Located in an original Milwaukee Railroad Depot, the Dickinson County Historical Society and Museum is filled with treasures and hidden gems. The immense collection depicts the area’s historical railroad, agricultural, industrial and resort eras, showcasing countless stories from the county’s past.
“Everything here is associated to a person! Initially, you may feel that a shovel is just a shovel on the wall, but when you learn who used it, and why, it suddenly becomes a portal into more stories and maybe even your own past,” said museum curator Mary Dreier.
There are a myriad of stories filling the walls and rooms.
Situated in the middle of Spirit Lake, the museum is one of few original train depots still located on a former railroad right of way. The depot was built in 1883 and completed in 1884. The middle section is the original waiting room and office, and the freight room is closest to Highway 9.
The passenger trains used the east side, while freight unloaded on the west. The turn table was across the street, where Consumer’s Lumber is now located.
“It only took one person to turn the turn table and send the whole train back to Des Moines,” Dreier explained.
Spirit Lake was the end of the line for the Milwaukee line that began in Des Moines and made stops all the way north, including Spencer, Milford, Arnolds Park, and Okoboji. The train made two round trips a day.
“We were so fortunate to have family related to the last depot agents who lived here, visit recently, and we loved hearing the family’s stories about this building,” Dreier shared. “For instance, the entire family of five lived above the depot in the itty-bitty space. There were so many fun stories to hear.”
The large freight room has two large doors facing east and west, which Dreier said opened according to whether the freight was incoming or outgoing.
The exhibits currently displayed in the freight room go back to the earliest days of Dickinson County's history. There is a beam from one of the first bridges in the county and countless old farming tools. The corn sheller still works, and Dreier took it to several locations this summer to show the community.
“I asked some farmers if they wanted to take a try and they were like, ‘we’ve done that and not going back!’” Dreier laughed. “The kids really enjoyed shelling the corn.”
There is an ice harvesting display and equipment from when pioneers settled in the area.
“The space is filled with people’s stories – I wish we had more room!” she said.
In the railroad office, Dreier’s dream is to recreate the space, so it looks like it did back in the day. She has the original desk and would love to give visitors a ticket when they come to visit. The ticket would allow them access to the old caboose located on the west side of the building.
The rooms to the north are filled with portals into stories, whether it’s the Pillsbury Family’s knitting machine that came via covered wagon from the East Coast or a permanent wave machine once used to curl ladies’ hair. There are generations of history displayed in papers and books dating back to the 1870s, including all of the past papers associated with the Dickinson County News, county plat books, vintage photos, courthouse records and more.
“My goal for the museum is to increase relationships between generations, people and stories. This space is all about relationships! Our artifacts are the portal to these relationships,” Dreier said. “I want people to relate to the stories and the past. We don’t want the past to be forgotten.”
The museum has undertaken several projects, including locating information for Spirit Lake’s downtown and finding all the county schools in Dickinson County, including names, locations and artifacts. “We want to learn about the people who went there and if there’s any pieces remaining from the schools,” she added.
Another project is finding forgotten locations in the county, which are often located on old maps. There are lakes like Sylvan Lake and Pillsburry Lake no longer in existence to old cemeteries once located in the area. “For instance, Rose Hill Cemetery was positioned on the west side of Frances Sites in the late 1800s,” Dreier said. “Many times these places get forgotten.”
Dreier is also spearheading a project on Spirit Lake resorts. The museum has been given a stained-glass lamp from the Templar Park arch, which will become the cornerstone of the new display.
“Sometimes parts of Spirit Lake are forgotten with the overall history of the area, but people need to remember that Spirit Lake is what initially brought people here,” she said. “We hope to bring some of those hidden gems to life.”
Every Wednesday, the museum hosts Past Times Conversation at 10 a.m. Drier said it’s a favorite time for her, and she enjoys hearing all the stories that come alive. She also coordinates with the Arnolds Park Library, speaking there the first Thursday at 10 a.m. every month, as well as taking time to hear the stories at Keelson Harbor once a month.
“I love programming and love hearing stories,” Dreier said. “We are working hard to record some of these stories, so they are never forgotten.”
A hidden gem – the Dickinson County Historical Society and Museum is located at 1708 Keokuk Avenue, in Spirit Lake. More information can be found at dickinsoncountymuseum.org, Facebook, by calling (712)-336-5928 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The museum is now open to visitors Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Groups and organizations are encouraged to call or email to schedule visits.