As they do every year, volunteers at the Chaska Historical Society began planning their annual exhibit in January for presentation this fall. They chose “Why Chaska?” as their theme to explore reasons various groups chose to settle there, and started gathering artifacts.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced the historical society to close the museum to the public. The volunteers decided to keep going, remotely or masked, to assemble displays without knowing how long the shutdown would last.
Months went by, and the museum stayed closed. But the volunteers have found a way to show the exhibit virtually on the society’s website — chaskahistory.org — with videos describing the lives of the various peoples that settled in the Chaska area.
“What it allowed us to do is to continue to meet our mission of sharing the history of Chaska without opening the doors,” said Lisa Oberski, president of the historical society.
The exhibit will remain at the museum through next year, when safety permits the building to reopen. It includes artifacts and information about Native American residents 1,000 to 1,500 years ago, European settlers who arrived in the mid-19th century, developments in the late 20th century and recent arrivals of people from countries such as Ghana, Somalia, Laos and India.
The exhibit also profiles a number of notable local citizens such as Emmaline Shepard Noble Lee, who in 1858 became Chaska’s first public school teacher at age 17.
Artifacts from the Indigenous era include stone tools, beaded moccasins and a shaggy bison hide. Volunteer Sarah Carlson, who assembled that part of the exhibit with help from members of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, said Indigenous people “came here for the same reasons as other generations that have followed,” including access to the Minnesota River and plentiful natural resources.
The immigrant era from 1840 to 1870 shows artifacts such as a wagon wheel, a German Bible and a dress with no waistline — a reminder of the days when many women had upward of 10 kids and needed dresses that could adjust to their changing shapes, said volunteer Jeanette McGillicuddy.
Another volunteer, Steve Mueller, studied the 1970s development of Jonathan, a Chaska neighborhood initially planned as a walkable, environmentally friendly community with a mix of housing types. Its founder, Henry McKnight, died before the community was finished.
“I wouldn’t call it failed,” McGillicuddy said. “It just didn’t go to completion the way he envisioned.”
Something similar could be said about the exhibit, but Oberski said the pandemic has given the historical society an opportunity to find new ways to connect with people.
“More and more of our visitors are visiting us virtually, and COVID has actually been helpful for us to move in that direction,” she said. “We want to reach the public and show them we have good things to share.”