An arson fire that destroyed the Isanti County Historical Society building in Cambridge on Friday did potentially irreparable damage to a treasure trove -- church records, school yearbooks, family histories, wartime scrapbooks, cemetery records, plat maps from the 1800s, military uniforms, even sewing machines.

"This was a place where you could have found what church and school your great-great-grandparents belonged to," historical society board member Kurt Daudt, who is also a Republican state representative, said Sunday. "You could have found where the family homestead was."

Kathy McCully, the society's executive director, estimated that 70 percent of the building's archives and artifacts collection was destroyed, either by flames or the water used to put them out.

The fire was set in a recycling bin next to the building's outside wall and then spread up the wall into the attic, Daudt said. It was one of several that investigators from the Isanti County Sheriff's Office and the state fire marshal's office believe were set by arsonists in the Cambridge area early Friday. A $2,500 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

Investigators see no connection between the fires and the state government shutdown, which has left state parks and other facilities unsupervised and vulnerable to vandalism. The county historical society is not connected to state government; however, specialists in disaster recovery from the Minnesota Historical Society, which is closed, received special permission to help out with recovery and restoration.

On Saturday, workers spent 12 hours going through what remained of the building. Water-damaged items were wrapped in freezer paper, inventoried and placed in a freezer truck. They will be freeze-dried before being returned to the society, which will decide whether to keep or toss them.

"They have to be frozen because mold will begin to form within 48 hours," McCully said. Insurance should help with putting up a new structure, but the society is taking donations of money and items.

"If people can donate some photos, any school records, cemetery records, plat books, newspapers, anything in the county -- we lost almost everything," said volunteer former society president Tesha Pettit. "It's going to be awhile before we start collecting big items [such as bicycles] again, but things we can put in file folders, we're going to start collecting right away."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547


To donate, call Tesha Pettit at 651-248-8972 or go to the Isanti County Historical Society website or Facebook page.