You can research your family history there. You can peruse old newspapers, browse shelves of yearbooks, even get married in one of them.
Historical societies in the west metro area long have served as go-to places to learn about a city’s past and connect with local resources. Now several are taking steps to get more exposure and attract greater audiences.
The Hopkins Historical Society is renovating a former Masonic Temple on Mainstreet in hopes of opening a museum there within three years. The St. Louis Park Historical Society is raising funds to buy and convert a building into a stand-alone museum.
Other suburbs, like Crystal, are hoping to provide a sense of place in areas that may seem to lack much history.
“Historical societies provide a sense of roots and a sense of connection,” said T.J. Malaskee, former executive director of the Hopkins Historical Society. “We create a stability in being able to preserve stories and items related to the community that would otherwise be lost.”
Ted Ekkers, president of the St. Louis Park group, attributed the growth of historical societies to “fortuitous timing” and said their expansion addresses one of the big challenges plaguing many of them: “No one knows that they exist.”
Those that do often find them rewarding. On a recent morning, Louis Nelson and his daughter arrived bright and early at the Hopkins Historical Society to see what records it might have on his old home. He was born in Hopkins 92 years ago, back when it was known as West Minneapolis.
A volunteer handed Nelson a photograph taken in 1956. “Oh, that’s our original house!” he shouted. “There were five of us in there. No beds, no bathroom, no running water. Nothing.”
He recounted how, when he was around 11 or 12, he and his siblings would sit on the porch and shoot at rats in the street with BB guns.
“I’ll be darned,” he said, looking at the picture. “I wonder where you got that?”
Doing a lot with little
Many historical societies in the United States were formed in the early- to mid-1970s, inspired in part by the nation’s bicentennial. Such was the case with the Golden Valley group, created in 1973.
Operating out of a 135-year-old church that will soon host its 200th wedding, the Golden Valley society is opening a museum wing next spring. The room soon will feature displays and collections now in storage, said board member Don Anderson.
The St. Louis Park society has yet to nail down a location, though it has its eyes on a historic building built by lumber baron T.B. Walker, whose personal art gallery became the Walker Art Center. For now it operates out of office space on the second floor of a commercial building.
The society is amping up its programming in the meantime, hosting events at local distilleries and schools and bringing in speakers such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a St. Louis Park native who sold out one of its events in April.
Such programming not only builds a sense of place but also increases public awareness of historical society museums, said Cedar Phillips, executive director of the Hennepin History Museum, headquartered in Minneapolis.
“Museums are far more focused in bringing the community in,” Phillips said. “It’s making sure it’s not just us as historians saying, ‘This is what you need to know.’ ”
Programming also helps raise money for the historical societies, many of which have no paid staffers and slim budgets. Most receive support from their respective cities, which may pay for their buildings or subsidize annual operating costs. When it comes to funding exhibits or archival projects, they typically must look somewhere else.
One of the biggest sources of funding for local historical societies is the state Legacy grant program, which has allocated more than $441 million to arts and culture groups since it was approved by voters in 2008. Last year, $6 million in grants was awarded to 189 organizations, including historical societies.
St. Louis Park received $10,000 to buy a large microfilm reader to view old texts, and Hopkins used its grant to pay for the historic structure report needed to move into the Masonic Lodge.
The grants have been “transformational” for smaller museums, said Todd Mahon, acting local history services manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.
Mahon reviews grant applications and meets with local historical societies to determine how best to tell a city’s story through exhibits and collection displays. The goal, he said, is to show how learning about a city’s past can help determine its future.
“It’s not that you need to know when the town was settled,” he said. “If you understand the choices that they made and why they made them, then you can make informed decisions in your life.”
Most historical societies share the same challenges, such as figuring out how to bring in younger patrons and make their archives available online. One of the biggest problems is the need for more paid staff members, something that Legacy grants do not fund.
“If [Legacy] could pay for staffing, that would be very valuable,” Phillips said. “All of us at local history organizations have projects that need to be done, but our biggest need, almost universally, is the staff time to oversee them.”
A few organizations have difficulty emerging from financial trouble. The Plymouth Historical Society is considering ditching its nonprofit status and handing operations over to the city, which already owns its building. The City Council’s support could save the historical society, according to city documents.
Yet as belts tighten, the drive of the societies to preserve stories of the past remains strong.
“One of our missions is to be relevant and to help provide a historical context,” Phillips said. “History has never felt more relevant as it has lately.”