Watch Minnesota’s Past Come Alive at Historic Sites

By James Riemermann

At its most exciting, learning about Minnesota’s history means watching the past come alive. Several of the state’s popular historic sites sponsor living history programs, where costumed historical characters introduce you firsthand to the sights, smells and sounds of the past. A number of Minnesota’s many fine historic sites incorporate this “living history” approach to learning about Minnesota’s early days, where costumed interpreters play roles and even specific historic characters.

These sites, and many others throughout Minnesota, offer more conventional approaches to teaching history as well, with knowledgeable interpreters and well-researched, interactive exhibits, films, artifacts and visual displays. But the living history element is especially immersive, offering not just knowledge but a feel for the lives you’re learning about. It’s fun for all, and especially for kids.

Some sites go all-in, with interpreters immersing themselves fully into their roles, speaking in the lingo of the times, seemingly unaware of the 21st century. Others take a softer approach, wearing historically appropriate garb but stepping out of character to offer modern context and answer questions in detail. Additionally, many sites offer orientations beforehand, and provide opportunities to answer follow-up questions after the tour.

Forest History Center

Grand Rapids, 218-327-4482, foresthistory@mnhs.org

Open: Labor Day-mid-June: Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday noon-4 p.m.; mid-June-Labor Day: daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Forest History CenterOne of Minnesota’s most extensive living history programs is the Forest History Center’s logging camp, modeled after North Woods Logging Camp #1 on Dec. 15, 1900, a time when more than 300 such camps operated in Minnesota’s vast forests.

You’ll be sent down a short trail through the woods (“It’s just a couple days’ walk.”) to the logging camp office, which also serves as a camp store with a few basic goods. At the door, the ink slinger (or clerk) might ask you to kick the snow off your boots (even in August) and let you know what jobs are available on the crew.

Next on the tour is the bunkhouse, where more than 70 lumberjacks slept on hay, two each in the bottom and top bunks, with wet wool socks and underwear hung overhead to dry. What little was left of the evening after a hard day’s work might be spent playing cards (no gambling allowed!) or dancing to tunes played on a mouth organ, spoons or accordion if there was a player in the camp.

Next is the cook shack. Food was hearty and plentiful—all you can eat in 15 minutes, including mass quantities of pancakes, beans, potatoes, pie, bread and more. The only talking allowed in the shack was asking for more food.

At the filer’s shack, two-man “misery whips,” or saws, were painstakingly sharpened and maintained. Visitors will often have a chance to team up and saw a “cookie” from a log. Next is the blacksmith’s shack, where horseshoes are forged and fitted to horses, and affixed with spikes to give the great animals traction on the ice roads.

Visitors also get to meet the gentle, powerful horses that pull the sleighs, running from 1,500 to 2,500 pounds. They love kids, being petted, and hauling mighty loads, as visitors see in live demonstrations.

A short walk to the Mississippi River leads to the wanigan, a raft that served as headquarters and cook shack for the spring log drive, when timber cut the previous winter was floated downriver to sawmills in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. The center also includes 5 miles of self-guided nature trails and a variety of interactive exhibits, displays and multimedia presentations at the visitor center.

Special events are presented each year, listed at the page linked above.

Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site

Little Falls, 320-616-5421, lindbergh@mnhs.org

Open: Memorial Day weekend-Labor Day: Thursday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-5 p.m.

Charles A Lindbergh Historic site - courtesy of
Charles A. Lindbergh Historic site, used with permission

The Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site is the boyhood home of the great aviator, who made history with his 1927 flight from New Your to Paris in the “Spirit of St. Louis,” featuring hands-on activities around the family’s daily life. Living history programs here are limited to special events days, with guided tours and exhibits at other times. This year most of the scheduled programs will be focused on World War I, 100 years after the U.S. joined that devastating war. Two Saturdays a month from June 3 through Sept. 2, the site will host “Families on the WW1 Homefront.” Costumed interpreters will portray the Lindbergh family and neighbors responding to the patriotic call to support American soldiers serving Europe, including hands-on activities for visitors.

The visitor center has various exhibits that shed light on young Charles’ early life and influences, as well as an opportunity to climb inside and operate a full-scale flight simulator replicating the “Spirit of St. Louis,” the plane in which he took his most famous flight. A 1920s-style movie theater shows original footage of Lindbergh’s flight shows.

There are also exhibits on more troubled and troubling aspects of Lindbergh’s life, such as the tragic kidnapping and death of his baby son Charlie; and his deeply controversial views on Nazi Germany leading up to World War II, views that changed following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when America entered the war. Also on-site are walking tours and a nature trail down to the nearby Mississippi River, which links to the trails at nearby Charles A. Lindbergh State Park. A brochure is available for a driving tour of other Lindbergh-related sites in Little Falls.

Historic Forestville

Preston, 507-765-2785, forestville@mnhs.org

Inside Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park

Open: May until Labor Day weekend: Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; late May through Labor Day: Thursday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-5 p.m.

Historic Forestville
Historic Forestville, used with permission

Forestville began as a pioneer town in the 1850s. By the 1890s, after the railroad bypassed the town, Thomas Meighen’s general store was one the few businesses left. At that point Meighen was the only employer in town, paid workers in store credit, and rented them houses that he owned.

Visitors are immersed in that world from the moment they cross the Carnegie Steel Bridge, built in 1899. All the characters you meet and converse with, along with the artifacts in all the rooms, have been painstakingly developed, telling you about everyday life for the Meighen family and workers in the town, based on family letters, diaries, work records, and other historic data. The portrayals are as authentic as possible, all aimed at helping visitors learn firsthand about small-town life at a time of economic and population decline.

The hour-long tour starts every 15 minutes with an orientation by a staff person; at that point, costumed living history interpreters stay strictly in character as you move through four different stations. You can also walk the grounds outside the house, where interpreters show the practices and crops of a 19th century farm.

The site features special events most Saturdays from May through August--follow the link above for details..

The 18-acre historic site is inside of Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park—well worth a visit—and requires a state park permit.

Grand Portage National Monument

Grand Portage, 218-475-0123

Open: Late May through Labor Day: Daily 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
(Heritage Center additionally open Monday-Friday through late May)

Rendezvous Days at Grand Portage Monument, used with permission
Rendezvous Days at Grand Portage Monument,
used with permission

Part of the National Park Service, Grand Portage National Monument is maintained on reservation land donated by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe), and operates in partnership with the band, most notably on the site’s biggest, most ambitious event of the year. The Grand Portage Rendezvous and Powwow, on a three-day weekend in August, combines a fur traders’ rendezvous and encampment, and an adjacent powwow celebrating the living traditions of the Ojibwe people, whose guidance was invaluable to fur traders. At the powwow, visitors and tribal members alike may attend the ceremonial dances, and vendors offer a wide selection of arts, crafts and Native American food.

At the rendezvous, fur trade reenactors from across the country and Canada gather for camping, demonstrations and games of traditional voyageur skills, plus music, dancing, crafts and hands-on workshops, all with an eye to authenticity of dress, equipment and materials for the period of 1730-1804.

Outside the dates of the event, the Historic Depot has a voyageur encampment with a great hall, kitchen, heirloom gardens and more. The Heritage Center is a beautiful 16,600-square-foot building with exhibits and galleries highlighting Ojibwe culture and the fur trade, multimedia programs, and a bookstore. Also on-site is the scenic 1-mile Mount Rose Trail and Loop, with impressive views of Grand Portage Bay on Lake Superior.

For more information: