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Whalan Community Center given new life

By Kirsten Zoellner

Fri, Jan 24th, 2014
Posted in Whalan Progress Edition

After extensive fundraising efforts and renovating, the Whalan Community Center is being enjoyed for a variety of events. Photo submitted

It happens almost daily. Old buildings are torn down, leveled to the ground, to make room for modern progress. In the heart of Fillmore County, in our small communities, more and more are laying claim to these historical remnants, reclaiming them not only for the past, but for the future.

Last year, we told the story of how one town of 63 people, Whalan, Minn. saw residents, former residents, and other area folk came together in effort to save the town’s early 20th-century city hall. The massive effort was strictly volunteer and amassed nearly $50,000 and countless hours, resulting in an open house celebration this past September. Not surprisingly, the ball didn’t stop rolling there.

“Something needed to be done,” said city mayor Larry Johnson. “It was either tear it down or renovate it. A group of community-minded citizens came forward to take it on and raise funds. It all started from there.”

The group was spearheaded by Whalan-native Donna Novotny, of Chatfield, Minn., who initially approached the city about the town hall and community center five years ago. A member of the Ladies Auxiliary, who had long used the facility as their post home, Novotny and the spirited ladies group began saving their money from local fundraisers. “It seemed so hopeless,” she notes in retrospect. “It took us a while, but we eventually got up to $5,000 and went to the council with seed money for it. It really seemed like, ‘We are never going to be able to do this.’” Still, the group persisted.

The city contributed $20,000 towards the project and it seemed like it was underway. “We started and went as far as we could. They looked at me like, ‘Huh? Are we going to be able to do this?’” adds Novotny. “But you never know what you can do until you start,” she enthuses.

Getting a little help from their friends, the group continued on and sometime after, Novotny received surprising news. “I was told about a quarter of the way in that we were the recipients of funds from an estate. I was told a portion was to be given to Ladies Auxiliary through the VFW and American Legion. It was very generous. The kicker of the whole thing was that I had to sit on it for a while. It was so hard to do, but you can’t count something until you have it in your hand!”

That funding breathed life into the project again and the collaboration continued as private donations and small grants poured in over time, eventually topping more than $30,000. “There were a lot of hard workers, and some disbelievers, but in the end it was so amazing.” The project was far from done, however, and attention soon turned to the second level of the town hall.

The building, which the committee says was built well, minus the foundation, had been without running water or bathrooms and saw addition of a heating and cooling system, plumbing, bathrooms, and a kitchen. The wood floors were refinished and new windows were added. While the base of the project may have been the town hall, it was clear that the community center was an integral a part of the multi-faceted project and preserving the city’s legacy.

Novotny’s aunt, Doris Peterson, had been a curator at the Lanesboro museum and felt a similar museum was needed in Whalan, centered within the refurbished town hall as part of the second story community center. The museum officially opened in 2002, but tragically, Peterson passed away shortly after. It didn’t take Novotny long to make the decision to step into her aunt’s shoes to keep the museum going.

Somewhere along the line, in putting the town’s history on display in the renovated second story, the group discovered what Novotny calls the crown jewel of the museum. “The second level is a performance hall, with a built-in stage,” she says. “In a building downtown, the original, canvas stage curtain was found. The colorful curtain has advertising from all the city’s then-merchants. Not wanting to miss a chance to showcase a bit of history, the curtain, which hangs over the full stage width, was reclaimed and brought back to its former glory. “It’s like a treasure; the history of the town. It holds great meaning for us.”

While the majority of work on the museum and community center has been done, Novotny admits there is still much to do, including adding modern amenities like a computer system. “Diligence will do that and keep going,” she adds. The committee will be selecting a coordinator to oversee continuation of building upkeep and usage as well as forming a historical board, appointing a board of directors. Novotny will remain museum curator.

The facility has already seen a burst of excitement and usage. City council and legion/auxiliary meetings are held in the building and the community center has recently seen reunions, a 90th birthday party, a wedding reception, local fundraisers, and is a key destination during the Stand Still Parade and Taste of the Trail events.

“It was fun and very rewarding and took collaboration by many, many people, young and old. It took people and time, but now I feel like we can deliver,” she continues, laughing. “In the end, it’s the people’s building and we’re going to start tooting our own horn now!”

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