the sites of the for mer schools.

Dakota Wicohan, translated as Dakota way of life, is a nonprofit working to preserve the Minnesota Dakota language, history and culture for future generations. It recently cel ebrated its 20th anniversary.

“Because of what our ancestors endured, we lost a lot of our culture,”

Photos by Macy Moore / West Central Tribune Lluvia Lavlanc Alfarro, 11, from left, Autumn Jones, 10, and Carissa Espinoza, 11, start their afternoon at Dakota Wicohan in Morton with a bowl of soup and a smudging ritual on Tuesday, Sept. 20. The nonprofit is working to preserve the Dakota language, history and culture for future generations

said Gianna Eastman, youth coordi nator at Dakota Wicohan. “We want to be a small part of reviving it.”

The nonprofit organization offers after-school programming for youth, as well as programs for adults. It gives them language lessons and teaches them traditional ways. The program has received grant funding, including ongoing grants from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

Eastman, 27, said she was hired at Dakota Wicohan four years ago, right after college. For her, it seemed a natural fit.

Eastman’s grandmother Yvonne Leith was one of the founders of Dakota Wicohan.

“I remember when my grandma was getting this idea, and it was coming to life,” Eastman said.

As a little girl, she helped her grandmother make items to sell at powwows and community events to raise money for Dakota Wicohan. They made greeting cards, jewelry boxes and wall plaques with words in the Dakota language.

Leith, who died in 2013, had been in a boarding school, Eastman said. Dakota had been her first language, but she could hardly remember it after her time in the school.

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Because of what our ancestors endured, we lost a lot of our culture. We want to be a small part of reviving it.
-Gianna Eastman

Youth-focused programs pass on knowledge

Eastman and youth program assistant Priscilla Gruendemann, 38, work with young people from the Lower Sioux Community most days of the week.

Before the girls began designing their T-shirts, they started the meeting with smudging. One girl took a sprig of sage and lit it in a bowl. As the sage smoldered, she took it around the room so each per son could wave the smoke toward them and around them.

The ritual is “a way to cleanse ourselves,” Eastman said. “If you’ve had a rough day, it’s a way to refocus.”

Carissa Espinoza, 11, said she’s attended programs for several years. “I like it,” she said. “We learn lan guage and how to bead and how to sew.”

Mya Lamebull, 14, was deciding how to finish decorating her shirt, and said she knew why it was important. “We wear orange for the lost children in boarding schools,” she said.

The girls have learned to make ribbon skirts and other regalia worn at powwows. There’s a boys’ drum group in which they plan to make their own drums. Archery is another activity offered through the non profit.

Activities are often a combination of fun and cul tural information.

Boys have a group meeting Monday, girls on Tues day. Dakota language lessons are available for all on Wednesday, and youth art circle takes place Thurs day.

After the art circle, they play lacrosse, which has its roots in Native culture. The youth play with mod ern sticks and then switch to traditional handmade sticks.

In the summer, the youth go horseback riding at a ranch near Morton owned by Eastman’s family.

There’s a strong connection between horses and Native American people, Eastman said. In the past, “they couldn’t have survived without horses; they were like family.”

The Dakota Wicohan youth programs are import ant to both leaders. They have parents and grand parents who were in the boarding schools. Gruende mann’s children have attended the programs, and so did Eastman when she was younger.

The women said they enjoy their work and like helping young people find a sense of identity by shar ing information about their culture.

“For most of the youth and families, they don’t know a lot,” Gruendemann said.

“They’re very interested,” Eastman added. “They want to learn about Native culture.”

An important part of the Dakota Wicohan program is a Sacred Life Council meeting every other Monday. Those meetings focus on suicide prevention.

They talk about why suicide prevention is so important for Native communities.

In Minnesota, Native Americans are three times more likely to die by suicide than other racial groups, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The goal of the meetings is to help young people build a sense of identity and pride in their culture and a connection to their community, Eastman said. You may contact the author at

Top: Dakota Wicohan youth coordinator Gianna Eastman, center, helps students create T-shirt designs reading 'Every Child Matters' during an after-school girls' gathering at Dakota Wicohan on Tuesday, Sept. 20 in Morton. Middle: Dakota Wicohan assistant Priscilla Gruendemann cuts out iron-on logos for children to create ‘Every Child Matters’ T-shirts. Bottom: Liana McKee, 11, right, uses a fabric marker to design her ‘Every Child Matters’ T-shirt

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High-quality arts

Dawson-Boyd Arts Association hard at work bringing performances to western Minnesota

DAWSON — On a Tuesday morn ing in September, otherwise like any other morning in Dawson, the air rang with laughter as audience members at the Memorial Auditori um took in the comedic stylings of Robert Post and his advice on “How to Survive Middle School.”

Post, of Columbus, Ohio, makes the audience laugh and some kids even audibly gasp when he catches imaginary balls thrown at him in a brown paper bag before turning it into literal confetti.

His show is a collection of light hearted one-man sketches, inter spersed with deeply honest video interviews with other middle school students and teachers about some of the issues, anxieties and concerns students might experience in mid dle school.

