Willmar, Minnesota

Today’s post is 1500 words, 35 photos, a 7 minute read. Enjoy!

Hi everyone,

In the second post of this series, I’ll take you on a brief tour of Willmar, Minnesota. Last week, I introduced you to the reason we were in this west central town on the Minnesota prairies. Here’s a link to that post. Briefly, we were in Willmar for two weeks as Habitat for Humanity Care-A-Vanner volunteers. We worked on the house they are building, as well as in the ReStore. We had a great time seeing the area and getting to know the fine people.

Willmar, A Diverse Community

Willmar, with population about 21,000 people, is the county seat of Kandiyohi County. It’s interesting to note that the population of Willmar has grown dramatically since the 1990s. This is due to the need for workers at the Jennie-O processing plant, a large local employer. The plant brought in a large influx of immigrants from Central America and Africa, mainly Somali’s. These two groups now make up over 25% of the population of Willmar.

Willmar, The City of Lakes

When driving in from the north, one can’t help but notice the abundance of large and small lakes. Many of these lakes are surrounded by summer and year-around homes. There’s Eagle Lake, Skataas Lake, Swan Lake (not the ballet!), Willmar Lake, and Foot Lake. On our drives, we saw fishing boats, sail boats, and jet skis enjoying the water.

Robbins Island Regional Park

Nestled between Willmar and Foot Lakes, Robbins Island Regional Park provides a host of outdoor recreation opportunities for residents and visitors. The 55-acre park has a lot to offer. 

The new Destination Playground is popular with families with children. It looks like quite an adventure for the little people.

Of course, there are lakes for fishing, kayaking, and birdwatching. We saw two bald eagles fighting over a fish. The winner flew off with the prize in it’s claws, the other eagle was in hot pursuit.

There are several miles of hiking trails, some flat and paved for accessibility while others were a bit more rugged. 

This bridge passes over the narrow connection between Willmar and Foot Lakes. We crossed it to see what was on the other side. More water, and trees! On the breezy day, this area was sheltered by those tall trees.

We wondered if this was once a road. It jutted out into Foot Lake but where did it go? The unanswered question of the day.

The park contains a beach that is very popular on hot summer days.

Robbins Island has quite a rigorous disk golf course. The green (basket) for the par 3 12th hole is over the hill between the trees. You can’t see it from the tee box. The course looked challenging. I’m guessing my score on this course would be similar to my score in regular golf, very high!

If you find yourself in Willmar, Robbins Island is certainly worth a look see.

Kandiyohi County Historical Museum

After arriving in Willmar, we were told to check out the Kandiyohi County Historical Society and Museum. They charge a $3 admission but their archives and information are priceless. I went there to check out a couple of historical events that I read about online. More on those later.

When pulling in the parking lot, it’s hard to miss Great Northern Engine 2523.

This powerful engine was built in 1923, is fifteen feet tall, and over ninety feet long with the tender. The Great Northern Railroad played a big part in the settlement of the Willmar area hauling settlers and freight. The line came west from the Twin Cities then turned turned north towards North Dakota. There still is a large rail yard in near downtown Willmar.

While my time was limited at the museum, I walked around the grounds and checked out a few of their outdoor exhibits. Schoolhouse #15 reminded me a lot of Krem School #3 that I attended back in North Dakota. It was about the same size but we had a coal shed that was also the entry. We had two outhouses at our school, one for boys and one for girls.

The Sperry House is a stately home that shows how the wealthier people live near the turn of century, the 19th into the 20th that is!

The many Scandinavian settlers to the area brought their love of coffee from the old country. For years, Willmar was the self proclaimed “Coffee Drinking Capitol of the World.” To celebrate they organized an annual Kaffe Fest. For years, the eight foot tall tin coffee pot helped decorated a float in the parade. It was lost for a few years and discovered on an area farm. It came to the Historical Society, was restored, and put on permanent display.

When I went inside the museum, I was interested in learning more about two important events in Willmar history; the Dakota War of 1862 and the Willmar 8. Wow, did I learn a lot! Did you know the village of Kandiyohi located west of Willmar was in the running for the capital of Minnesota. They even laid out a square where the capitol building would be built.

