By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
NEW ULM — In August of 1862 scores or women and children huddled in the basement of a New Ulm dry goods store while the town’s menfolk struggled to stave off Dakota attacks.
In the middle of the basement was a keg of gunpowder, and in Mary Schmitz Ryan’s hand was a match.
The instructions she’d been given were chillingly simple: If Dakota warriors breached the city’s barricades, she was to ignite the explosive, the rationale being that mass suicide was preferable to the horrific alternative.
Starting Tuesday, visitors to the Brown County Historical Society’s museum in New Ulm will be able to interactively experience that basement saga as part of the museum’s new exhibit commemorating the county’s role in the U.S-Dakota War of 1862.
“This is a very high-tech, electronic exhibit,” museum research librarian Darla Gebhard said the society’s most ambitious exhibit to date.
The $160,000 exhibit, several years in the making, occupies the museum’s entire third floor, while space on the second floor will be used as a children’s learning center.
Admission to the permanent exhibit is $3 for adults (no charge for students), though people can tour the exhibit for free during an open house Friday.
The exhibit focuses on war events in Brown County, most notably the siege of New Ulm, a 900-resident community in 1862 where 37 defenders were killed and more than 50 wounded during the battles.
The exhibit’s artifacts include weapons used to fight off the attacks, a replica Dakota tipi, items from a period German-immigrant home and art work depicting the conflict.
It also will feature 1,000 photographs of whites and Indians involved in the struggle, their stories accessed with touch-screen technology.
Exhibit project director Dan Hoisington said this up-close-and-personal look at the war plays to one of the exhibit’s goals.
“We want to show that this happened to real people. They weren’t just notes in a history book.”
Hoisington, who worked off and on for two years on the project, said he wanted to make the exhibit come alive for visitors already familiar with the story while keeping its educational components simple without being simplistic for those unfamiliar with the war.
The exhibit’s funding came from a variety of gifts and grants, including $54,000 from the state’s Legacy Act sales tax proceeds. Exhibit consultants included Dakota experts as well as historians providing information from the settlers’ perspective.
“Our hope for the exhibit is to tell the story from personal viewpoints gathered from Dakota and settler narratives,” Gebhard said. “We are not looking at this from the perspective of who’s right and who’s wrong, but simply what happened here.”
The exhibit also will delve into the aftermath of the war, including acts of retribution against Indians and reparations made to settlers who lost property and loved ones.