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Moving back, giving back

Retired Lt. Col. has vision for MVHL in Morton.

Carl Colwell lived a part of history when America was attacked on 9-11. Now the retired Army Lt. Col. is working hard to have a place for students to learn about history at the Minnesota Valley History Learning Center that he helped establish in his hometown of Morton. A 1977 graduate of Morton High School, Colwell went to West Point. He graduated in 1981 as an infantry officer serving in four different divisions during a 21-year active military career. He rose to the rank of Lt. Col. and served the last three years of his career at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. working as a strategic war planner for the Chairman of the Joint Staff Services. Colwell was set to retire from the Army having already sold his house and planned to move with his family to Louisiana when terrorists hijacked four planes and struck targets in the country, including the Pentagon on 9-11. Colwell had just met with his daughter’s teachers and was riding the 8 a.m. train past Arlington National Cemetery when the brakes on the Blue Line screeched to a halt. He walked a mile south along the rails and saw black smoke billowing from the Pentagon. “My office at the National Military Command Center was on the opposite side of where the plane hit the building,” recalled Colwell. “I worked throughout the night at the Pentagon on 9-11. At 2 a.m. on Sept. 12 I remember walking out into the middle courtyard and seeing that it had been turned into a temporary morgue for those who had been killed.” A lot of things changed that day. Colwell still retired, but the Army asked him to stay, and he served another four years as a civilian at the Pentagon until 2005. The world was different for Colwell after witnessing the events unfold at the Pentagon on 9-11. It was time to go home. The family journeyed from the epicenter of power and military intelligence back to the tranquil Minnesota River Valley where ancient bedrock outcroppings surrounded his hometown of 450 people. Carl’s mother had been having some health issues and his daughter would be starting first grade. He wanted her to know family and grow up in a safe place. His family now lives in the 118-year-old house that his parents originally bought 50 years ago. Colwell quickly immersed himself back into the community when he was elected mayor. He’s up for election again this year and has enjoyed the experience of giving back to the community with his leadership skills. Morton is also the home of the Renville County Historical Museum where Colwell has served as director the past three years. At almost the same time, Colwell began thinking about developing the Minnesota Valley History Learning Center (MVHLC). “Local historian Gary Revier, Loran Kaardal and myself were sitting here at the museum and we hit upon the idea that a learning center could be established in Morton to help teach students and others about the natural history and cultural heritage of the Minnesota River Valley,” said Colwell. “There is so much to absorb, understand and learn about the rich history that surrounds us here in the valley. “We want to provide the kids a touchstone, to expose them to more opportunities so they can be proud of their heritage and see what their ancestors did to make this a better place,” he added. Colwell and his wife, Angie, decided to purchase the vacant brick Morton High School building where he once attended school along with 14 acres behind the structure that’s been converted into a natural science and research area. It will become the centerpiece of his dream to bring student groups to the History Learning Center to learn about the area’s important historical past. “We’re taking advantage of everything that’s around us and to show students there are opportunities here that are overlooked,” he noted. Among the featured outdoor geology wonders on the 14 acre property adjacent to the old school building is what’s known as Morton Gneiss, a natural outcropping of some of the earth’s oldest rock at 3.6 billion years old. Rock that was carved out by the ancient River Warren which formed the valley after the last ice age. The Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources now owns the land which is known as “Morton Rock Outcrop” Scientific and Natural Area (SNA). According to Colwell, rock mined from the nearby Morton Quarry has been used to build many different structures and bridges across the country including the fountains on the south lawn of the White House in Washington. Of course, the region also serves as the focal point of the U.S.-Dakota War that began 150 years ago during August 1862 and lasted for six deadly weeks. Colwell is concerned each succeeding generation is losing connections, not only to the land, but also natural and cultural environments that make Minnesota a unique place. MVHLC has progressed to where the first four-week camp was held this summer with 56 students, ages first to sixth grade participating. “We had a week of day trips to study rivers and rocks, plants and animals, pioneers and Dakota culture and agriculture and industry,” Colwell explained.    “The focus was to not necessarily be in a classroom but rather put students in places where it all happened and to provide them with opportunities to explore and appreciate geology, physics, anthropology and social sciences,” he added. Through a collaborative non-profit effort of the Renville and Redwood County Historical Societies, the U of M Southwest Research and Outreach Center, U of M Bell Museum of Natural History and Dakota Wicohan, a curriculum has been developed to exceed Minnesota Dept. of Education standards. The Dakota Wicohan Interpretive Center, located in a building behind the former school, is saving the dialect of the Dakota language, explained Colwell. “They’re teaching students to speak the language.” “MVHLC will be able to help relieve schools of having to teach history and cultural ties to the American Indians and do it in a fun way, bring it to life and motivate kids to grow and learn from that,” Colwell stated. Colwell says the Learning Center which now owns the school building, intends to use the campus as a base to hold three to five summer sessions of combined recreational-educational activities. “There aren’t many of these type of learning centers available, and I hope to draw students from a wide area. The closest thing I’ve seen to something like this is at Monticello – Thomas Jefferson’s place and what life was like in the 1700s,” Colwell said. Colwell complimented the communities of Franklin, Morton and Lower Sioux, who were three of the local sponsors for this summer’s activities at the learning center. “The DNR was very helpful in assisting with interpretation of rocks, using canoes and fishing,” said Colwell. “The local historical societies participated and Ron Bouldan of New Ulm held a photo class.” In addition, Colwell said local industries were supportive in creating an interest. “They know they’ll need kids growing up here to come back again to work and make a viable living,” he said. Colwell fully expects the Learning Center can become a year-around learning opportunity. “By creating residential accomodations and a demand program we can lease space and be a new resource for educational and leadership programs, both for youth and corporations,” he explained. Colwell also thinks an elder hostel is another avenue to explore. “That demand would be created by the audience who wants to use the thousands of acres of public recreational lands and hundreds of miles of recreational trails in the region.” Along with a dormitory, the campus will eventually include a cafeteria, theater/assembly hall, indoor ranges and challenge courses, research areas, exhibit areas as well as outdoor recreation. Ultimately, within five years a vintage passenger rail service would be huge for MVHLC as it would facilitate the transportation of student groups from the metro area to Morton aboard the “History Train.” Also, during the summer season, bikers, hikers, river paddlers and elder hostel participants would be able to ride the “Green Train” for multiple recreation and historical learning events. “I want this to develop into a sense of place for people who come here to learn and experience what this area has to offer,” said Colwell. “It’s the same reason why I came back and I want to help the next generation experience that too.”

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