Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum: Cultural, community connections

Sue Sitter/PCT Shane Engeland, executive director of Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum, stands in the museum’s front office. The museum opens for the season in May.

RUGBY — In its 51 years on a plot of land along east U.S. Highway 2 in Rugby, the Prairie Village Museum has spread its influence far beyond its rural home.

Exhibits, volunteers and even collectors of genealogical records bring the museum’s buildings to life every season from May through October by telling the story of the people who lived in the area years ago.

The museum is far from a dusty group of buildings housing bric-a-brac with forgotten purposes and paintings of unknown settlers. Each display tells a story about the people who lived in the area.

Some visitors from North Dakota or even farther away recognize a familiar name in the stories.

“The interesting history of the town of Rugby is expressed through all of the collections and the story that we try to tell,” said Shane Engeland, the museum’s executive director, who with a group of dedicated volunteers keeps the collection of small buildings depicting life in a small prairie town interesting for visitors.

Built in the early 1900s, the structures come from nearby small towns, many of which are almost deserted these days.

Among the buildings is a two-story school that operated in Silva from about 1915 to 1970. Others include a lawyer’s office, a blacksmith shop, a cook car and a farmhouse with early 20th century decor.

“We are currently working on a new Rugby-specific exhibit to bring a focus to those early settlers and pioneers of the area,” Engeland said. “For example, the press that Rugby Cigars used to press their product is a part of our collection, a small part of the story that made Rugby the town it is today.”

“We were also lucky to add a collection from the old Geographical Center Gem Store in our gift shop, allowing visitors to take a little bit of Rugby home with them,” he added.

One unique item on display is a dress worn by Queen Victoria. It came to the area when the queen’s former dresser homesteaded about 20 miles north of Rugby with her husband in 1886.

‘Budding historians’

Engeland noted the museum has become popular with schools in North Dakota. Area students take tours through the museum’s replica prairie village during late spring and early fall.

Volunteer Vicki Hoffart, who works in the museum’s Heart of America Germans from Russia building, said she has seen how the influence spreads firsthand – starting with the youngest of visitors.

“The youngsters are fun…especially the budding historians,” she said. “One young family, upon leaving the museum said they should have brought some of the grandparents along. The kids had questions – ‘What is that and what is it used for?'” Hoffart said.

“The parents could not answer all their questions. Perhaps they will bring their budding historian back some day with an elder.”

Volunteers planted a pumpkin patch and extended operating hours three weekends in October 2022 to bring families to the museum. The pumpkin patch offered a slide on a hill, wagon rides and old-fashioned games.

“One story I heard second hand happened this past fall at the Pumpkin Patch,” Hoffart said. “A parent told one of the volunteers that their child had been out the day before with a friend’s family, doing all the Pumpkin Patch stuff and going through all the museum buildings.”

“The next day they insisted on coming back with their parent, not to do the Pumpkin Patch stuff but to show all the neat stuff they saw in the museum buildings,” Hoffart said. “Yes, another of the budding historians.”

Other off-season activities at the museum include hosting an Easter egg hunt sponsored by the Rugby Jaycees. During the season in August, the museum offers an educational kids’ camp.

German-Russian history resource

The Heart of America Germans From Russia building is the museum’s newest. It houses collections from descendants of area families of German descent who came from the Black Sea area of Russia to settle in Pierce County, North Dakota, and other parts of the territory.

The group has had a presence on the museum grounds for decades. Members replaced a former building they used when it fell into disrepair. They dedicated the new structure in 2021.

The white paneled building features hand-cut metal signage on the exterior.

A legacy fund started with a large donation from the family of Valentine and Alice Brossart provided seed money for the new structure. Since its establishment, the fund has grown with help from many other descendants of German-Russian settlers in the area.

Along with displays inside the building are pedigree charts and genealogical information gathered on family names visitors sometimes recognize.

A few copies of pages from der Staats-Anzeiger, a German-language newspaper established in Rugby in 1906, also stand on display in the building. The newspaper kept local German settlers from Russia connected to their homeland on the Black Sea by publishing letters from Americans as conditions there grew more difficult. Publication continued locally until 1945, when Der Staats-Anzeiger moved to Nebraska after its sale to Tribune Publishing of Omaha.

“It is fun to be an educator for those visitors that are not familiar with the Germans from Russia,” Hoffart said. “They are often surprised to find that there are people of this culture sprinkled throughout the United States and the world.”

Cultural connections

The museum attracts more than just visitors with German-Russian family roots.

“The Rugby area was settled by a wide variety of groups: Germans from Russia, Norwegians, Scotts, Brits, Irish, French, even Syrians came to find their new home here,” Engeland noted. “Every visitor has been able to find something relevant to their own story, and make a short but memorable connection to the town on their way through.”

“We are lucky to see travelers from many different countries,” Engeland added. “The story of the Geographic Center allows us the chance to spread our story even farther as visitors stop in to see what we have to show.”

Other cultural connections the museum has made recently include art exhibits by descendants of Native Americans who had lived near Pierce County about 150 years ago.

The museum was built after years of planning by the Pierce County Historical Society, which later changed its name to the Geographical Center Historical Society. News stories documenting the years of work done to complete the project credit the Rugby Lions Club for its hours of volunteer work with building construction.

A Pierce County Tribune story of the museum’s dedication ceremony June 11, 1972, recognized “Mr. and Mrs. G.U. Austin for their untiring efforts in making the museum what it is today.”

At the ceremony, Rev. (Gordon) Berntson, past president of the Rugby Lions, presented G.U. Austin with a plaque, which would be placed on a museum building given by the Lions and built by volunteers.

Fifty-one years later, volunteers remain the key to the museum’s success, even if their faces and names have changed.

The fall pumpkin patch came about as a result of the efforts of Steve Dockter, Rugby, and several local businesses.

High school students interested in history often work in the museum office in the summer. Visitors can find Hoffart sitting at a table in the Heart of America Germans from Russia building, ready to answer questions.

Hoffart recalled learning from the late Ron Brossart, son of Valentine and Alice Brossart, about a speaker named Wayne Garman who was scheduled to talk to museum guests about German settlements in North Dakota and Canada.

At the time, she said she was researching the descendants of early settlers Christian and Christina Leier to find local connections. In doing so, she found descendants who had moved to the town of Allen, Saskatchewan. Her search led to a descendant’s husband, who would later marry a woman whose descendant was Wayne Garman.

“What a small world we live in,” Hoffart said.

The Prairie Village Museum opens for its regular season with an art exhibit by Emily Lunde May 1.

For information visit www.prairievillagemuseum.com or call 776-6414.


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