History center highlighted during Fun Fest in Balaton

BALATON – While the city of Balaton might be considered small by most people’s standards, its history is rich and worth preserving for generations to come. That’s exactly what a number of dedicated people believed when they donated countless hours in an effort to start the Balaton Area History Center a few years back.

Because of that effort, hundreds of people had the opportunity to learn about or re-live memories while attending the All School Reunion festivities during this year’s Balaton Fun Fest.

“We got a lot of good compliments (Saturday),” said Larry Sloan, who is one of 54 charter members for the History Center. Others include Jerry Schlenker, Mary Mattson, Geneva and Daryl Swan, Connie Skaug, Betty Chandler, Sue and Larry Mitzner, Judy Wee and Shirley Wendland. “I’m glad it all worked out.”

Together, Sloan and Schlenker put in 200 hours of volunteer service, helping preserve Balaton history.

“I was bitten by the history bug,” Sloan said.

Schlenker admitted that he also enjoyed getting caught up in the process but noted that Mattson was “the ramrod for this.”

“Larry and I are both retired, which is why we could donate so much time,” Schlenker said. “We moved a lot of glass cases from the Lyon County Museum. In six months, we had the building all filled up. Now we can say, ‘Wow. Look what we did.'”

In addition to preserving graduation photos from 1936 to 2000, Schlenker said that all the servicemen and servicewomen from Balaton were also documented at the History Center.

“We’re also working on obituaries,” he said. “There’s so much stuff. We even have a doll from 1917 in a big glass case that revolves slowly. We have two mannequins showcasing a traveling uniform and a gown.”

One of the oldest returning graduates this weekend was 97-year-old Lila (Brenning) Lee, Schlenker said.

“We have three that graduated in the 30s,” he said. “It’s interesting to visit with them.”

The three elderly graduates include Elnora Wichmann, who lives at home in Balaton, Lila Lee, who lives in Belle Plaine, and Hazel England, who resides at the Balaton Colonial Manor.

“We have to capture some of the stories or they’ll be lost,” Sloan said.

After the Victory Christian Church re-located, the vacated building was secured by the History Center. An open lot next to the building is also owned by the organization, which could allow for a future expansion. Currently, there is an inventory of agriculture and railroad items that cannot be displayed because of space.

“We own this space, too,” Schlenker said, pointing out the empty lot. “Eventually, there’ll be a building here.”

In addition to the History Center, Balaton School items were on temporary display at the former caf on Main Street. Hundreds of visitors strolled through the doors, taking time to view photographs, uniforms, trophies, class photos and other memorabilia.

“It’s been a steady stream of people coming in,” Wee said. “We’ve sold a lot of (All School Reunion 2013) cookbooks, too. They’ve been walking out of here.”

Wee, who graduated from Balaton High School in 1963, celebrated her 50th class reunion at Jan Scherbart’s home. Her husband Reuben, who graduated a year before her, also took part in the reunion.

“We met at Jan’s for potluck,” Wee said. “We also had a float in the parade. Doug Swan drove the pontoon. There were nine of us in back.”

Dean and Elaine Schentzel of Alpha enjoyed browsing through the memorabilia.

“I graduated in 1954,” Dean Schentzel said. “There is a lot of stuff in here. It brings back memories.”

People who visited the temporary display were encouraged to sign a large board, noting the year of their graduation at BHS, including Eldon “Eldy” Mitzner, who graduated in 1970.

An art show depicting pieces from Balaton artists was also on display. The collection included a paper collage of a “Prairie Woman” in marbled halls by Texas (Sabine) Swanjord, a soft, colorful piece created by Violet (Johnson) Nixon and paintings by Bertha Carroll and Phyllis (Jeske) Mitzner.

“The organizers have done so much work,” said Carol (Johnson) Engel. “It’s awesome.”

Engel, who graduated from BHS in 1966, enjoyed looking at the art collection, which included one of her own.

“It’s a trout I did with oils on paper,” Engel said. “I dedicated it to my dad (Elmer Johnson) because he taught my son Chris how to fish. I’m a musician, but I also like art.”

Engel explained the process she took to complete the 1988 piece on display.

“I used a straw to make the bubbles,” she said. “It took some work.”

Engel’s aunt, Bertha (Loveland) Johnson also had artwork on display called “Reading the Bible.”

“It’s a picture of a sister reading the Bible, but my aunt wasn’t Catholic,” Engel said. “It was done using oils on a matte. I love the piece.”

Engel spent 19 years teaching music to elementary students. She and her husband currently live in Rochester. Coming back to Balaton was bittersweet, she said.

“It’s exciting to see classmates, but it’s sad, too,” Engel said. “You find out who has passed away, even our own classmates. Coming back here is a lesson, a reminder to enjoy life and appreciate family and friends.”