by Dennis Dalman
Kaye Wenker has long been interested in Sartell history – so much so that her home has become a virtual museum with artifacts stored upstairs, downstairs, in her garage and in one cubbyhole or another.
She’s not entirely happy about it, though. Feeling a bit like a reluctant museum curator, she would like to find a new “home” for those objects, so they could be preserved for the future and so everyone could enjoy them.
“I was always hoping when they built a community center, they’d have a room in it for historical artifacts,” Wenker said, her voice trailing off in disappointment.
Much smaller cities, such as Holdingford and St. Joseph, have places to store historical artifacts, she noted.
“Why not Sartell?” Wenker asked rhetorically. “There should be something in the community center or at city hall. Some place. Any place.”
Several members of the Sartell Senior Connection have raised that issue recently. Before the half-cent sales-tax was placed, twice, before Sartell voters on the ballot, surveys were conducted of how residents would like to see the sales-tax revenue spent.
A historical center and a library were high on residents’ priority lists. Many suggested a historical center and/or a library could become part of a community center if one is built someday. The $11-million center is now under construction – without a historical center, without a library.
In St. Joseph, city staff and residents decided about 15 years ago the old city-hall building should be used for the St. Joseph Area Historical Society. Members of that historical society have, throughout the years, created theme exhibits from among the thousands of historical artifacts in storage – theme exhibits such as “Memorabilia from St. Joseph People in the Nation’s Wars” and “Christmas Toys.”
Wenker came into possession of Sartell historical artifacts in 2006 when she and others in Sartell were doing volunteer work, preparing for the Sartell Centennial in 2007. Among their projects was a city-history book and an exhibit of artifacts in the lobby of city hall. When residents got wind the historical committee was seeking memorabilia, many searched attics, basements, garages and discovered treasure troves of objects – from old to very old. Such artifacts included photos, news clippings, high-school yearbooks, school-program booklets, objects from the paper mill and the valve company, and all manner of assorted bric-a-brac redolent of the city’s past.
For some years, the artifacts were stored in an old house on a lot the city had purchased (but not for that purpose). The old, vacant house stood on a lot along Riverside Drive S., but later the city decided to sell the lot. The house was torn down, so the new owner could build a house there.
“We used that old house just to store the stuff,” Wenker said. “None of it was on display or anything. It was just stored there for about two or three years.”
Wenker and others keep hoping for a historical center.
“We have to know where we came from to know where we’re going,” Wenker said, adding that is why it’s so important to preserve and to display artifacts and information about Sartell’s history.
Some of those objects include the “birlers” that are stored in Wenker’s garage. Birlers, she explained, are pronounced “barrelers” They are long poles, like long sharpened lances, about 12 feet long, used to plunge into the river by the Sartell paper-making plant to find logs that might have sunk. The birler wielder would then ram the sharp point into a log, and it would be lifted to the surface.
“I can’t even remember who gave them to me,” Wenker said. “He was moving out of his home and didn’t even know what they were. So I went over to his home and took them when we were collecting artifacts.”
Wenker is glad that man had the sense the objects might be of historic value. She wonders how many people come across “old” stuff in attics or basements and just toss the stuff out, thinking it’s junk when they could very well have history attached to them.
Another object in Wenker’s garage is a big old money safe that was used in the “Sartell Brothers” grocery store, which used to stand where the River Depot Bar and Restaurant now stands.
Wenker also has in storage many old decks of cards, old photos, postcards of every description, school objects, implements and 30 school yearbooks that were donated by Bill Galarneault, a former school-board member.
As time keeps ticking, all of those artifacts remain in Wenker’s house, safe but unseen by the many people who would enjoy them, who could get a whiff of history from contact with such old treasures.
In the meantime, Wenker keeps hoping, keeps wishing that someday the movers and shakers in Sartell will see fit to create a museum, showcase for such treasures.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.