County historical societies, typically known as dry and dusty repositories of yellowing paper and artifacts from pioneer days, are reinventing themselves for the smartphone generation and for baby boomers who prefer hands-on experiences.

Scott County’s historical society offers environmental bike tours and soapmaking workshops. In Washington County, history buffs learn about ghostly evidence at a prison caretaker’s home. Hennepin County’s historical society sends groups out to explore things like the materials used to pave Minneapolis streets.

“We have to show that we are relevant,” said Brent Peterson, Washington County Historical Society executive director. “We are not the old-fashioned historical society with Grandma sitting on the rocking chair on the porch.”

That means more innovative events and exhibits on hot-button topics, such as the effects of racism on housing. The approach is paying off for county historical societies in the metro area; after struggling during the recession, most are seeing new gains in attendance and membership.

After weathering an unstable period that included deficit spending and the firing of its executive director, the Dakota County Historical Society is projected to break even this year with new offerings such as presentations to seniors at memory care centers.

The emphasis is on public outreach. Visitors “don’t want to come in, put their hands in their pockets … read some labels and walk out. I mean, that’s boring,” said Kathy Klehr, who retired in March after 15 years directing the Scott County Historical Society. “They want us to be in their communities.”

Each of Minnesota’s 87 counties has its own historical society, or at least a county historian, in part because state law specifically permits county governments to provide funding. That’s not the case with most states.

The county-level support provides a crucial source of revenue for the nonprofits, many of which were launched in the 1930s with the help of federal Works Progress Administration funding, said Todd Mahon, state history services manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.

The new direction for local historical societies comes as many celebrate significant anniversaries. The Ramsey County Historical Society turns 70 this year, and Dakota County’s turns 80 this month.

But the focus on experiential events and social outings has some history officials wearing new hats.

“When I got into the history field, I never thought I would host tea parties,” said Matt Carter, executive director of the Dakota County Historical Society.

Seeking out ‘experiences’

Historical societies are constantly trying to stay relevant, Mahon said, and “the ones who sort of understand who their audience [is] are the ones who do better.”

The Dakota County Historical Society will take its World War I exhibit to Mall of America in the coming months, and it holds tea parties at the LeDuc Historic Estate in Hastings, which include historical re-enactors and catered meals.

The society’s other two sites, the Lawshe Memorial Museum and the Sibley Historic Site, both now average about 5,000 visitors annually, compared to 2,000 to 3,000 in 2016, Carter said.

Dakota County’s society is also studying how it might invigorate tours of the LeDuc and Sibley sites with a $10,000 Legacy Amendment grant. “Are people getting bored with a standard room-to-room [tour]?” Carter asked. “Do they want a whole new, different experience?”

The Hennepin History Museum, home to the county’s historical society, participated in a national study last year to determine what museumgoers want, said Interim Executive Director Cara Letofsky.

“Our audience is very much interested in the more challenging history … the undertold stories, and not ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ ” Letofsky said.

In keeping with that theme, Hennepin County’s “Owning Up: Racism and Housing in Minneapolis” exhibit last year brought in a large and diverse audience, Letofsky said. Museum attendance increased to about 5,500 people in 2018, up from 4,200 the year before.

This year, the county historical society added field trips. A bike tour last week had riders exploring public art in the city’s alleys, and a walking tour last month on the history of the Minneapolis skyways sold out. On Sunday, a capacity group of 30 people strolled the North Loop examining the bricks, granite and wood used to pave Minneapolis’ streets.

“People are really interested in the experience instead of coming to the museum,” Letofsky said.

Boosting visibility

While historical societies in the metro area benefit from being surrounded by millions of people, that also means they compete with many other attractions, said Dustin Heckman, coordinator for the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums.

Ramsey County, which boasts the largest budget among Twin Cities historical societies, long has emphasized its programs for youth and classroom teachers along with its magazine, said Chad Roberts, the historical society’s president.

But the organization has branched out of late. The historical society has at least 55 annual offerings for adults, including an outdoor cooking event at Gibbs Farm in Falcon Heights and book talks at St. Paul’s Waldmann Brewery and Wurstery. A “Survivor”-style competition for kids that includes grueling tasks once done by immigrant farmers may be adapted for adults.

The approach seems to be working. Ramsey County’s historical society has increased its membership by 33% and now numbers 1,000 households, Roberts said.

But challenges still abound for county historical societies, including a lack of space and the need to incorporate new technology. Perhaps the greatest challenge is visibility, making their forays into public spaces and social events even more essential.

“We go places all the time where people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know you existed,’ ” Carter said.

Klehr said she believes that county historical societies will become even more pertinent down the road. “The more global we get,” she said, “the more interest we have in local.”