The show ends with a video of high school students talking directly to the audience about how they got through middle school, assuring all kids in attendance that they’ll get through it too. As proof of this con cept, Post bravely shares his own middle school portrait.

Shows like this are what Luanne Fondell, performing arts director of the Dawson-Boyd Arts Associa tion, describes as some of the most important work that the arts associ ation does for the community.

Bringing the arts to western Minnesota

The Dawson-Boyd Arts Associ ation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening and inspiring its community by pre senting a wide variety of visual and performing arts for all, not just students in the Dawson-Boyd School District.

In any given season, the association aims to have anywhere between six to eight different shows and perfor mances. Over the years, that’s added up to well over 100 shows put on for the community of not quite 1,500 people.

Fondell has been the performing arts director for the Dawson-Boyd Arts Association and the Daw son-Boyd School District since December of 2000. She credits former elementary school principal Vern Ste vens for being the original visionary behind what would eventually become the Dawson-Boyd Arts Association.

According to Fondell, Stevens pushed for having artist residencies in the school, aiming to have an artist to come in for two weeks and work with a single grade level and one art form.

“He built that up to the point where

there were six artists, and every grade level had an artist,” she said.

Unfortunately, Stevens died before voters in a referendum approved the measure that would help build Memo rial Auditorium and plant the seeds for the arts association.

“He was the visionary for what we do today,” Fondell said. “It’s an honor to have been the first person, but it’s on the shoulders of Vern Stevens, who was already bringing phenomenal (artists) from the cities. He knew all this was possible.”

“We also need to provide quality art experiences for people in western Minnesota,” Fondell said, adding that to see similar exhibitions it’s a choice between a three-hour drive to Min neapolis, three hours to Fargo, North Dakota, and two hours to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Contributed photos Luanne Fondell is the head of the Dawson-Boyd Arts Association.

All styles of performance on display

Fondell stressed that the arts associ ation prides itself on hosting an eclectic mix of showcases.

Previous performers have included the Hornheads, a horn group that was part of Prince’s session band from 1991 to 2001.

“To us that’s an example of ‘How did you find them?!’” Fondell said.

She recalled that the Hornheads had been in Montevideo a couple of years before Dawson-Boyd Arts booked them, but she didn’t know that at the time.

“I saw (them) at a showcase in Min neapolis, three years ago,” she said. Fondell wanted to book the group at that time, but then the pandemic happened. “We could have done it vir tually,” she said, “but I thought this has to be in person. … Let’s hold out and do it.”

World-renowned violinist Midori, who performed in Dawson in 2007, is another example. She chose the Daw son-Boyd Arts Association as part of her Partners in Performance program, which spreads chamber music in rural communities.

“We completely sold out,” Fondell said of the concert. “People came from

Country Classics with the Traveling Opry Show, featuring Becky Schlegel, performs as a part of a past Dawson-Boyd Arts Association performance in Dawson.

Minneapolis saying ‘We paid more in gas than we did for our ticket.’ I told them we had to keep tickets affordable for our own community.”

However, Fondell said while it’s nice to do one-off events and shows, the most satisfying experience is watching things build on each other and being a part of events in which artists directly reach out to the community or simply come back.

The money raised from the Midori concert allowed the arts association to do deeper and richer work specifically with the strings program in the school district. Dawson-Boyd Schools is home to one of only eight three-level strings programs in Minnesota.

Fondell credits money from grants, a strong 10-member volunteer board of

directors, support from the community businesses and overall enthusiastic sup port from members of the community for the arts association’s success, which has allowed for exquisite showcases and exhibitions in west central Minnesota.

“I always say we can use Facebook, we can do posters, we can do newspa per ads, we can do radio ... (but) the single most important thing is if some one calls you and says ‘Hey, we’re going to the show. You want to come along?’” Fondell said. “We’ve seen carloads of people from Appleton, Montevideo, Canby, Granite Falls and all these communities that have slowly come to expect a season here.”

You may contact the author at


Telling stories

Old log church near Norway Lake represents the stories of the first pioneers while welcoming the newest arrivals

NORWAY LAKE — The first Euro pean settlers of what is now the area of Norway Lake, north of present-day Pennock, arrived from Norway in 1858. Ten years later, following the U.S.-Dakota War, this community of settlers rebounded and came togeth er to build a little log church. It was

small, only 26 feet by 30 feet, and lasted only seven years, but its impact on the community was big.

Thanks to the Norway Lake Luther an Historical Association, founded in 1997, visitors to the site of that first log church can experience both the religious and cultural impact by

attending a summer vespers service or attending the annual anniversa ry celebration. The association also holds events and programs at the modern-day churches of East and West Norway Lake.

“Part of it involves gathering peo ple, part of it involves coffee and, as

Photos by Macy Moore / West Central Tribune Norway Lake Lutheran Historical Association current president John Hanson walks up to the front door of the old log church north of present-day Pennock on Wednesday, Sept. 14.

far as I know, lefse has always been a part of it as well,” said John Hanson, current president of the association.

History begins with oak logs and nails

The story of the very first Norway Lake Lutheran Church began in 1868 when the log church went up at what is now the corner of 99th Street Northwest and 195th Avenue Northwest north of Pennock. It was made of oak logs and built using only simple hand tools such as axes, saws and square-headed nails.

