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No, No, Willmar!
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This turn of the century image was donated to the Kandiyohi County museum by a local resident. It shows enough flesh to turn heads today, but it seems far too innocent to carry the pornographic label it was given years ago. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
We hear everyday about how liberal American society has become. But not too long ago, parts of Minnesota were known for their hardline efforts to stop behavior now considered harmless. The Kandiyohi County Historical Society is hosting a display that looks back on that time. "No, No Willmar" profiles activities and items that were considered immoral and sometimes illegal. But some old-timers in Willmar say despite the community's efforts to appear straight-laced, they remember plenty of mischievous behavior going on.

Willmar, Minn. — Willmar did what it could to stop shocking behavior in the 1920's, like dancing in public.

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Image Donald Niece and Elmond Ekblad

Or outrageously inappropriate activities in the 1930's, like going to the movies on Sunday.

Of course people were more conservative in the old days, but Kandiyohi County Historical Society Director Mona Nelson says in Willmar, there was a moral guardian on every street corner, and they sniffed out anything with a hint of sin.

"We used to have a large Scandanavian-American population, the kind of known as the straight laced Lutherans," Nelson says. "But other than that, I don't know if Kandiyohi county was any more sinful or any less sinful than the other surrounding areas in the state."

The museum's "No, No, Willmar!" display takes a look at the community's reaction to what it thought was sinful. For example, it wasn't until 1966 that you could legally buy alcohol in Willmar. But, as with all sinful behavior, the locals found a way to get their liquor.

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Image Dancing not allowed

85-year-old Raymond Christianson remembers how local clubs, like the VFW and Eagles, used to send their members to neighboring towns to pick up booze.

"So they'd go up there and load their car, and when they'd bring it in, they had a couple a guys observing the scenery to see that there was no officials around to give you a ticket," Christianson says.

Drinking wasn't the only thing tempting Willmar and Kandiyohi County over the years. Dancing in public was a big no no, especially on Sundays. In 1923, the local sheriff arrested 25 people for dancing in public on a Sunday. And Willmar high school students weren't allowed to have dances until 1951.

Shopping on Sundays was out too. And so was seeing a Sunday movie. That was illegal until 1931 when Willmar residents took a public vote on the issue. Just going to the theater was an exercise in restraint for some young men. Painted on the ceiling were Greek godesses, in various stages of undress.

84-year-old Elmond Ekblad remembers the warning mothers gave to their movie-going sons.

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Image Racy mural

"When they went to show their mother told them not to look up the ceiling," Ekblad says.

Ekblad never got the chance to go to the theater and look up. His mother wouldn't let him to go the movies. But it didn't bother him.

"I still don't care," Eklbald says. "I don't think I've been inside a movie theater over a half a dozen times in my life. And I still don't miss it,"

These Willmar old-timers say the "No, No Willmar!" display shows how conservative the town used to be. But 85-year-old Raymond Christianson says there was plenty of sinning going on behind the scenes. If you wanted to drink, gamble, or dance, you could, if you knew where to go. Christianson says only people his age remember what went on behind closed doors at the secret clubs and pool halls.

"Young fellas today never realized things went on like that...but they did," Christianson says.

"No, No, Willmar!" will be on display at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum for about a year.

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