A state full of history and the people to tell it

Despite funding challenges, local Minnesota historical societies have won national recognition for their professionalism and elan.

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Sarah Hummel, outgoing director of the Richfield Historical Society, opened a window shade in the Bartholomew House at 69th and Lyndale. Gen. Riley Lucas Bartholomew pitched a tent on the shores of Wood Lake in 1852, then proceeded to build this house, which the Historical Society has preserved.

Photo: Joey McLeister, Special to the Star Tribune

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Step inside the Bartholomew House in Richfield, and the decades slip away. You're in the cramped, maze-like rooms of a pioneer home, built when Wood Lake -- now separated from the house by buzzing traffic on Lyndale Avenue -- was a place to hunt.

The 1852 house is filled with period pieces like cast-iron stoves, a chair with cowhorn arms and art made of twisted hair. But exactly what is the story the house is trying to tell?

"The story of Richfield," said Sarah Hummel, director of the Richfield Historical Society.

Work on focusing that story has just begun, but Hummel won't be there to see the project through. Her tenure as society director ends next week. After a bit more than two years as the only paid staff member, she's leaving to concentrate on raising a family.

Richfield is one of the growing number of small historical societies in Minnesota that are becoming more professional, strategic and entrepreneurial in their drive to document and interpret community history. No longer content to stuff one-room schoolhouses with relics and leave visitors to draw their own conclusions, local societies are being increasingly selective about what they keep in their collections and how they present history.

And they are earning national recognition for their work.

Since 2000, Minnesota historical societies have won about 10 percent of all the awards given out by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), said David Grabitske, who works with local historical societies as part of his job at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Richfield won an AASLH award for a 2008 history book on the city. The Anoka County Historical Society has been recognized for an exhibit on the local impact of the Vietnam War. This year, AASLH leaders singled out the Wadena Historical Society for recording oral histories about the tornadoes that hammered the city in June.

"The quality varies across the state, but on the whole we have a really strong set of historical societies," Grabitske said. "I work with local organizations across the country, and it seems to me that Minnesota has one of the more vibrant and vigorous local historical communities."

Volunteers everwhere

All 87 counties have historical societies, as do 260 to 270 cities. Some, like Anoka County, have paid staff, including a full-time director and nine part-timers.

At the St. Louis Park Historical Society, a devoted member of the all-volunteer board has created a website deep in lively stories about city history. But its collection is scattered between an old train depot, a community center and a board member's home.

In Columbia Heights, the historical society is dormant. Becky Loader, director of the city's library, keeps an archive of city papers, photos and yearbooks in a corner of the library board room.

"I'd love to get them active again, but I need someone who can take over the leadership role," she said.

Washington County has the only county society in the state that receives no county funding. Funding was phased out starting in 2001, and ended in 2006.

While Executive Director Brent Peterson hopes the County Board reconsiders, he said the society copes by aggressively pushing memberships and donations.

"Some board members left because they thought we were done," he said. "But our budget is twice as big as it was."

While many local societies rely on energetic senior volunteers for their manpower, Grabitske said that paid staffers often are in their 30s or 40s.

Hummel, 36, is Richfield's second paid director. She had worked in museums around the country and moved here because her husband is a Minnesotan. She has undergraduate degrees in museum studies and history and a master's degree from a University of Delaware program that graduates museum and library professionals. Richfield hired her to work 24 hours a week for $20,000 a year.

Beyond 'the old-timey'

A few years ago, the Richfield board added people with fundraising skills as well as historical expertise. Board President Bill Walker has lived in Richfield just three years. He is a history professional, working as cultural resources manager for Three Rivers Park District.

"Local history societies are almost always going to be better served by local folks who are interested in the history," he said. "But if you add some folks with museum expertise, they can help sift through the collection, find the pearls, and go beyond just the old-timey."

The Richfield society, which has an annual budget of about $35,000 and receives no city funding, is hiring a new director and has several "very qualified" candidates, Walker said.

The society won a state Legacy Fund grant of about $40,000 to develop an interpretive management plan. The money has enabled them to hire a consultant to help them figure out who their audience is and what stories they want to tell.

That could change how the Bartholomew House is furnished and resented.

"Right now the house doesn't do a great job of giving you the story of Richfield, or of the house," Walker said. "We need to figure out how to get the house to do that."

Such changes can be emotional for volunteers who, in Richfield's case, may have been involved since the society was founded in 1967.

"Newer people on the board need to be respectful and mindful of what came before," said Walker. "What's in our treasury is due to the people who came before."

One of Richfield's stalwart old-timers is Gertrude Ulrich, 83. When she and her husband moved to Richfield 58 years ago, the Bartholomew House was owned by family descendants who ran a vegetable stand. Ulrich would walk down to the house with her kids to buy produce.

Those early Historical Society board members saved the house, the oldest in the city, from being demolished. They built the society's collections and persuaded Richfield's oldest families to donate.

The board hired its first paid director when it tackled the big job of rehabbing an outbuilding next to the house to turn it into the Richfield History Center.

New members "had the priceless gift of knowing how to raise money; they brought a new spirit," Ulrich said. But Walker said much of the society's energy still comes from veteran members like Ulrich.

"It was the older folks who wanted to make sure that we start including new communities who are moving into Richfield, including the substantial Hispanic population," Walker said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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