“Each settler was obligated to bring a log,” said Charles Shuck, a founding member of the association.

The little log church would serve as the center of the grow ing Norway Lake community until 1877, when the decision was made to split the congregation into two and construct the first East and West Norway Lake Lutheran churches. During its short time there were 490 baptisms, 142 confirmations, 72 marriages, 77 burials and 125 services at the log church.

“It (the church) wasn’t big enough to handle all the people that wanted to participate,” said Ed Huseby, founding mem ber of the association.

Soon after the decision was made to split the congrega tion, the log church was dismantled and the wood sent to the parsonage farm to be used in a barn. For more than a cen tury, the site of the little log church was mostly known only through family and church memory. There were burials at the site, but it seems the cemetery was quickly abandoned as new ones were consecrated at the new churches.

“People were buried there, 60-some people perhaps,” Han son said. “Disturbed, the area was farmed.”

In 1916, the 50-year jubilee of the Norway Lake Parish was reportedly celebrated at the site, but for the most part it remained a quiet corner of a farm field. In the mid-1970s, Marvin Hauge and other church members did some investi gative work on the site, including using a metal detector, and were able to uncover several square-headed nails that were probably used in the construction of the church. Those nails are on display at the church site. A memorial marker was also installed.

“He always wanted recognition for that site, for the set tlers,” Huseby said.

The impetus behind wanting to construct a building on the site started with Rev. Joel Njus, Huseby said, and eventually it was decided to build a replica of the old log church. The his torical association was formed in 1997 as part of that goal.

“This has been a very interesting and a very fulfilling project

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Ed Huseby, founding member of the Norway Lake Lutheran Historical Association, shows the craftsmanship that went into constructing an additional structure next to the old log church north of present-day Pennock on Wednesday, Sept. 14 WEST

to partake in,” Huseby said. “When we were building, periodically we would step back and just step back and look at what we were accomplish ing.”

The association wanted the log church to be something more than just a historical marker — to again become an important piece of the parish and community. That started with a dedication ceremony in 1999 and continues today with a calendar of events.

“Pretty soon after it became a building, which was a thing in itself, then it was how do we use the build ing and we’re still talking about that. We think about it every year,” Han son said.

The log church itself holds Vesper services Saturday evenings through out the summer, and also holds a spe cial service at the start of the Advent season, usually around the end of November.

In August, the grounds of the log church welcome people to the annu al anniversary celebration of the church’s construction. People gather for an afternoon of history, stories and music. For the 2022 event, the program focused on the women of the Norway Lake Lutheran Church,

The interior of the old log church north of present-day Pennock is still utilized for special services throughout the calendar year at the Norway Lake Lutheran Historical Association.

stories that sometimes get forgot ten in the history books. Over the last several years the association has told those stories in new ways, such as through short plays written by Norm Hande.

“We want to do things that appeal to (an) audience,” Hanson said. “We don’t want to keep doing the same thing.”

The association also holds its

annual meeting in January and a Syttende Mai celebration around May 17, or Norway Constitution Day. Those events are held at the mod ern-day churches of the Norway Lake parish, but still play a part in keeping the community of the old log church together. All of these events also cel ebrate the Norwegian culture of the original settlers and many of the fam ilies involved today.


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“People are really aware of being Norwegian,” Hanson said. “They are aware of their cultural heritage and they’re proud of it.”

Adding other perspectives to the stories

Over the years, the association has made an effort to reach out to the other native and immigrant com munities that call Kandiyohi County home.

The granddaughter of Chief Little Crow of the Mdewakanton Dakota — along with other members of both the Dakota and Latino communities — have been invited to take part in the association’s events. Huseby fondly remembers introducing a group of young boys to lefse for the first time at one of those events.

“It was just cool to see,” Huseby said.

In October 2019, the association held the program “Common Threads: Sharing Our Immigration Stories.”

During this event, first-generation immigrants who came from around the world told their stories, and attendees reflected on the early set tlers’ experiences while also discuss ing the similarities and differences of the two eras.

“When the people came and told their stories about where they came from, what happened, that means something,” Hanson said. “What ever is involved, when hearing people’s stories it conveys a human connection.”

Members of the association hope it can continue to “gather, preserve and disseminate” the history, stories, reli gion and culture of the Norway Lake

pioneers for years to come, while also inviting others to share their own histories in a mission to celebrate both the similarities and differences between them.

“Hopefully we can add perspective and we can confront some of the complexities and difficult parts of the story,” Hanson said.

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Charles Shuck, a founding member of the Norway Lake Lutheran Historical Association, stands outside the old log church north of present-day Pennock on Wednesday, Sept. 14.

Arts meander

A good idea finds fertile grounds in which to grow

APPLETON — The concept of pro moting an arts economy in a rural setting was unfamiliar to most people in the Upper Minnesota River Valley when Ortonville artist Don Sherman proposed doing just that in the early 2000s.

Fortunately, his proposal fell on the receptive ears of Patrick Moore, owner of Java River Cafe in down town Montevideo at the time, and Dawn Hegland, executive director of

the Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission.

