Center of history

RUGBY – Sixth-graders from Ely Elementary in Rugby were on a scavenger hunt last week at the Prairie Village Museum.

Where was the white sewing machine? What object in the museum has something to do with the flu epidemic?

Teacher Mike Santjer had given the youngsters a list of items that was guaranteed to make them pay close attention to every item in the buildings as it took them through each building in the pioneer village.

Museum director Cathy Jelsing sent two sixth-grade girls in search of the flu-related item, off in the direction of a building filled with vintage cars and buggies. There, they found a doctor’s carriage that was used by a local doctor who treated patients during the 1918 flu epidemic.

Other kids fanned out across the grounds, looking at the hobo camp and the stables, the early 20th century phone company and the city jail, which features a real jail cell.

“They all love the jail,” said Jelsing, who has been director at the Prairie Village Museum since 2011.

Jelsing said the museum has been a popular spot for school field trips this spring, drawing schools from as far away as Minot.

People who come to the museum will see a pioneer village that looks much like a North Dakota prairie town would have looked between the 1880s and 1920s, with a church, a country school, pioneer houses, various businesses, a hobo camp and a Great Northern Railway caboose. There are six exhibition halls and 23 historic buildings, connected with a wooden boardwalk.

The museum, operated by the Geographical Center Historical Society at 102 U.S. Highway 2 SE in Rugby, is open during the summer season from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon until 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $7 for adults; $6 for senior citizens; $3 children ages 7 to 17 and free for children 6 and under. The museum is also offering active duty military personnel and their families free admission through the Blue Star Museums program. Free admission is available to all active duty U.S. military and their family members. The program runs Memorial Day through Labor Day. Identification is required. This is the second year the museum has participated in the program.

During the summer, visitors to the museum come from all over the U.S. and foreign countries. Jelsing said visitors are often curious about Rugby’s claim to fame as the geographical center of North America. They ask museum staff where the stone marker in Rugby is located and whether the town’s claim to fame is actually true.

A 2010 Associated Press article claimed that the true geographical center of the continent is probably actually in a slough, 16 miles southwest of Rugby, 5.2 miles north of Orrin, and 6 miles west of Balta. However, back in 1932, Rugby’s leaders saw a perfect opportunity to attract tourists by making the claim. They built a stone monument calling the town the geographical center of North America. Rugby is the largest town near the center of the continent.

Jelsing said she would someday like to create an exhibit at the front of museum that gives a history of the geographical center of North America. It would provide information to visitors and might also encourage them to explore the rest of the museum.

Jelsing, a former features editor for the Fargo Forum, moved to Rugby with her husband about seven years ago. She served on the museum board and was hired for the director’s position in 2011. She has been able to use her skills as a journalist and public relations writer to update the museum’s website and also to learn more about grant writing. She has also attended seminars to learn how to better display and preserve the artifacts at the museum.

Since 2011, the museum board has focused on making some improvements to the museum displays. Jelsing set up a new display in the museum with photographs and historical artifacts that tell the story of the Germans from Russia who settled in the area at the turn of the 20th century.

Jelsing also wrote grants that are helping to pay for a building renovation that will give the museum a place to put new displays.

Last year the museum started the Friends of the Museum, a volunteer group. “It kind of takes away the cold calls,” said Jelsing, since everyone who signs up for the group is interested in the museum and is willing to work as a volunteer. The leader of the Friends of the Museum also serves on the museum board. Volunteers helped clean up the buildings and set up displays prior to the museum opening for the summer season earlier this month.

The museum is also the site of numerous events throughout the summer. A “museum camp” was a new addition, starting two years ago. Each year there is a new historical theme. Two years ago, the kids attended a “hobo camp” on the grounds, learning how hobos who rode the rails lived back in the 1920s and 1930s. Because the old hobo camp had deteriorated, Jelsing’s husband, Terry Jelsing, helped create the new display. Last year it was a pioneer camp. This year the kids will attend a “Great Norwegian Adventure” camp. The museum camp is open to kids between the ages of 7 to 13 and runs from Aug. 5 to 9.

Visitors can learn about history all summer long, but special events are held throughout the summer as well. A kickoff flea market will be held June 6 at the museum between 4 and 6 p.m. Flea markets will be held weekly through Sept. 19.

June 9 is Pierce County Day, when all residents of the county are admitted to the museum for free.

A rhubarb festival, with special activities for kids, will be held from noon to 5 p.m. on June 30.

A marbles tourney will be held at the museum from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on July 16. People can learn how to play marbles. Hot dogs will be served.

The Village Fair is the big attraction of the summer. It will be held on Aug. 11 at the museum, with live entertainment, pioneer demonstrations and food.