Litchfield's downtown commercial district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Recently, the city's unique 19th-century downtown aesthetic received a 21st-century update with the integration of augmented reality, QR codes and real-time history lessons all available from a smartphone.

In May 2018, the Litchfield Heritage Preservation Committee received a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to create a downtown walking tour guide. Committee chair Darlene Kotelnicki said the group basically has three functions under the city’s ordinance and were the reasons why it applied for the grant.

"One is regulatory, which includes reviewing applications for any changes to properties on the National Register of Historic Places," Kotelnicki said. "The second function is promotion of our city’s historic resources, and the third is public education about those resources. This grant ... from the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office is part promotion and part education."

Through the grant, Dan Hoisington, owner of Hoisington Preservation Consultants, created a brochure with listings of Litchfield's historic sites and videos for all 28 locations. The brochure has a QR code on the back that anyone can scan to see a video of each historic site. Kotelnicki said Litchfield's use of history and technology is unique. 

"Very few cities have video tours, and no one else has the augmented reality that we used," she said. "We are the first historic group to use this in Minnesota."

Hoisington, who has worked as a historian for more than 40 years, said he enjoyed Litchfield's two- to three-block stretch of historic downtown buildings. To start, Hoisington worked with the HPC. 

"I like telling real stories, so I started researching all of the buildings," Hoisington said. "I wanted to tell stories of these buildings and not list a bunch of facts. Each building has an interesting story to tell."

Hoisington then created 28 mini documentaries for each location. 

"We made a DVD of them all, then we created the brochure," he said. "I like to think of this project as a museum without walls."

To Hoisington, telling history is more than just reading facts about a place — it's all about how the story is told. He created a podcast series called Pastcast, which discusses unique historic places around Minnesota and Wisconsin. From this series, Hoisington developed the mini documentaries used in Litchfield's downtown walking tour. 

Hoisington said he always looks for new and unique ways to talk about history.

"We did the Pastcast series, and that's when I started to do a few video tours," he said. "Ten years ago, we didn't have smartphones, but I'm going to try different ways to look at history with all of the new technology."

Along with the video series, Hoisington created four posters of famous past Litchfield residents that use augmented reality to "come to life" when they are scanned by the Zappar app: Norma Berke, Ole "Music" Olson, a Civil War soldier and Peter E. Hanson. 

Mayor Keith Johnson played Olson for the augmented reality poster, lending his voice and likeness to create a lifelike Olson. This wasn't Johnson's first turn as Olson. He has portrayed the historical figure before in a play. 

"His experience back then was like mine now," Johnson said. "He was in the community 60 years, and I've been here for 55. I hope I can keep going a few more years." 

Cole Lawrence played the Civil War soldier, Sue Berg played Berke and Hoisington played Hanson. Through the app, the characters of Litchfield's past come to life through claymation video and the voices of those who played each character to bring a 3D image of each to life. 

If you would like to see the work, you don't need to scan the QR codes. Visit pastcasts.com/?p=566 to view all of the videos and posters online.

Cam Bonelli is editor of the Leader's sister newspaper, the Litchfield Independent Review.

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