Glimpse of the Past

Historical society seeks help in identifying 1936 photo

People in picture attended Vista gathering

By Edie Schmierbach  Jun 30, 2018

New Richland Area Historical Society Vice President Rodney Hatle holds a copy of a new publication, "Vista 1936: Picture of a Community” and a framed photograph of about 500 attendees at a two-day gathering in 1936 in Waseca County. Photo courtesy New Richland Area Historical Society


Members of New Richland Area Historical Society will be opening their museum doors this week during Farm and City Days in the hope they will discover more information about people who were photographed 82 years ago at a large Scandinavian-American gathering in Waseca County.

For several years, society members have been studying the picture, using copies of the image which have resurfaced after decades of being stored in boxes on closet shelves.

Rodney Hatle, the vice president of the historical society and a 1953 graduate of New Richland High School, along with two other alumni, Harriet Eaton (Class of 1945) and Ronald Johnson (Class of 1961), have been steadily looking for clues about the people shown in the narrow and very long photograph — and the event they attended.

One of the techniques used in their research was to enlarge the photographed faces by 400 percent.

So far, 260 people have been identified. Hatle considers the mystery half-solved, since about 500 of the gathering's thousands of attendees are in the group shot.

Here's more of what the trio of history detectives has uncovered:

The picture was snapped on the 80th anniversary of the founding of the community of Vista.

In the 1850s, Minnesota land was opened for settlement. So the adventurous began to arrive in parties of a few dozen to make land claims.

Swedes settled near the Norwegians who had arrived in the St. Olaf Lake area a few months earlier.

The combined community of Scandinavians was located approximately halfway between New Richland and Waseca.

In 1856, at a place the pioneers named Vista, log houses were built, land was plowed, crops were planted and a church was established.

Vista never had a store nor a business place. The community was comprised of members from two congregations — Vista Lutheran Church, founded in August 1858, and the Vista Covenant Church, which was started around 1878 by former members of Vista Lutheran.

In 1936, descendants held an inaugural celebration of the accomplishments of those who settled in the Vista area. People arrived for the autumn gathering in a grove of trees on the spacious A.F. Sponberg farm on the north bank of Le Sueur River in Waseca County.

A public invitation brought about 4,000 who attended parts or all of the two-day celebration. The cross-section of attendees including people from neighboring farms and towns as well as visitors from many states and a few foreign countries.

Many who claimed connections to Vista but were unable to attend the gathering sent messages and remembrances to the organizers.

The 1926 gathering, arranged and conducted by Herman Peterson, fulfilled his dream of bringing together people connected to Vista's original Lutheran church.

Similar celebrations were held at 10-year intervals, mostly. Concerns about polio in 1946 prompted organizers to postpone the gathering until the following year.

Peterson continued his involvement in Vista anniversary celebrations until his death in 1962.

A big tent was set for indoor meetings and for a large display of items from the community's early days. The gatherings featured sermons and hymn singing, speakers, tours and picnic lunches.

During the September 1936 event, more than 500 people lined up for New Richland's professional photographer, William J. Stiehl. About 100 youths seated themselves on the grass in the foreground.

Stiehl sold reproductions of his 3 1/2-foot-long photograph. Some buyers framed the photograph, others did not since it was printed on roll-out paper.

Members of the historical society recently created a book about the long photograph and the Vista gatherings.

The 23-page book features a history of Vista, a map from the late 1800s and 8-by-10 pictures of enlarged images from the original photograph of the 1936 gathering.

Copies of the 2018 publication "Vista 1936: Picture of a Community," are available at the Waseca County Historical Society Museum Gift Shop. $15.00 per book. Proceeds will be used to support the New Richland Area Historical Society.