They brought the idea to a few of their artist friends and business own ers in Ortonville and Montevideo, as well as the latter community’s eco nomic development agency.

With a collection of artists on board, $500 from the Montevideo EDA and some supporting business es, the trio offered the first ever arts crawl in the Upper Minnesota Valley

counties of Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties in 2004.

That first Meander proved success ful, said Moore. It generated $12,000 in sales for the participating artists, brought recognition and attention to the individual artists, and let the world know what the Meader’s orga nizers had long maintained — this rural region was fertile ground for the arts.

Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo Actor Sam Hathaway takes center stage in an outdoor play held for the start of the 2012 Meander Arts Crawl in Granite Falls.

It also proved that the arts are something much greater than a cottage industry for the region.

The Meander has proven that point 18 years running now. While the 2022 Meander numbers have yet to be tallied, those from 2021 show just how big of impact it has on the region. The 2021 sales to art ists totaled nearly $140,000.

“It’s a wonderful story of regional collaboration,” Moore said, noting further that that collaboration is a three-legged stool. The Meander is only possible because of the joint cooperation of artists, busi nesses and government.

The benefits are many.

It’s estimated that the event, held always the first weekend in October, attracts upwards of 2,500 people who visit the studios of the 40 or so par ticipating artists each year, according to Kristi Fernholz. She is an artist and serves as facilitator for the annual event in her role as a planner with the Upper Minnesota River Valley RCD.

Contributed Artist Doug Pederson of Lac qui Parle County welcomes visitors to his rural studio with a colorful sign and a helpful arrow pointing to the entrance. Pederson is one of many artists who has taken part in the Meander more than once. WEST

Top: An actor leads fellow actors and audience members in a walking theater presentation marking the start of the 2012 Meander in Granite Falls.

Contributed photos

Middle: The works of a number of Big Stone County artists are exhibited at the Red Barn located at 35131 760th Avenue, Ortonville. Bottom: The Tokheim Studio, displaying the stoneware and works of Gene and Lucy Tokheim, in Lac qui Parle County is among the favorite Meander destinations.

Participants who visit the artists receive “passports,” which helps the RDC learn about the visitors themselves and what they think of the Meander. In 2021, the RDC learned that 39% of the Mean der participants came from within the five-county area, meaning more than one half came from outside the region.

The passports data further showed that 27% came from Greater Minnesota outside of the five counties, while 17% came from the metropolitan area and another 17% came from outside of the state.

Surveys of participants have made it clear — the quality of the art, the pleasure of meet ing and chatting with artists, and the chance to enjoy the fall scenery of the rural coun ties are what they value the most, according to Fernholz.

A full 80% of those visiting Meander artists and studios rated their experience as “excellent,” she said.

Keeping it genuine has been critical. From the start, Moore and Ferhnolz said par ticipating artists insisted that the Meander’s focus remain entirely on quality art.

The lineup of Meander artists has changed as some artists retire, and new and emerging artists get their opportunity. The 2022 Mean der featured six new artists.

While the artists and region do enjoy an economic benefit, Fernholz and Moore believe the bigger rewards are not nec essarily economic. The event helps bolster pride in the region as local residents hear visitors to the area voice their love for what they find.

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Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo
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Personal touches

Taylors Country Store offers shoppers a small-town, family experience

GROVE CITY — Sitting just outside of Grove City to the east is a little store that caters to those who like a more personal touch when shopping for the things they need.

Taylors Country Store offers a variety of locally sourced bulk items that have been repackaged in smaller quantities for customers to purchase. Customers can also purchase larger quantities of things like flour and oatmeal in 50-pound bags.

Steve Taylor built the store from scratch, opening in November 2018. He and his wife previously owned a store in Somerset, Pennsylvania, before sell ing it and moving back to the region.

They lived here in the 1990s before going back to Pennsylvania to be closer to his parents, who have since died, he said.

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to start another store out here or not,” he added, noting he worked at a welding shop for a while.

With encouragement from oth ers, including his wife, they started looking for land. The opportunity to purchase the ideal location arrived when friends from his church, Men nonite Believers Church, were sell ing the plot of land right off of U.S. Highway 12.

“It turned out to be ideal for what I was looking for, right on 12 and a corner lot with major access for traf fic,” Taylor said. “These kind of stores are common in the Pennsylvania, Ohio area.”

Items for sale at the store include granola, jams, homemade bread, seasonings, herbs and natural herb products, candies, deli meats and cheeses, and a variety of other things that come from small companies and family-operated businesses, such as soaps and home decor.

“A lot of the products are from small businesses that would maybe have a harder time selling in larger

stores, but they can sell through small stores like ours,” Taylor added. “Peo ple like this kind of format. It gener ally is cheaper to purchase that way, when you buy in bulk and repackage. Less packaging, virtually no advertis ing cost involved.”

A lot of the bulk goods are repack aged in plastic bags, but some of the products, such as seasonings and candies, are now also packaged in plastic containers for customers’ con venience.

“People like small stores like this because it’s easier — you don’t have to walk so far to find what you are looking for,” Taylor commented. “Older folks (who might) get lost in the really big supermarket, they can browse through here and find what they want more easily.”

He noted that he has people living in retirement homes who come by the busload about once per month to pick up their necessities.

