Doing Our Part: Clay County in WWII

Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County
Moorhead, MN

Using the Minnesota Historical Society traveling exhibit Homefront as a starting point, HCSCC staff researched, designed, and installed an innovative exhibit for an inter-generational audience to honor local citizens who made wartime sacrifices seventy years ago.

Doing Our Part focuses on the stories of Clay County residents and how their lives reflected what was happening across the country and the world during the war. Interactives and period media fill the exhibit space and draw visitors into small town life in the 1940s. All visitors enter the exhibit by stepping into a small rectangle in front of a radio on a table, and immediately the voice of a radio announcer alerts the public to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Later, young children enjoy answering “How can a garden help win a war?” as they “harvest” wooden onions with possible answers on them. Kids and elders enjoy the puzzle of figuring out if they can make a cake with the ration coupons they possess at another activity. Visitors can walk into the “theatre” and experience the newsreels of the war around the world that accompanied every feature film. “How many trips to Barnesville can a family make with one week’s ration of gas?” is asked on a large oil barrel; the answer is revealed by spinning the barrel around. One popular station shows metal, paper, and rubber drives, and the colorful propaganda posters of the day are mounted throughout the exhibit cheering the people on in their efforts to “do their part.”

By using local stories and period media to explain wartime events and concepts like rationing, Victory Gardens, and plane spotting, Doing Our Part helps visitors understand a global conflict through the stories and struggles of everyday people. It also shows the diverse ways a rural Minnesota county contributed to the war effort by sending soldiers and nurses abroad, conserving resources at home, and even operating a German POW camp outside of Moorhead.

The exhibit has had a significant influence on museum visitation and engagement. Veterans and others who lived through the war have brought their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren here to share their stories. Elders from nursing homes, high school and college classes, Boy Scouts, and pre-schoolers all find aspects of the exhibit that they can enjoy and learn from. The exhibit also prompted new World War II era donations and offers from local residents to share their wartime stories.