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John Lamb, Published January 22 2012

Moorhead's boom: Hjemkomst exhibit documents period of growth

MOORHEAD – The year 1960 was, like, a long time ago, but 1945 was ages ago.

While there is only 15 years between the two, the span was one of “explosive growth” as the area saw soldiers return from World War II, a baby and population boom and changes in technology that affected everyday life, says Clay County archivist Mark Piehl.

“A tremendous amount of change occurred in Clay County,” Piehl says. “It really ushered Clay County into the modern era.”

Piehl and his colleagues at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County try to illustrate that shift in the new exhibit, “Boom.” The show opens with a reception on Friday.

HCSCC Executive Director Maureen Kelly Jonason says the idea for the show evolved through discussions about, “what happened after World War II, where did the Greatest Generation go and what did they build after the war?

“It’s a huge period of time in American history, but it was certainly a significant, colorful time locally. A lot of interesting changes took place in Clay County.”

“We knew there was a lot of change in this time, but when we were doing research on this period, we were struck by some of the things we found,” says Piehl.

Some of the most significant changes are things people now take for granted.

According to the historian, in 1946, less than half of farm families had electricity. By 1960, 98 percent did. In 1946, only 15 percent of farm families had indoor plumbing. By 1960, 75 percent of families had indoor plumbing.”

“That’s also a tremendous improvement in just real simple quality of life for rural families,” Piehl says. “It’s difficult to overestimate the impact electricity had, especially on rural America.”

To represent that revelation in the show, Piehl brought in an outhouse from Cass County. He had one lined up in Kragnes that may have been built in the 1880s, but it blew down during last year’s Memorial Day storm.

To illustrate Piehl’s point, he quotes a 1928 study that states Minnesota farm families spent the equivalent of 30 eight-hour days a year pumping and hauling water. Another 30 eight-hour days were spent cleaning the chimney on kerosene lanterns.

The period also saw rampant growth.

“Moorhead was hit with a double whammy, basically,” Piehl says.

In addition to the soldiers’ return and the subsequent baby boom, a massive rural-to-urban shift was under way. Mechanization of agricultural practices not only saved time for farmers, but fewer of them could tend to more land, cutting back on the amount of farmers needed.

A John Deere Model A tractor from the late ’40s/early ’50s shows how farming changed, but a photo of a combine shows how even the tractor was left in the dust.

Piehl says Moorhead’s population between 1945 and 1950 increased 50 percent. Over the next 10 years, it increased another 50 percent.

Barnesville, Dilworth and Hawley also grew fast, and Oakport Township expanded by 150 percent during that time.

The boom led to a housing crunch in Moorhead, and Piehl says photos will show trailer courts that popped up around the area and old Army barracks near the colleges to accommodate soldiers and their families taking advantage of the GI Bill.

“There were so many little kids around Moorhead State, I think they called it ‘Dragon Terrace,’ the area east of 14th street, east of MSUM,” Piehl says. “But local people always referred to it as ‘Fertile Acres’ with all of these little kids around.”

Some landmarks have stood the test of time.

The old Fairmont Creamery, now Eventide at the Fairmont, expanded during the war with an egg-drying plant used to dehydrate eggs to feed troops overseas.

“My dad was a World War II vet, and he absolutely just loathed dried eggs. He thought they were absolutely horrible,” Piehl says.

While soldiers abroad hated them, the eggs were big business to Fairmont, which hired 100 women to work in the plant. But when the soldiers returned, business dropped and the plant laid off almost all of the women and replaced them with a handful of men.

“We hear about Rosie the Riveter, but many of those young women who took jobs during World War II lost them when the GIs came back,” Piehl said.

“Clay County really was brought into the modern era in this time. We really did go from farming with horses, for instance, to combines and from outdoor toilets to plumbing and from kerosene lamps to electricity and from grinding hard work to leisure time.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533