Photos by Jennifer Kotila / West Central Tribune Taylors Country Store is located east of Grove City off of U.S Highway 12.

Top: Employee Hannah Chupp, right, assists a customer as other customers visit and enjoy a Cedar Crest Ice Cream cone. Middle: A variety of personal care items can be found. Outdoor furniture, like these colorful wooden deck chairs, is sold at Taylors Country Store in Grove City. Bottom: Customers can pick up all the essentials, such as eggs and milk.

It’s also convenient for the people who live in Grove City and Atwater, because neither town has a grocery store. And they have a lot of customers from Litchfield as well, all towns along Highway 12.

“(Customers) can drive right up to the porch here. They are in, make their order at the deli counter, meat and cheese. Pick up some bread, milk and then they are on their way again,” Taylor said. “It goes really fast. It’s like a glorified convenience store, I guess.”

He has had Minnesota customers from Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Marshall and Red wood Falls, and customers from South Dako ta, Iowa and other places farther away. Taylor said the furniture they sell outside at the store can’t be found out west or in Iowa.

“The price is right and they’re happy with the quality. They’ll be back and they’ll tell others about it — that’s how we advertise,” he commented. “We’re small. It’s a family in some ways. Church folk, you know, gives the girls from church a place to work, share our values.”

The meats sold at the deli are from Wick’s Meat Shoppe in Kandiyohi, which is a “good-quality product. People recognize it right away and pick it up real quick,” Taylor said.

Another product that is popular at the store is the Cedar Crest Ice Cream from Wisconsin, of which customers can buy a cone to enjoy. “(It is a) smaller company, but the quality is better than most, in my opinion. The best I’ve ever tasted,” he added.

Opening just before the COVID-19 pandem ic struck, Taylor said it was hard to compare how it affected his business. He was expecting increases in business due to just opening, but suspects the pandemic helped to increase his business, as well.

“I’d say we were busier than we would have been,” he said. “Maybe people were comfort able buying, felt safer buying, in a small store. If they were afraid of the virus, they might pick it up in a larger store. I’m just guessing, I don’t know. I just know we were busier.”

It also helped that customers could find things in Taylors Country Store that they


couldn’t find in the larger super markets when shortages struck.

Taylors Country Store did face some shortages of supplies eventually, and is still facing some of that today.

“I’d say we are mostly back to normal, but not quite,” Taylor com mented. “I think now it’s more labor shortage. Companies can’t get peo ple they need to make the product that they sell. That’s my best guess

on that one. I’m going through that same thing. It’s getting busier, but we are very selective on who we hire. It can take a little bit to get the right person.”

Taylor stated he does not want to become a big store like a supermar ket, because people like the feel of a small country store.

“It’s more personal when it’s small. We know what we are selling, we

know the product. We can, most of the time, help people find what they are looking for or explain the product, how to use it,” he said.

“ ... So people that value those things come here, that’s part of why we are as busy as we are. We kind of bring that more personal touch, I guess,” he added.

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Employees Hannah Chupp, from left, and Yvonne Vohler stand in the deli area with Steve Taylor, owner of Taylors Country Store in Grove City.

Labor of love

WILLMAR — For the last 65 years, the Willmar Area Symphonic Orches tra has brought soaring crescendos from composers such as Mendels sohn, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Bach to the local community.

“Having a live orchestra in a community is a feather in that com munity’s hat,” said Frank Lawatsch, current WASO board chair and a vio lin player.

Hundreds of local musicians have shared their talents and passion for orchestral music with the friends, family and neighbors and it is a tradi tion the group plans to continue.

While WASO now plays most of its concerts at the Willmar Education and Arts Center, in its earliest days its stage was a bit novel. The orches tra was founded in March 1957 by Dr. Lawrence and Margaret Opsahl.

Rehearsals were done in their living room and concerts took place on their front lawn.

“He just loved music,” said Barb Holmgren , WASO flute player. “That is why he encouraged people to take their instruments out of the attic and join him in his living room.”

The orchestra has had six directors over its 65-year history.

Lawrence Opsahl led the fledgling

Briana Sanchez / West Central Tribune file photo Stephen Ramsey, Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra director and conductor, rehearses at the Willmar Education and Arts Center in January 2017. Ramsey has been the conductor of the orchestra since 2016.
Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra has been making the sounds of music for 65 years

The Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra has been making and sharing beautiful orchestral music for 65 years. In March 2022, the orchestra put together the concert Equus, which revolved around music about the noble horse.

orchestra for its first seven years, and was followed by Chet Sommers. Som mers, who was also the founder of the music department at the Willmar Community College, would direct the orchestra for half of its existence, more than 30 years. Robert Whitney took over as director of the orchestra from 1997 until 2003, and was followed by Steven Eckblad until 2013. Sergey Bogza then led the orchestra from 2014

to 2016 before the orchestra welcomed current director Stephen Ramsey.

“Each one has increased our ability,” Lawatsch said.

Being the director of the orchestra is full of fun and challenges.

“That is the fun part, being able to conduct the orchestra,” Whitney said. “The challenging part is recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. Keeping those chairs filled so you can play that music.”



