The Isanti County Historical Society, which lost its old home to an arson fire last year, celebrated the start of work on its new home last week with a ceremonial groundbreaking.
The Heritage Center will be built on the site where the former building stood in Cambridge, and the society is looking at a completion date sometime next spring, said Executive Director Kathy McCully.
Thursday's groundbreaking was an informal occasion, with participants donning their own hard hats and bringing their own shovels.
In an e-mail invitation, McCully said that "when you are starting over with much less than previously owned, you realize that you can do without the fanfare and can relish the accomplishments of the moment."
The July 8, 2011, fire that gutted the building remains unsolved. It claimed an estimated 70 percent of the society's collection of archives and artifacts, including photos, taped oral histories, uniforms and other items.
Staff and volunteers have worked painstakingly since then to preserve what they can. The effort included taking documents that were soaked when the fire was doused and literally hanging them out to dry and then freeze-drying them to prevent mold.
The process has been successful but left papers brittle, and the society plans to preserve all of its documents digitally. Some will be encapsulated between sheets of film so visitors can handle them without touching the paper itself.
For now, the society is housed in temporary quarters, a two-room suite in Cambridge. Staff and volunteers are still going through items that were salvaged, inventorying them and determining what to keep and what to replace, McCully said. Nothing is on display.
The new Heritage Center will be about 5,500 square feet, larger than the one it's replacing, with added space for storage. It will rise on the same slab as the old building and will use the same geothermal heating and cooling system, which survived the fire. Kitchen appliances and some bathroom fixtures also will be reused.
The new center will cost about $350,000, McCully said. Officials hope insurance will cover much of the cost, she said. The society received monetary donations directly after the fire, which helped it salvage documents and begin to do business in a temporary location. Because the society is working to rebuild without a mortgage, it will be conducting fundraisers and seeking in-kind contributions and donated labor to help.
While acknowledging the road ahead, McCully said, "The preservation of history in and for Isanti County is moving forward."
Jim Kern • 612-673-7086