Local amateur historian has a blast with the past

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 2, 2014 - 4:05 PM

A local history buff rediscovers people and places that might be gone, but shouldn’t be forgotten.

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Carrie Hatler explored the grounds of Fort Snelling, including an old headquarters building, barracks and officer housing. In her blog, Forgotten Minnesota, Hatler serves as a historical tour guide, visiting overlooked places and recounting tales of figures in local lore, such as Betty Crocker and John Beargrease.

Photo: JIM GEHRZ • jgehrz@startribune.com,

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“I’m like that annoying person on the road that you’re behind, and I’m going slow looking at stuff,” she said. She pauses. Her deep-set blue eyes scan the dilapidated building. “I just really wish they would do something with these buildings. They’re just sitting there.”

Hatler, of Coon Rapids, isn’t proposing a rehab project for the historic fort, some of which is now in ruins. But she is doing something.

She’s writing about the fort and the people who once inhabited it, as part of a series for her website, Forgotten Minnesota (www.forgottenminnesota.com).

Her site, launched in 2011, features far more than tales of the fort — it gives accounts of everything from statues in Minneapolis’ Tangletown neighborhood to the legend of John Beargrease on the North Shore.

“I like to think of myself as a historical tourist,” said Hatler. To gather enough information for her weekly posts, she often starts by reading, then doing research about a particular place in a historical library. If she can, she visits each site, snapping photos, talking to passersby. In summer, she typically makes four or five outstate treks. Her goal: “to get people interested in going to these places and checking them out for themselves.”

Before Hatley ever stepped into a history classroom, she was intrigued by the stories behind the “dates and places.”

At age 5, when her family was headed to its cabin near Akeley, Minn., she spotted an abandoned pioneer cabin and asked her parents to stop.

“It was an old wooden shack off in the brush and surrounded by lilacs,” said Sheila Hatler, Carrie’s mother.

She wanted to explore it. Her family thought she just liked the flowers. “We never realized she had an interest [in its history],” her mom said.

As Hatler got a little older, her passion for the people behind the places was piqued. On trips through Duluth, she always insisted on stopping at the Glensheen mansion, site of Minnesota’s most notorious murder, of heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse in 1977.

It seemed she couldn’t get enough of the past — in everyday life, on TV, in tales.

“We’d also drive through the older neighborhoods really slow so she could look at old houses and think about who lived there,” said her mother.

That’s the kind of curiosity that Hatler, 37, tries to bring to her posts.

“People are what make a building something more than just a pile of bricks,” she said. “So thinking about the people that lived or worked at a certain place, or the people who built it, has always been the way for me to connect to the history of the place.”

Engrossed in history

That connection is what has made the site popular — it regularly draws almost 300 visits a day and has scored fans among people who have made history their living.

Patrick Coleman, the Minnesota Historical Society’s longtime acquisitions librarian, is one of them.

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