Dakota War of 1862

The Dakota band of the Sioux signed off on several treaties in the 1850s, ceding land to the U.S.  government in exchange for annuities and provisions. They were pushed to a small reservation and were told to give up hunting for food and become farmers. Drought, hard winters, the Civil War, and promises broken led to an uprising in the summer of 1862. Dakota warriors first stole food then attacked and killed hundreds of settlers in West Central Minnesota raids. Others were taken hostage. Eventually, the U.S. Calvary and volunteer militia rounded up thousands of Dakota, many were non-combatants.

A military tribunal sentenced 303 of the Dakota warriors to death. President Lincoln reviewed the convictions and approved death sentences for 39. They were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass-execution in U.S. history. The treaties were voided and the Dakota Sioux shipped off to Dakota Territory.

Settlers in Kandiyohi County were affected by these raids. Some were killed while many other fled to safety in St. Cloud or Fort Alexandria. Many returned after an absence of a few years. 

The Willmar 8

The story of the Willmar 8 is fascinating, to me at least. In 1977, eight female employees at the Citizens National Bank went on strike. They alleged sex discrimination over unequal pay and opportunities for promotion. At the time, men were paid $700 per month and women $400 per month for the same job. The 8 filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The Bank President was quoted as saying to the women: “You make plenty of money for a woman.” And this: “We are not all equal, you know.” The Willmar 8 had the backing of the local, state, and national chapters of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Plus, many labor unions supported their strike. The locals had mixed reactions but many bank customers refused to cross the picket lines.

The picket and strike began in mid-December on a day when the wind chill factor was -70°F. When the rulings came down in 1979, it was determined the bank did engage in unfair labor practices but those didn’t cause the strike, economic factors were the cause. The result was no back pay and no guarantee of rehire. Some of the workers did eventually go back to work at the bank.

A few years later, a documentary was made of the Willmar 8. Another outcome was that banks and other organizations in Minnesota and elsewhere began to make changes in there hiring and pay practices. It’s still a work in progress. 

I asked at the historical society which bank was involved. They told me it was this building where the event occurred. Now it’s a branch of a national conglomerate.

If you want to know more, check the Kandoyohi County Historical Society. They have a whole section of their archives devoted to the Willmar 8.

Willmar Education and Arts Center

Our host at Habitat, Marybeth, offered us tickets to attend a music performance at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. This center doubles at the Willmar Public Schools offices and the community arts center. It’s a great resource for the area.

We attended a concert by Copper Street Brass, an ensemble based out of the Twin Cities. There were trumpets, trombone, tuba, a drummer, and occasionally, a guitar and keyboard. They played everything from Mozart to Madonna including jazz, blues, and rock. It was a very entertaining concert.

In the same building, there happened to be a photographic exhibit by the local camera club. There were about 100 photos on display, lots of wildlife and landscapes. These two events show that small towns do support and appreciate the arts. 

Middle Fork Cafe and Used Book Shop

While touring around Willmar, you might need coffee or a bit to eat, we did. I highly recommend checking out the Middle Fork Cafe. Their food is excellent, the deserts to die for, and a nice selection of used books to sift through. We liked it so much that we ate lunch there four times! They are not open for dinner.

Well folks, that does it for this week. Join me next week for a post on New London, Minnesota.

Until then,


2 thoughts on “Willmar, Minnesota

  1. Enjoy your travels. Marlin and I grew up In Kandiyohi county. Marlin graduated from Willmar High School and I from Atwater High School a little town to the east of Willmar. Enjoy your travels in the county of many lakes. Marlin and Donna Berg

    1. Hi Donna, Good to hear from you. When we had dinner with Laurel and Phil during our stay in Willmar, I remembered some connection to the Willmar area. Phil said the Berg farm is near where the airport is now. We met a woman from Atwater, Jo Holm. She’s 89 and was on the Habitat board of directors, a retired nurse.
      We had a great time in Kandiyohi County, the people were nice and the scenery was great. We also spent a day with second cousins up in the Alexandria area. One is big into genealogy so got to see where my Grandma Miller grew up. Thanks for checking in. Tom

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