Experiencing the pioneer way of life at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center


— Around the year 1871, a family arrived in Kandiyohi County from Sweden. Like thousands of immigrants before and after them, the Danielson family was looking to start a new life in a new land.

They ended up settling on a tract of land near Lake Florida, west of Spicer. Anders Danielson, the patriarch of the family, built a small log cabin to house the family for their first years in Minnesota.

"They were one of the first people here," said Mari Klebe, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center office manager. "But they weren't the first people here. Native Americans used this land for their survival."

That original cabin was eventually torn down and the logs used for farm buildings. For more than a century, the Danielson family lived and worked on the land. It would be the descendants of those first settlers who would sell the land to Kandiyohi County in the early 1990s.

In 1992, what was once the Danielson farm became the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

The mission of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center is to teach people how to live well with self, others and the environment. As part of that mission, it is important to tell the pioneer story of those first white settlers.

"They lived off the land and survived," Klebe said.

While the Danielson cabin was long gone by the '90s, only a few miles away there was another cabin with its own settler story. The Reese family had settled around the same area as the Danielsons but a few years earlier.

Peter and Maria Reese, originally from Norway, built a small log cabin in 1868. Like the Danielsons, the Reese family lived on the land for decades. In 1998, the decision was made to bring the Reese cabin to the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

"It was brought in to be an educational piece, to teach some of the history of early immigrants," Klebe said.

The cabin was taken apart piece by piece and moved two miles to the learning center site. The location on which the Reese cabin was reconstructed was not just any patch of land. In a small stand of trees, some of which might have been alive when the Danielson and Reese families arrived, the Reese cabin was placed near the exact spot of the original Danielson cabin.

"They (Danielsons) had a cabin basically on the site of this log cabin," Klebe said.

The Reese cabin is a common example of a 1860s log cabin. It is two stories but only two rooms, one up and one down. Inside, the cabin is set up as it might have looked when the family lived in it. Today the cabin is a monument to not only the Danielson family, but the Reeses as well.

"This restoration project has been undertaken to honor the work and persistence of the European pioneer farmers who established families and communities in this area," reads a sign on the cabin.

The cabin has been used for programming since it was brought to the site.

For the last few years, Klebe has been the pioneer cabin program leader, creating a calendar full of activities and events that focus on the cabin, the history and its role in the environment around it. Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center holds programs for both the public and school groups.

Public programming includes things such as storytime at the cabin, pioneer games and crafts and even winter survival. Those interested in taking part can watch the

Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center website

for upcoming Time Traveling programs. Klebe said the center also usually has listings with both New London-Spicer and Willmar Community Education.

For school and other youth groups, a variety of pioneer-themed programs are offered — up to eight hours' worth of programs from which to choose.

All of the pioneer cabin programs start with the students given the opportunity to dress in pioneer clothes and even choose a Swedish name. Klebe and volunteers then teach children all about the different chores a pioneer family had — from laundry and hauling water to collecting and cutting wood.

"Back then. it was literally for survival," Klebe said. "You had to help."

Volunteers also teach about the Danielson family, play games and even entertain with music from the pioneer era. Groups can also take part in a pioneer lunch, which has the potential to end with hand-churned ice cream, if the students get it done in time.

"You can have an immersive experience," Klebe said.

For those kids who dream of having their own Little House on the Prairie birthday party, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center can offer that as well. The party package includes pioneer dress-up, chores and churning ice cream.

An important piece of the success of the pioneer cabin programming is the volunteers, and that has been true since the very beginning.

Klebe said Roger Strand and Marc Reese, a direct descendant of Peter and Maria Reese, were instrumental in getting the Reese cabin to the site. And, for years afterward, Reese would come and do repairs on the cabin until his death last year.

Volunteers help Klebe play the pioneer games, do the chores and even play the music for the groups at the cabin.

"We are always looking for interested volunteers," Klebe said. If you have a skill such as woodworking or fiddle playing, there might be a place for you at the pioneer cabin. "The pioneer cabin program has really run strongly on volunteers."

Klebe said she is often told by visitors how eye-opening it is to experience just a small piece of the pioneer story at the cabin. The pioneers had to rely on each other to survive and the work was hard.

It isn't just those who descend from European settlers who find the pioneer cabin and the pioneer story interesting. The newer immigrants to the area, including those from East Africa, have common ground with the pioneers of the late 1800s.

A Somali mother once told Klebe about how she grew up doing chores very similar to those of the European settlers, and taking part in the pioneer cabin gave that mother a chance to show her children what it was like for her.

"We are all immigrants. The pioneer cabin experience is one immigrant story, one journey," Klebe said. "Our area of Minnesota constantly has new immigrants, new immigrant experiences."

If there was a group of people, beyond the Native Americans, who had to learn to live in unity with the environment around them, it was probably the early European settlers. That is why learning about how they did so fits in with the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center mission.

The Reese cabin on the old Danielson land provides the perfect stage to share that past with the present day.

"I've always thought history is important," Klebe said.