Northfield is exploring more ways to showcase its identity — and that might mean moving backward in time.
The Northfield Historical Society for the first time is asking the city for ongoing funding starting in 2014 — a step that city leaders have shown interest in. Having more access to historical records and looking back on the history of the community and its people fosters a stronger identity, said Northfield Historical Society (NHS) Executive Director Hayes Scriven.
“It’s important for people’s identities and communities’ identities as well,” he said of funding that would make historical records more available to the public. “If you find out about [the history of] your family or your house, you have a better idea of who you are.”
The society proposed several options for annual funding. Its preferred option — costing $63,000 annually — would fund staff time to make the NHS a repository for all of the city’s historical files; allow free access to the NHS archives and collections seven days a week; increase the quality of exhibits and programs; allow for more community outreach and free programming, and to help the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission conduct research and provide recommendations on signs, building restoration, and other topics that would help downtown businesses.
A more conservative option would cost $40,000, and an option for wider expansion would cost about $82,000.
At a council meeting last week, discussions with the city went well, Scriven said. “It wasn’t a ‘Why should we do this?’ ” Scriven said. “It seemed more like, ‘How could we do this?’ and ‘How could this work?’ In my mind, it seemed pretty positive.”
The basis of the proposal started with a change in the relationship with the city. The NHS in May took on archiving historic city documents — records of old City Council meetings and historical documents from the Northfield Public Library. “We’ve always wanted to be at a more-official capacity with the city of Northfield and with the library, being the repository for their historical documents,” Scriven said.
NHS has since taken over the library’s historical holdings, such as scrapbooks and other documents that “were not being made available to the public because they were so old and fragile.” Now they are to be accessible through the NHS collection, giving the public a wider array of materials to compose a clearer picture of family genealogy, history of properties, historical events and how the community evolved into what it is today.
One of the popular uses of NHS is researching the Jesse James incident in 1876, when the outlaw attempted to rob the First National Bank of Northfield and the community stopped him and his gang. This led to the capture or death of several of his gang members.
NHS was founded in 1975, when it opened a museum and operated on a mission of collecting, preserving and interpreting Northfield’s history. This year, the NHS budget is about $208,000. Scriven presented to the council several Minnesota statutes that would allow cities to levy money for historical societies or provide funding from its general budget. The NHS also helps the city fulfill its statutory obligation to retain records by taking on that responsibility.
Susan Garwood, executive director of the Rice County Historical Society, wrote a letter to the city in support of funding NHS. “The job of preserving our structures within Rice County is a very valuable yet expensive undertaking for communities and organizations,” Garwood wrote. “At times, the costs are daunting to say the least.”
The Minnesota Historical Society, which considers NHS as one of the more highly regarded societies in the state, also wrote a letter to the city about what NHS contributes to the city and state, and encouraged the city to build a bigger partnership with NHS.
“As a partner, the city of Northfield best identifies with the object and mission of the Northfield Historical Society, namely to preserve and make accessible the history of the township,” wrote David Grabitske, manager of outreach services for the Minnesota Historical Society. “That’s what makes the city and NHS natural partners in preserving a sense of place and memory.”
Last year, NHS drew 22,000 visitors, not including attendees of special events, and served more than 100 students in youth programs. It had more than 500 members.
Scriven says if the city were to levy funds, that decision would come in September. Otherwise, the city decides on its general budget in October.
“I’m hoping the discussions will continue,” he said. “I’m pretty optimistic that something will happen for 2014.”