Hundreds of collections sit in storage in a small Stillwater building. Records and artifacts from Washington County and its inhabitants, some of the oldest in Minnesota, someday will be housed where they can be seen.
Every time a fellow pilot crashed his plane, Lt. Edwin Osborne Conrad pasted a snapshot of the wreckage into a black and gold keepsake album to document the perils of flight during World War I.
“Joseph killed,” Conrad penciled under one faded black-and-white photograph, writing similar terse inscriptions after canvas-clad planes plummeted from the sky like dead birds.
Nearly a century later, Conrad’s family has donated his war memorabilia to the Washington County Historical Society where it sits in cardboard boxes, waiting for a permanent home in Stillwater. It’s all there: his olive green dress uniform, worn flight cap and goggles, tall boots, collapsible metal drinking cup, even a thin padded vest presumed to protect against crashes.
“That’s a Washington County story, a state story, a national story, and it’s sitting here in a box,” said historian Brent Peterson as he talked about Conrad and other American aviators who learned how to fly dangerous and unpredictable airplanes.
Peterson dreams of the day when he can display Conrad’s war life and thousands of other stories that detail the county’s history in a bigger building that could become the first real museum for Washington County history.
“The whole goal of the new building will be to take these things out of the boxes,” he said. “Also, to design the stories that we tell. That’s just one box, one story, one person, and we have hundreds of boxes around here.”
The Historical Society displays some of its artifacts at the 1853 Warden’s House museum in Stillwater and Hay Lake School in Scandia, but space is limited.
Peterson has been barnstorming the county seeking money to buy a 40-year-old building that would become a secure repository for priceless historical records and artifacts that date to the Civil War and earlier. It also would have space for national traveling exhibits from places like the Smithsonian Institution and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“They would be constantly rotating,” he said. “It will give everybody a fresh perspective on history three or four times a year.”
The old manufacturing building, at 1862 S. Greeley in Stillwater, will cost the nonprofit Historical Society about $795,000. Thus far about $500,000 has been raised in cash and pledges, but Peterson admits to feeling some anxiety over finding the balance.
The Historical Society has signed a purchase agreement and will close on the building at the end of February, presuming the money is in hand. The building then will be leased to the Minnesota Department of Transportation for four years for use as a local headquarters for engineers and contractors during construction of the $676 million bridge project.
After that, Peterson said, the Historical Society would remodel the building to become a public place, much different from the carriage house at the old prison site in Stillwater where memorabilia of every description is stuffed into about 1,800 square feet of space. Transforming the building into a history center will require at least $500,000 more, he said.
Numerous cities and organizations have contributed, among them Stillwater with $10,000, Newport with $5,000, Hugo and Scandia with $1,000 apiece, the Scandia Lions Club with $2,000, and Marine on St. Croix with $2,000. The Margaret Rivers Foundation pledged $250,000 over three years. A request for $50,000 from Washington County is pending, as are proposals to Woodbury and several other cities.
Collections range from early land records to bygone fire helmets to saddles and street signs. A coroner’s record book starts in 1923. A register from the Marsh Hotel in Forest Lake shows the signature of Grover Cleveland, although it’s not certain if he was president at the time. A bottle of cognac, predating the Civil War, remains unopened because the last survivor from that war decided survivors from World War I should have it. The last man living chose to leave it sealed.
“He said leave it closed for eternity to remember all my comrades,” Peterson said.
Conrad family history
Edwin Osborne Conrad, known to his family as “Os,”came from one of Stillwater’s best-known lumber families, the Bronsons. His mother was a cousin to famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony. It seemed natural to him to document his military life.
In 2010, Muriel Conrad of Stillwater and her son Scott Osborne Conrad donated what Os had saved through the years because they hoped that it would be displayed in the context of Washington County’s overall military history.
“In the quarters they’re in right now, there’s just not room for World War I history to be displayed,” said Muriel, who is a daughter-in-law to Os. “I just have such faith in Brent Peterson. There just aren’t many people left who know the history of Stillwater.”
Conrad’s detailed documentation of Air Service training flights in Houston in 1918-19 suggests that practicing with unpredictable aircraft of that era was no less dangerous than going to war. Evidently, he never was sent to combat — he entered duty and was discharged within 16 months — but his flight cap and goggles had plenty of use.
His grandfather, William S. Conrad, came to Stillwater after the Civil War. He served in a battery unit for the Confederacy in Virginia.
“Records here go back farther than anywhere else in Minnesota,” Peterson said, noting Stillwater’s claim as “the birthplace of Minnesota” and Washington County being one of the state’s nine original counties.