Anoka County Historical Society keeps history alive

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2011 - 8:35 AM

With an eye to the future, but its heart in the past, the Anoka County Historical Society often finds jewels in the most unexpected ways.


This Bethlehem Star quilt was made by Catherine Grimshaw in the 1840s, with the help of her boyfriend who courted her by cutting the fabric into diamond-shaped pieces.

Photo: Joey Mcleister, Special to the Star Tribune

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The wall-length World War I commemorative, hung proudly in 1919 at Anoka High School, had been missing for years. Then, as mysteriously as it had vanished, the piece appeared, like an abandoned baby, on the back doorstep of the Anoka County Historical Society.

"It took our breath away," said Vickie Wendel, program manager for the historical society (ACHS).

"Every so often, we discover something or we find something and you hear a shriek come out of us. And this was one of those moments."

The piece, which lists names of former Anoka High School students who served during the "War to End All Wars," is part of the society's exhibit on Anoka County's role during World War I. The reaction to the piece by Wendel and Historical Society Executive Director Todd Mahon tells its own story -- about the passion these guardians of local history have for the treasures they share with the public.

Walk into the history center, immediately west of the county government center and courthouse in downtown Anoka, and a visitor is overwhelmed by local details. There is an exhibit of quilts and you get the feeling that Mahon and Wendel have examined every stitch.

The World War I exhibit, titled "Safe for Democracy," includes a periscope, kerosene heater, knife, flare gun, canteens, canned goods and a bunker -- built by Wendel.

"Vickie said, 'We've got to have a bunker,'" said Mahon.

2,500 visitors each year

There's a recording booth, labeled, "Tell Me a Story," in which a child can interview a grandparent and record the information for posterity.

"The gallery sees about 2,500 people a year," most of whom pay a $3 admittance fee, said Mahon, "and we'd like to involve every one of them."

It's that involvement -- plus membership dues and county grants, which cover much of the center's annual budget of $230,000 -- that keeps the history center thriving. But it's the search for objects of historical value, things that most people take for granted, that turns artifacts that sat around for a century into jewels exciting enough to grab the public's attention.

Outsiders have noticed, as well. Four years ago, when the American Association for State and Local History prepared to give its most prestigious national award to the society, one juror couldn't help but gush.

"We tend to think of history as a frill and then an exhibit like this comes along and makes you remember history is important," the juror remarked on that September 2007 day in Atlanta, when the ACHS collected its second Leadership in History Award of Merit national honor in three years.

That award was for an exhibit called "Vietnam: The Veterans' Experience." But, like the war itself, the exhibit didn't happen overnight.

Fillings gaps in the collection

There was a demand for the exhibit, with former County Board Chairman Dennis Berg, a proud Vietnam veteran, leading the charge. Then Wendel and Mahon began contacting veterans, offering them a hands-on role in an exhibit they hoped the veterans would claim as their own.

"Vietnam is an example of what we felt was a gigantic hole in our collection," Wendel said.

Added Mahon: "Sometimes we put out the call."

Mahon grew up in Richfield and came to the history center in 2005. He recalls going on vacation out west with his family and becoming fascinated with that area's history.

"Where'd that come from?" he'd ask repeatedly. "You become curious. You want to know everything."

Wendel moved from Ottertail County in western Minnesota to Blaine as a child. One of the first movies she remembers seeing in Blaine was "Gone with the Wind." She was fascinated by the story -- and where it came from.

"I started reading and I never quit," she said.

Won for park exhibit

With a degree in American history and a hunger for detail, she joined the ACHS staff in 1989.

Her first national honor with the Anoka history center came in 2004, when the ACHS was cited for its historical interpretation of the trail in Akin Riverside Park in Anoka.

But Mahon and Wendel make it clear that they do not chase history to win awards. There has to be a theme and the collectibles they discover have to fit that theme. They're not making all-out calls, asking homeowners to clear out their attics in hope of finding buried treasure.

But when they're offered a timeless artifact -- like the watch of Doc Giddings, the first physician to practice in Anoka -- they spring into action.

"It has to fit whatever theme were working with," Mahon said.

"We're always looking for something to hook people, something that will trigger their emotions and memories," Wendel said.

Hence, the quilt exhibit. One quilt was made by an Anoka High School class in 1995. Each square is devoted to a woman in history. The names read like a time capsule: Sandra Day O'Connor, Sally Ride, Clare Booth Luce, Peggy Fleming, even "I Love Lucy."

The quilt is more than eye candy. It's a great conversation starter. So is the "In Memorium" exhibit dealing in death -- with mourning jewelry, an embalming kit and a wicker coffin-like case that a mortuary would use to transport bodies.

As one of the jurors in Atlanta said in 2007, while lauding the group from Anoka:

"Ultimately, it all comes down to the question: Is this good history?

"And this is."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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