Preserve America Community:
The Village of Litchfield, Minnesota, (population 6,500) was platted by the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in the summer of 1869 and was voted the county seat that fall. Downtown properties appreciated quickly, and a building boom between 1880 and 1900 produced large, Italianate structures. These fine buildings remain today and comprise Litchfield’s Commercial Historic District, which includes 40 contributing historic properties.
Meeker County farmers organized the first livestock shipping association in the state (1908), the Land ‘O Lakes Co-operative (1920), and the first rural electric association under the Federal Rural Electrification Act (1935). These business enterprises drew the rural population to town and also provided jobs.
Litchfield’s historic preservation successes to date include the individual listing of three properties on the National Register of Historic Places: the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) Hall, the Litchfield Opera House, and the Trinity Church.
Litchfield’s 1885 Grand Army of the Republic Hall, one of only three original GAR halls left in the United States, was built by Civil War veterans. The City completed an interior restoration project with the Minnesota Historical Society in 1996. Litchfield’s annual Memorial Day parade, held since 1886, is followed by a pie and ice cream social at the GAR Hall. Families who have moved away, many of whom are the descendents of the early settlers of the region, return to Litchfield for this event. Reenactments and museum tours ensure that the history of the community is passed down to the next generation.
Litchfield’s Opera House, called a “jewel of the prairie” by the newspapers when it opened, has been a social center for the community since it was built in 1900. A 1908 showing of an Edison one-reeler, live plays, and music performances enhanced local cultural life. In 1935 the Opera House was repurposed as a community building, hosting dances, wedding receptions, church suppers, and business events. From the mid-1960s, the building was used as a city hall, until air quality issues caused it to be vacated in 2002. The structure sat vacant until the City did a re-use study, which showed overwhelming support for saving the structure. Members of the community formed the non-profit Greater Litchfield Opera Association, Inc. and purchased the building from the City for $100,000, with the understanding that $1 would go to the City and the balance would be put into the building. The purchase agreement also provided for no taxes for 10 years. To date, 6,500 volunteer hours have been put into rehabilitation.
Though the viability of the downtown has been threatened by out-of-town shopping opportunities, big box retail stores, and Internet shopping, there is community interest in revitalizing the downtown, as evidenced by a survey done by the Historic Preservation Commission. Litchfield has recently begun to participate in the Minnesota Main Street Program. Historic preservation guidelines were established in 2008 with active participation from the Chamber of Commerce, which understands the importance of preservation’s role in local economic development.
Agriculture is also still prominent in the community. The Meeker County Fair and the Forest City Threshers show draw people to town for heritage tourism and socializing. A fall 2009 historic home tour drew many people to the community, with retail merchants and Downtown restaurants reporting increased sales during the event.
For more information
City of Litchfield: www.ci.litchfield.mn.us
Litchfield Opera House: www.litchfieldoperahouse.com/about
Updated February 24, 2011