Discover the rich history of Albert Lea’s historic district with new plaques

Published 3:50 pm Wednesday, May 31, 2023

New plaques are going up inside buildings around historic downtown thanks to the Freeborn County Historical Museum, Library & Village.

“We as a staff have been trying to come up with ways we can highlight our historic district and give the history of some of the buildings here,” said Stephanie Kibler, executive director of the museum.

The goal of the project: Let people know how rich history is for all the buildings and businesses in the historic downtown. It’s her hope learning about one or two places will encourage people to want to discover more of the history of downtown.

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In the meantime, Kibler has been working with other businesses in the district, though she declined to identify them. The plan is to have six plaques up before snow appears.

The museum has also talked about putting signs up at historic homes, and would eventually like to extend the project to other communities, including Twin Lakes, Hollandale and Geneva.

Each sign, about $45 per plaque, will include a series of photos, present a brief history of the building and include a QR code with more history. Kibler said each sign would be 18 inches by 18 inches.

It’s her hope that people will become more vested in the community after learning more about the downtown.

“The more we can do to get people, even if it’s just coming to look at the sign, then appreciating the history that these businesses have, the more they’ll appreciate the store, the community and hopefully it just builds a stronger city for us, a stronger county for us,” she said.

The idea for the signs was inspired by Kibler’s trips to North Minneapolis, otherwise known as the historic warehouse district.

That area already had signs up prior to the pandemic, and Kibler was compelled to stop and read them.

“I’m hoping that’s what happens here, that people get inspired about what we have, “ she said.

She and her team are considering creating an app with a list of locations for people to visit.

According to Tom Staker, president of the Albert Lea Heritage Preservation Commission, the plaque idea was presented during one of their meetings.

Staker said the commission’s goal is to oversee and preserve the historic district, and he said he thought doing these plaques was a way to answer questions people had about Albert Lea and its history.

To that effect, he said Albert Lea had the largest intact historic district in Minnesota.

“[That] basically means it is the largest area where we don’t have huge gaps and blocks at a time, so buildings are continuous block after block after block,” he said. “In other words, you don’t have entire blocks that are turning into parking lots.”

Plymouth Shore Store was the first recipient of a plaque last week after the museum reached out to the store.

“I was excited to be the first one,” said Linda Knudsen, owner of the store, who added she was happy to participate.

Plymouth Shore Store has been in Albert Lea for 133 years.

“[Their] history I think is unique in that it’s been here, the same family, for more than 100 years,” Kibler said. “It’s had everything except maybe a grocery store on the second floor.”

Knudsen said customers who’ve seen the plaque expressed their enthusiasm for the distinction.

“They think it’s a really neat idea … and a fun experience to learn about the history of the buildings,” she said.

Knudsen also thanked the museum for the free plaque, and said it would be fun to see the rest of the plaques.

Kibler said ultimately she would love to eventually have 100 plaques up around the county.

“As long as people want one we will keep producing them,” she said.