The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 11, 2013

Grant helping to preserve Waseca County history

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

WASECA — For many years, Sheila Morris has come back to a hand-typed timeline of Waseca County’s history that has been floating around the Historical Society.

The timeline, written by former Waseca County Historical Society staff, wasn’t just a list of noteworthy dates; it also included the people and places of the county over the years, likely compiled with the help of James E. Child’s “History of Waseca County” from 1854 to 1904.

“I don’t know what my predecessors did about getting (the timeline) into the community, whether there were previous newspaper articles,” said Morris, co-executive director of the Historical Society. “But it’s a project that was here waiting when I arrived in the year 2000.”

When Morris and Joan Mooney took over as co-executive directors in 2007, Morris said she knew she wanted to do something with the timeline, whether it be creating an exhibit, a series of story panels or related programming. Almost all historical societies have some form of a timeline of their histories to help preserve the county’s past, Morris said.

A visit to the Winona Historical Society, in particular, was inspiring, she said. Located in the armory building, the society had added a new facility, and they had a timeline exhibit in the upper balcony that explored the people and landscape before settlers arrived all the way to mainstream development.

Beyond just the necessity of preserving history, Morris said it’s important for rural museums to stay competitive by offering those kinds of exhibits for tourists to show “the things that happened here, the people that lived here — that they did things here that were pretty unique to just Waseca County.”

However, before the timeline could move to the forefront, numerous challenges first took priority.

Just two months after Morris and Mooney took on their leadership positions, Waseca County was celebrating its sesquicentennial, having been established Feb. 27, 1857. And the timing was perfect to go for funding to tackle the numerous upgrades needed at the facility.

The computers had gone down, then the furnace, then the electrical alarm board.

“Every month there was something,” Morris said.

That spring the women decided to use the 150th anniversary as a springboard for a capital campaign, which ended up raising about $160,000. With the recession that hit in 2008, the funding had been secured in the nick of time.

“By the time of the recession we had a new furnace, new computers, a new copier ... ,” Morris said.

Then there was the need for handicap-accessibility upgrades. With the advent of Legacy Funds, the society wrote a successful grant last year for $48,000 to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, including installing a lift to the balcony and a main-floor bathroom.

A successful grant for $6,500 also was written to hire a researcher to evaluate the Hoffman Honey Farm in Janesville Township for possible inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

Finally, Morris said, on the heels of that grant, she wrote another grant for the planning of an interpretive exhibit for a timeline of unique stories of Waseca County.

The society secured $7,000 to hire a consultant to help create the plan for the project. Getting the plan finalized will allow the society to write another grant to implement the project, which will be housed in the balcony of the society.

“The actual exhibit will be a combination of panels and artifacts and photographs,” she said.

Morris is keeping most details under wraps, including who the consultant might be. She has determined the 20 stories that likely will be included and has already written teasers, which she plans to dole out publicly every so often to pique interest.

For now, mum’s the word.

The society hopes to have the definitive plan for the timeline exhibit completed by this summer, and the earliest implementation would be spring 2014, Morris said.

With about 500 Waseca County Historical Society members in 40 states, the society also wants to integrate a digital presence into the project.

Members have the ability to search online through the Waseca County Historical Society’s entire collection, and it’s that capability that may make people wonder how important it is these days to spend money on story panels and physical displays.

“But coming in and standing next to an article that is 200 years old or older — a remnant of the Civil War, or an actual poster that was posted somewhere ... the community impact is huge,” Morris said. “I want our community to learn about these things and use them when asked about where they’re from.”