For Ramsey, it is definitely a labor of love. In addition to WASO, he is also the music director for the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the University of Minnesota Health Services Orchestra and the Dakota Valley Symphony. For about 22 weeks of the year he travels up to 500 miles a week to direct the various orchestras. Despite the long hours spent driving, he feels it is wellworth it.

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“This is food for the soul. This is a core, a necessity of life,” Ramsey said. “We are warming our souls, we are feed ing our souls.”

What makes WASO special, Ramsey said, is the passion the musicians have for the orchestra.

“The word ‘passion’ is a good one. They are very passionate about having an orchestra in Willmar,” Ramsey said. “They are willing to work really hard to keep the orchestra going and flourish ing.”

For those who play with WASO, the orchestra offers them not only the opportunity to keep their musical skills sharp but also a chance to be part of a music-loving community.

“Everybody coming together to make this music is really enriching,” Lawatsch said.

One of the best things about playing in an orchestra is working as a group to make a piece of music sound good. It might start out as just a bunch of noise, but by the end it can be magical.

“That is what it is about at every level,” Ramsey said. “To hear these golden moments, those ‘shivers up your spine’ moments. That is what keeps everyone attached to this music mak ing.”

The music is as varied as the musi cians playing it.

In the last several years, WASO has performed traditional classical pieces by some of the most famous composers — including Mozart and Dvorak. The scores can be challenging for the musi cians to master, but it is a good chal lenge, Whitney said. It also introduces a wider audience to this type of music.

“You don’t hear this type of music too often on television or radio. You have to go to a concert to hear this type of music,” Whitney said.

WASO has also been known to branch out from the traditional classical reper toire. The concert held in July, “Movie Magic,” featured scores from hit movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Apol lo 13,” “Jurassic Park” and “Titanic.”

WASO has also created themed shows around animals, such as “Equus” in April 2022 or the “Animalia” concert in Octo ber.

“We play such a variety of music,” Holmgren said. “No two concerts are alike.”

One of WASO’s missions is to support and encourage the arts, especially in children. It has held concerts specifi cally for elementary students, and each year holds the young artist concert. The young artist concert showcases one or two young musicians who are chosen through an audition process.

Rand Middleton / West Central Tribune file photo In May 2016, Darcy Lease Gubrud performed “Je veux vivre” from Romeo and Juliette with the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra, directed by Sergey Bogza.
This is food for the soul. This is a core, a necessity of life. We are warming our souls, we are feeding our souls.
-Stephen Ramsey
West Central Tribune file photo The Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra invites other artists to perform during its concerts. In December 2015, dancers from Colleen’s School of Dance 10-12th grade group performed the “Waltz of the Flowers” from Nutcracker, backed by conductor Sergey Bogza and the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra.

Ramsey said inspiring young people to pick up and learn to play an instru ment is not just good for the individ ual but also for groups such as WASO.

“We are planting trees for the orchestra that will be playing in Will mar at its 80th anniversary,” Ramsey said.

Over the decades, WASO has invit ed guest musicians from professional organizations such as the Minnesota Orchestra to perform. Local arts orga nizations have also shared the stage with WASO, including various dance schools and music groups. Ramsey sees this as not only a way to show case the arts but build community.

“We are trying to encourage kinds of behaviors we’d love to see the community exhibit. That sense of collaboration, the sense of mutual community ownership that we are trying to make this a better place,” Ramsey said.

Various studies across the years have shown music to have both health and emotional benefits. Play ing or listening to music can be a cre ative outlet for people, a way to lower stress and anxiety and be a healthy way to deal with emotions.

“What it is all about is a full and complete expression of the full range of human emotions; being able to

capture those in an artistic way. We need that desperately in our society now,” Ramsey said. “We all need to express those emotions and bring them forth in a positive way.”

Well into its seventh decade, the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra has played its role in the community well. There is hope that it will contin ue to be that creative, emotional and community outlet the region loves and needs for decades more.

“I think Willmar is very lucky to have an orchestra,” Holmgren said. “We want people to come and listen.” You may contact the author at Canby Office 1003 St Olaf Ave N Canby MN 56220 507.223.5737 Benson Office 1501 Minnesota Avenue Benson, Minnesota 56215 320.843.4210 The CCU Difference could be higher savings rates, lower loan rates and fewer fees! Offering online banking and mobile banking Willmar Office 501 19th Avenue SE Willmar, Minnesota 56201 320.235.1573 Montevideo Office 2407 E Highway 7 Montevideo MN 56265 320.269.2117 Experience the Credit Union Difference!
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In May 2021, flute player Greta Hulterstrum was one of the Young Artists chosen to perform with the
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Under construction

YES House a welcome addition to Granite Falls arts infrastructure

GRANITE FALLS — Granite Falls is under construction. This rural com munity situated along the Minnesota River is in the midst of an upgrade to its arts infrastructure, a change that has been several years in the making.

There is an established, city spon sored artist-in-residency program.

The Granite Falls Arts Council operates the K.K. Berge build ing downtown, where it offers an ever-changing lineup of exhibits and workshops by local, regional and even national artists.

And, one block over in the heart of downtown, is the YES House.

