For 85 years, since it first opened as a junior high school, “Backus” has been the center for community gatherings of all types. During its days as a junior high school, the Auditorium and gym hosted basketball games, proms, baccalaureates, graduations, plays, concerts, guest speakers, lyceums, cooking classes sponsored by the Daily Journal, talent shows, pageants, Border Concerts, community gatherings and dinners. In 2002, its school days ended, the 1937 Art Deco building transitioned to the “Backus Community Center” and a new life as a home to community services, arts and cultural programs and youth activities.
During 2019, almost 60,000 people of all ages visited the building. Fifteen tenants lease space in the building providing mental health counseling, chemical, 4-H programming, MN driver license testing, crisis counseling, alternative education for secondary students, public access television broadcasting, services for the homeless, AARP free tax preparation, dance classes, orchestra rehearsal space, Thrivent Financial, physical fitness center, and food shelf services. The Backus Center is home to Borealis Bards Community Theatre, Northland Art Society, Darcie’s Dance Studio, girls and boys basketball practice and games, Boy Scout Troop 150, a Performing Arts Series, art classes, summer arts programs, high school band/choir concerts, vocal and band music festivals, art exhibits, exercise classes, plays, dinner theatre and special events.
Three programs help address food insecurity: Ruby's Pantry, a monthly food distribution program, serves an average of 280 families per month with over 13,000 families benefiting since 2015; a twice-weekly “Community Café” served 16,913 free, hot, nutritious meals to children and adults in 2020; a free Summer Food Service Program served over 9,072 lunches to children during 2020.
Dozens of community events draw people of all ages including: Icebox Days, Arrowhead 135 Ultra Marathon – both in January; dinners, banquets, meetings, classes, a Halloween Treat Street, Logging Camp Christmas Dinner, Deer Hunters Banquet, candidate forums and receptions. Backus also supports local law enforcement agencies by providing space for training and education for officers and canines.
Comments from Backus stakeholders:
- The word “Backus” should be in the dictionary with a definition “a place where all things are possible”. A community needs a heart and our Backus Community Center provides it in International Falls. As a small, remote area, we are in need of an entity that looks after the social and artistic needs of the citizens. At Backus, many of the activities that go on would not have a home without the spaces and services available there. The revitalization of the structure was also a revitalization of the core of the community. People were brought together and continue to be as this force we call “Backus” moves forward. I love to see the auditorium full of folks enjoying music, plays and other events. I love knowing that businesses, churches and other agencies are coming together there to support the needs of this town.
Mary Bartlett – AARP Volunteer Tax Preparation Coordinator/Backus Member
- Backus Community Center has filled a huge void in International Falls and the greater Koochiching County community in recent years of start up and operation. The tireless efforts of a few have created a positive and lasting impact on many lives here in different ways. By finding a way to save and preserve one of the area’s most historic structures these dedicated community members have been able to provide housing for vital area services to include 4-H, Regional Mental Health, Chemical Dependency Programs, Food Services, Governmental and Community meetings. Backus has been able to gain the support of local Government, Community and Citizen Contributors because of the success they have achieved in making Backus a true Community Center for all.
Wade Pavleck – Commissioner, Koochiching County/Backus Member
- I am continually impressed with the success and creativity of the Backus Community Center organization.
I volunteer at the Community Café. The Café itself is a wonderful venue … people from our community not only eating, but visiting with others, being recognized on sight, helping out, being part of a Tuesday or Thursday family, rather than eating a lonely meal at home, or skipping the meal altogether. While at the Café, I love the excitement of the dance studio right next to our food area. There is so much joy in music and dance, and the simple bustling about of dancers. It is a contagious atmosphere, which brings smiles to the volunteers as well as the guests of the Café.
Pat Bjorum – Pastoral Ministry, St. Thomas Aquinas Parish/Backus Member
- I can't imagine living here in International Falls without The Backus Community Center. When we moved here two years ago I had to give up gymnastics since it isn't offered in this area. If it weren't for the Borealis Bards and Ice Box Radio Theater, I'd just sit upstairs in my room with nothing to do. Plus all the concerts we attend there and the After School Arts program. I loved being in Prairie Fire Theater each summer. Seriously, do you know how different life would be if we didn't have the Backus?
Caillie Lowthian, High School Student
- I can honestly say I am a believer in this group and facility. In my honest opinion, I was not an original supporter of saving this building. Years later I am a supporter and do not know where our community would be without this venue and the group that runs it. They have not only resurrected a facility, but have added to this community culturally and educationally. It has been a journey that has brought young and old together to experience history along with pushing forward to enrich all of our lives with ongoing social activities.
Kevin Grover – Superintendent ISD # 361, International Falls Public Schools/Backus Member
- As our community works to move forward after devastating job losses, Backus is the center where ideas are being generated and possibilities are being looked into. Backus is where people meet for a variety of reasons. International Falls, being on the northern border and isolated relies on Backus for many educational and cultural programs. Backus has been able to bring music, plays and acts to town that people would not have an opportunity to see. Backus is truly an integral part of our community now. Current leadership has been remarkable in the building up of Backus. This truly is a gem in our community.
LeeAnn Meer - Former Director, Friends Against Abuse/Backus Member
- I volunteer for Backus and have found great personal fulfillment working during the summer months for the lunch program and also as an usher and ticket seller at events throughout the year. . . It has been affirming to work again with the public and to do meaningful work outside the home.
Jill Malone, Backus volunteer, Backus Member
- Our community would not be the same without Backus – I feel it is important for kids to participate in extra-curricular activities, and with so much emphasis on sports in school, the kids who are not athletic sometimes get “left out”. Backus provides a venue for these kids (through Borealis Bards Community Theatre) to practice their talents – without it, where would they be? Backus is an integral part of the local community. It is important to both adults and children, and our community would lack without it.
Beth Gable, Parent