Rebecca Ebnet-Mavencamp, the new head of the Anoka County Historical Society, remembers traveling to her mom's native England when she was young and taking in old ruins, castles and monuments, many of which have endured for centuries.
"When you're looking at a bunch of old rocks framed by wood to make up something like, say, the Tower of London, you can't help but be impressed with history and what has happened to get us here," said Ebnet-Mavencamp.
Although that stirred an early appreciation, history didn't really click for her until much later, when she started writing newspaper features about Wright County's history as a freelance journalist. A series of 10 stories turned into 50 and, eventually, Ebnet-Mavencamp had tapped out the county's historical society. "They told me that they didn't have anything else for me," she said.
She landed at the Rockford Area Historical Society, where she wound up serving as interim director for seven years.
Then, this spring, Ebnet-Mavencamp stepped into her new role as executive director of the Anoka County operations, taking over for Todd Mahon, who moved on to the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul.
Right now, Ebnet-Mavencamp is doing her best to soak up as much information about the county as possible. She sat down with us recently for a Q & A.
Q: How do you think your background in journalism feeds into your history work?
A: I'm a words person. I've always been a writer. I had a typewriter when I was 5 years old. I love to walk around with a pen and paper. It gives me a professional reason to be nosy.
I never liked history class in high school, as it involved rote memorization of the dates and times. There was no story behind the 'why' of it, just a timeline of seemingly unrelated events. But it's the emotional connections that make it real.
As a journalist, you need to be able to walk into a situation, look around, and very quickly figure out what is going on. You have to assess personalities, circumstances and ask the right questions to get what you're looking for. You need a clear idea about what you want to say and a plan for obtaining information while also being flexible as the situation changes.
It also means juggling multiple deadlines, managing people and being persistent and resourceful. Those skills are invaluable in this field.
Q: How did your interest in this field increase at the Rockford Area Historical Society?
A: I started mining the collections, looking through the clothes, accessories and underpinnings at the Ames-Florida-Stork House. The historical society had 1,000 letters written by Florida family members. One day someone handed me a box and said, 'do you want to type these?'
Jessie and Nellie Florida, sisters who were 20 years apart, wrote to their mother, Catherine, in Rockford, from Illinois.
I had an 18-month-old baby at the time. … Sometimes she would spend time with a grandma and I would get more done then. It was a great break from my reality to "listen" to Jessie and Nellie talk about their day and imagine what else they were thinking. …
I fell in love with the character of Jessie. She was like Anne of Green Gables. She ran through puddles without her coat on. Nellie wasn't nearly as gleeful. The sisters would tell two different versions of the same story, which was funny.
It showed how people feel and respond to the same events regardless of time or space. Also, it helped to connect the dots to different historical events.
Q: How would you describe your philosophy or your approach to history work?
A: I got into history because it's basically people talking about their roots. I thought if I wrote about the county's heritage, it would get people involved with their identity, that they would take ownership of that.
Whatever information we don't leave, 100 years from now it won't be known. We have a responsibility for creating a future historical society. A small portion of the population does the remembering. So many things get lost. Midwest modesty is lethal for history. People need to realize it's their unique and individual story that will be important down the line.
I can open the phone book and call up anyone and say, 'I want to do a story about you.' It's a passion of mine, finding people's stories. In a history center, there's finite space and time so families need to take responsibility for their own heritage. Even if it's just sitting down with grandma and a recorder and talking about the past, that's important.
Q: What are some of the reasons you were drawn to the job with the Anoka County Historical Society?
A: The Anoka County Historical Society is a community organization that's bigger than where I was, so there are plenty of growth opportunities for me, but it isn't so big that it's out of control. It still has that community feel. …
I've been having a lot of great conversations with the board, which is so diverse, with everyone from the 90-year-old farmer to someone who works for the YMCA to an artist. Anoka County is such a microcosm of the state, with urban and suburban areas and farms that are more rural-like. Anoka has a Main Street. The fact that it's not homogenous presents lots of challenges and opportunities. I find that intriguing.
As a new person, I can see things in a different light and ask questions that haven't come up before. Any time I do have a new idea, the staff are like piranhas. They're on it. It's exciting. There's so much potential. Also, the collection is so rich.
Q: Any plans you already have in the works at the historical society?
A: I toured the area with Vickie Wendel, a longtime society staffer. It was the best crash course in the area's history. We looked at a bunch of archaeological sites, trying to get a grasp on what we could do for future grant projects.
Soon, we're going to talk on cable access TV about sustainable gardening, looking at how the former Anoka State Hospital fed its residents, the Century Farm concept and how an organic family farm in the 1970s compares with CSA's now.
The programs around the 50th anniversary of the tornadoes that did so much damage in the area triggered something — the county feels more connected to itself. I think that's unique and it naturally lends to considering historic events countywide.
I have some ideas concerning the homefront during World War II, war brides and how when the men came home it changed the economy and the home structure and precipitated suburban development. All of that could be tied together in an exhibit about suburbanization.
We're planning a recognition program on Sept. 17 about Natalie Haas Steffen, the first female County Board member. Next year is the anniversary of Prohibition in Anoka, where it started four years earlier than anywhere else.
I hope to find opportunities that are already there and to keep well-loved programs going, like the home and garden and ghost tours. I'm interested in hearing about what people want.
Q: Anything in the history center's collection that you find especially interesting or unique?
A: The wood-and-metal bog shoes made by Coon Rapids farmer C.M. Barney fascinate me. I simply can't believe that someone would strap on what looks to be half a tree and wade through the bog to hunt ducks. I've never seen anything like it before.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.