Museum exhibit traces Pelican’s changing demographics, and population surge of 35 percent in two decades

The exhibit “The Faces of Change” is now open at the Otter Tail County Historical Society. It will run from January 4 – February 15.

Pelican Rapids has seen many waves of immigration in its long history. The first immigrants were indigenous peoples, the most famous of those perhaps Minnesota Woman, the skeleton found buried beneath Highway 59 in 1931. Native Americans were followed by Yankees from the east coast, then Norwegians, Germans, and Swedes. 

Pelican Rapids became a thriving agricultural town. By 1982, the population was 1,835 and the business directory listed eighteen churches in the area, thirteen of which were Lutheran.

In the 1950s a turkey processing facility was built. It became the backbone of the community’s job market. The plant was a magnet for the next wave of immigrants, a source of jobs for people with little or no training, or for those who couldn’t speak English. In the 1970s, the complexion of the community began to change. At first slowly, and then more rapidly, migrant workers from Mexico and south Texas came to work in the turkey plant. 

During the 1980s refugees began moving to the area. Then, the trickle of refugees became a flood. In the 1990s, over 700 new immigrants moved to Pelican Rapids. 

The refugees chose Pelican for many reasons; they had relatives in town, they had heard that there were jobs, and they had heard that the people were friendly. The population surged by 35% and the 2000 census listed 2,500 residents. This population increase presented many challenges to the community. 

These are the refugees and immigrants, people driven from their homes in search of something better. Unless you know their stories, you cannot hope to understand the choices they have made. The Faces of Change exhibit begins to tell those stories.