Building a space for the arts community

The 5,000-square-foot, three-story building is being readied to offer the full package for the arts. Its upper most floor, now completed, features two apartments that are to host visit ing artists.

Plans for the lower two floors call for developing a co-working space, small business incubator, perfor mance venue, art gallery, media lab, youth zone, artist workshop, record ing studio, yoga/dance studio and a rock climbing facility.

“There are a lot of people doing really good work here,” said Ash Hanson, director of the Department of Public Transformation, of the arts economy taking hold in the com munity. The Department of Public Transformation, the nonprofit entity she founded, is working to develop the YES House as part of that arts infrastructure.

The building was gifted by a Gran ite Falls family to the Department of Public Transformation in 2018. Vol unteers helped ready its interior for its new role. A $900,000 fundraising campaign was launched earlier this

Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune Luwaina Al-Otaibi, community engagement and events coordinator, and Ash Hanson, executive director, are working to engage more community members in helping shape the future of the YES House in Granite Falls. They are shown at the YES House on Sept. 21.

year. With its upstairs remodeled, the YES House is now focusing on Phase 2: remodeling the two lower floors.

Looking forward to future developments

Most importantly, the YES House is working to chart its future and engage the community.

In late June, Luwaina Al-Otaibi came on board as the community engagement and events coordinator. She is working to put together a team of residents to help iden tify how the YES House can best serve the community.

Al-Otaibi said a variety of suggestions have already come forward, everything from poetry and literature programs to knitting get-togethers. There are also discus sions about larger events, such as live plays and exhibits.

While Al-Otaibi works to engage the community, her sister, Sarina Otaibi, is also working with a newly-created YES House Futures committee. Its objective is to lay out a five-year plan for the sustainable support of the YES House and its goals.

Connecting and engaging with the community is at the heart of it all, according to Hanson. She said there’s been a gap in communication with the community during the COVID pandemic.

Both Hanson and Al-Otaibi are optimistic about the YES House and the growing arts economy taking hold in the community and region. Al-Otaibi said she has been impressed by how many people in the community are willing to commit their time and energy.

She pointed out that the support comes too from many young people in the community. Despite busy family and work commitments, “they are showing up and sharing their talents because they want it to be a fun and vibrant place to live,” she said.

Contributed / Dept. of Public Transformation Actors performed “Sunrise at Midnight” earlier this year as live productions returned to the YES House in Granite Falls.

“It’s very inspiring to work with these people,” she said. When new ideas are raised, you can always find a group of people around here to make it happen, she added.

She also credits the community’s leadership with help ing foster the growing arts economy.

“I think the leadership is willing to take risks,” Al-Otaibi said.

The goal of the YES House is to support the efforts to make the community a better place to live, and not just through the arts, Hanson said. The mission of the project includes supporting efforts to expand recreational activi ties and other quality of life initiatives.

Art allows rural communities to envision creative and alternative futures, Hanson said.

The benefits of this growing focus on the arts can already be felt, she and Al-Otaibi noted. “People feel proud about where they live and want to be invested and involved,” Hanson said.

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Restoration revival

Litchfield Opera House regaining grandeur previously thought lost to time

LITCHFIELD — The city of Litch field is inviting you to the opera, or at least to see the restored grandeur of its opera house downtown.

The Litchfield Opera House is one of the cornerstones of the city of Litchfield. It has fallen into disrepair twice in its more than a century of existence, and has been revived both times due to its impact on the com munity.

“The building was built in 1900 as the Grand Opera House. It was the grandest opera house west of the Mississippi when it was built,” said facilities coordinator Connie Lies.

The building is constructed entire ly of three-course brick, meaning there are three layers of interwoven

brick. There is no wood structure supporting the building, but some steel was used, which Lies noted was “extremely unusual for the time.”

“When the building was built — 1900, 1900, remember that — it had 360-some electric lights when most places had no clue what electric was,” Lies said. “It was all-electric from the day it was built, which is quite phe nomenal. The city had a power plant built in 1900, and that’s how it ran all the electric lights.”

The building was used as an opera house — attracting the major actors and opera singers of the time, “because it was the greatest one” in the area, Lies said — until the 1920s when vaudeville was replaced by

talking pictures. The building still saw some use after that, but not as often.

“The thing was, you could get on a train in Minneapolis-St. Paul, you could come out here — it took a little over an hour — for a day excur sion,” she said. “ ... They would come to the theater and then get back on the train and go home, sort of like day destinations now.”

The building was almost destroyed twice. The first time it was salvaged due to the Great Depression, and the second time due to its historical sig nificance in the 2000s.

The building renovation and res toration work that began in 2008 continues to this day.

Photos by Macy Moore / West Central Tribune Litchfield Opera House facilities coordinator Connie Lies looks at a display Thursday, Sept. 15 showing the progress over the years to restore the historic opera house in downtown Litchfield.
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Community impact

Historically, the Litchfield Opera House was used as a meet ing place for important events, such as exhibiting Thomas Edison’s phonograph, establishing the Rural Electric Associa tion — the first in the nation — and meeting with state and national politicians.

It has been home to the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars; an induction center for World War II, Korea and Vietnam; and served as a training center before the Litch field armory was built. In fact, there was a shooting gallery in the basement, and the World War II-era restrooms and lock ers are still in the basement.

