It’s been physically and emotionally draining, but rebuilding the Isanti County History Center after a devastating fire represents a fresh start in more ways than one.

The county Historical Society recently wrapped up construction of the new $550,000 Heritage Center, built on the same site in Cambridge as the structure that was destroyed in an arson blaze on July 8, 2011.

On July 21, the ­Historical Society will hold an open house and its annual meeting at the new building. The center will also keep special hours that week in conjunction with the Isanti County Fair, said Executive Director Kathy McCully.

After the fire, for which no arrests have been made, the center temporarily operated out of a two-room suite in a county building in Cambridge. Its collection, or what remains of it, has been stored in different places. This includes a number of documents drenched during the firefighting that were freeze-dried to fend off fast-growing mold, she said.

Although staffers and volunteers still are unpacking at the new Heritage Center, the idea behind the open house is to “get people initiated to the fact that we’re in the same place, but we look a little different,” McCully said. That’s how the center came up with the tagline, “Same place, new face,” she said.

The center has been largely out of commission for the past couple of years, meaning “we need to reinsert ourselves into the culture of the community,” she said.

During the open house, some of the damaged goods — including a sewing machine from the early 20th century, a number of charred photos and a vintage military uniform — will be on view. “People can see the damage that the fire did. It’s not pretty to look at,” she said.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the center’s holdings were lost in the fire. However, the floor slab and the building’s geothermal heating and cooling system were intact, creating a solid base for the new construction.

The new center is reminiscent of the old one but “has more architectural character,” McCully said. Although the circumstances weren’t ideal, “not everybody gets a chance to redesign a whole building and figure out what worked and what didn’t,” she said. “We were able to try to improve it, in order to streamline stuff.”

That included securing the archives and office areas so other parts of the building, such as a commercially licensed kitchen, a 150-seat banquet room and a conference room, can be rented out. The building, which went from light gray to blue, also has an outdoor covered patio, much-needed storage space and a reception area, she said.

Not ‘grandma’s attic’

In early talks about the new building, the society decided to designate more space for research than exhibits, better reflecting how the place is used on a daily basis, McCully said.

Although the center continues to rebuild its collection and is taking in new items, “the focus should be on collecting stories and history,” she said. “We need to rebuild in that way before we go into museum mode again.”

It signals a shift from accumulating physical objects to creating a new digital archive. “We don’t want to become grandma’s attic,” she said. “If someone doesn’t want something at home, they need to make a case for why it should be here.”

‘Gold’ in fragile documents

Ann Marie Martinson, a part-time curator at the center, is entering information about fire-damaged items into an electronic database. Many of the documents are so fragile that they won’t last beyond this process, while others will be sealed between sheets of film, to avoid touch.

Numerous freeze-dried documents were slipped between pieces of butcher-block paper for safekeeping. Using the tip of a knife, Martinson is peeling apart the pages that burned together. Before scanning the pieces and adding notations into the database, she carefully wipes away the dust and grime from the fragile documents.

Most recently she’s been sifting through assorted letters from one family dating back to 1911 and 1912. Reading through their personal writings, it makes her tear up. She pictures one of the boys, Walter, “as a young man in a Navy bunk writing his dad, while he’s lonesome.”

In the scanning process, she can manipulate the image to retrieve visual information. It’s tedious, but “I enjoy it. I get lost in my work,” she said. She doesn’t even mind that she leaves the office “smelling like burnt stuff.”

Similarly, she’s sifted through a couple of hundred death certificates from the 1920s through the early 1950s. She even came across the record for the doctor who delivered her when she was a baby, she said.

It’s a daunting task, but she’s driven by the fact that this is “something that hundreds of people pore over when they want to know about their great-whomever,” she said. “There’s gold in those documents for someone doing research.”

An asset to the community

Mike Warring, a county commissioner who serves on the Historical Society board, said he’s encouraged by the fact that “we had so many people volunteer and step up to help,” he said.

Those who strived to rescue items after the fire worked especially hard amid record-setting hot weather, he said. “The community has been watching and has been very supportive,” he said.

He’s pleased with the new facility, for which many contractors donated labor and supplies. Going forward, he hopes the center serves as a community gathering place. “We’re looking forward to a lot more visitors. It’s something new again,” he said.


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.