Museum shares historical treasures

WASHBURN The McLean County Historical Society Museum has closed for the summer, but the prairie village is still open for tours by appointment, said curator Vivian Merkel.

The museum, located at 610 Main Avenue in Washburn, includes two main museum buildings, the Joe Taylor Cabin, the Sioux Ferryboat, and an old school house. Up until 1997, the society also maintained historic Fort Mandan, a replica of where Lewis and Clark wintered in 1804.

“It’s just got a lot of wonderful historic stuff in it,” said Merkel. “We’re trying to educate the younger generation.”

Merkel said the items tell the history of McLean County, beginning with a display of rocks and minerals, including birds and animals common to the area, a display telling the history of the Three Affiliated Tribes, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and a riverboat display. There are displays about farming and ranching in the area and the history of the military. There are also displays showing what early businesses would have been like, including a barber shop, a beauty shop, a bridal shop, a doctor’s office and a photography studio. There are also displays devoted to local community groups, such as the history of the Lions Club, the Masons, and the Campfire Girls.

“I’m rapidly running out of room,” said Merkel.

She said the first building in the museum was an early county courthouse. The second building added to the museum was an old furniture store.

The museum receives some funding via a county mill levy and has also benefited from donations and bequests. Merkel has written two grants that brought in some funding to the museum, one that paid for some displays and a State Historical Society grant that will pay for archival supplies.

Merkel said she finds grant writing a bit of a challenge, but it is nice to get the extra income.

Merkel, who has been curator for about 10 years, had previously served on the museum board and as secretary of the organization. She is interested in history, too.

The museum doesn’t have Internet access, but Merkel does historical research on her own time, sometimes tracking down information for people looking into their family history.

“One of the most rewarding things is if I’m able to help somebody locate some long ago relative or distant relative or even a burial place,” said Merkel, who is involved in helping to update listings of burials in the county. She said research into a burial place can be conducted using several resources, including books, online sites such as and, and county records.

Merkel said some of the early settlers were Norwegians, Swedes, and Germans from Russia, which also echoes the heritage of her own family in South Dakota. The area also had a strong Native American presence.

Some families are also interested in locating remnants of an old family homestead, such as a fallen down barn.

Merkel said the museum can’t compete with the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, also located in Washburn, but sometimes visitors to one will be interested in visiting the other museum too. The other day, a former resident who was visiting Washburn stopped in at the museum and talked for an hour.

The museum is also an educational resource and hosts tours by school children a couple of times per year, said Merkel.

For more information about the museum, log on to the McLean County Historical Society website at (