It was also used as an entertainment venue for sports, plays and concerts, and for community education classes.

The opera house has also hosted a number of weddings, funerals, graduations and other important events throughout the years. Today, the building is the largest venue in town available to rent, and the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association hopes to continue its legacy.

WPA restoration in 1935

In the 1930s, the opera house roof had a leak and the ornate plaster ceilings had fallen. The entire building was in rough shape after decades of limited use.

“But, there was a depression. There wasn’t any money to tear it down, but there was WPA (Works Progress Administra tion) money to fix it up,” Lies said.

And so, the building was completely gutted and redone in 1935.

Pre-1935, the main floor of the opera house was sloped to accommodate seating. It was flattened during the restoration to instead accommodate the grain and chicken shows that became popular in that era.

The original structure lacked a basement, but it was deter mined the building needed the structural support, and so Bert Thulin was contracted in 1935 to construct one.

“The basement was quite an engineering feat,” Lies said.

Thulin would go into the crawl space below the building and blow out a section at a time with dynamite, hauling away the dirt in a wheelbarrow. He poured the concrete floor one threefoot section at a time.

“They never moved the building, not a stitch,” Lies said, noting Thulin’s technique was unusual for the time and the concrete has no cracks to this day. “We have engineers who come here to

Following restoration efforts, new curtains and restored chandeliers are featured in the entryway of the ornate Litchfield Opera House in downtown Litchfield, as shown Thursday, Sept. 15.

see what Bert built and how you would do a building of this size without causing any damage to it and put a basement under it.”

Grandeur lost to time

By the late 1960s, the opera house had lost much of its grandeur. The main space had been eaten up by offices, win dows had been covered by pink aluminum beadboard, the stairs in the lobby were hidden behind walls, and the stage and balcony had been torn out with just a small portion of the balcony remaining.

By 2000, the building was no longer being used and was in significant disrepair, floors and walls covered in moldy carpet ing and wallpaper.

The discussion of what to do with the building went on for years. An eventual reuse study resulted in a split, between those believing there was no use for the building and others who wanted it restored.

A small group of people came forward and offered to pur chase the building for $100,000, less the cost of demolition — or $99,000.

“They offered a 1900 silver dollar with the stipulation and understanding that the rest of the offered amount would be plowed into the building to be used by the public,” Lies said.

The group formed the nonprofit Greater Litchfield Opera House Association, purchased the building and began work on it in 2008.

Putting in long hours

The association began with the outside of the building — replacing windows, installing doors closer to original doors of 1900, and removing the salmon-colored aluminum that hid windows.

Work on the lobby began in 2011, tearing out walls and revealing the original character.

Work underway to install new balusters, posts and treads for the lobby staircases will cost approximately $60,000, according to Lies.

The new windows in the lobby are replicas of the windows from 1900, and it has five chandeliers — three originals and two replicas.

The balcony has been reinstalled but is unfinished. The back part of the balcony original to 1900 still has to be fixed, and the railings have to be replaced as it is currently not possible to see the stage if sitting.

Lies stated the building still has perfect acoustics.

The Litchfield Opera House has been a staple in the community since its construction in 1900.

“ ... It is just fantastic, the sound up there,” she said of the balcony. “Every whisper on the stage — you can hear it. ... I’m just excited that sometime we will have it open for people to have that experience.”

Photos on display show historical events that took place in the building. There is a photo of a funeral for a senator, and another of the annual meeting of the rural electric cooperative shareholders.

All the original light fixtures for the building were found in the basement, although they had been painted over many times. Lies’ husband spent months cleaning them up, even using a dental pick to get paint out of the fixtures’ grooves.

The floor of the opera house has been refinished and is due for another polishing, but that will not take place until all the construction work is complete, according to Lies.

The Greater Litchfield Opera House Association received a generous donation of $17,000 worth of velvet to update the curtains throughout the building, and a woman has agreed to sew them at a reasonable rate.

The stage is currently being rebuilt to be up to code.

“It’s usable — it’s not dangerous — but it’s not theater compli ant,” Lies said, noting new velvet drapes were purchased last year with a grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council.

New panels on the front of the stage will be resemble the origi nal panels in 1900, she added.

The stage also echoes. The SMAC grant will help to upgrade both the sound and the lighting for the stage, from manual to computer-controlled.

A member of the opera house association board is a retired professional sound and lighting person who moved to Litchfield and had worked with artists such as Adele, Prince and Lori Line.

“We have people who are well-suited to being on the board,”

A historic photo shows an appliance demonstration from the Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association at the Litchfield Opera House, as the facility was one of the earlier buildings to have electricity.

she said, noting there is a master finish carpenter and an actress on the board, as well as an editor, retired teacher, bank employee and an accountant.

“A lot of places in small towns, they just can’t get that quality board that can really help round things out. We really see the effects of having that talent within ourselves to draw from.”

Future work on the building is estimated to be about $400,000. The association received a $100,000 Legacy grant, but the group is largely relying on volunteers to do much of the work. Lies noted somebody is usually working at the opera house 30 to 40 hours per week.

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