ST. CLOUD – When the Spanish flu struck Stearns County in September 1918, theaters and schools closed to tamp down the spread of the virus.
A newspaper touted goose grease and turpentine as remedies for the disease that claimed more than 300 lives in the county during the deadliest four months.
Today, residents are able to reflect on those details because people prioritized the documentation of history in central Minnesota.
A group of local residents formed the Stearns County Historical Society in the mid-1930s. By the early 1980s, the organization broke ground on a museum that continues to be modernized today.
At the helm of the museum is Carie Essig, who became executive director in 2018.
In a written response to the Star Tribune, Essig, 51, talked about how the museum is documenting life during COVID-19 all the while working to survive the pandemic and plan for future programming. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How does Stearns History Museum serve central Minnesota by preserving and sharing history?
A: We connect people through the power of history and culture. We create exhibits that tell stories of the past, offer programs to engage our communities in conversation and provide opportunities for individuals and businesses to conduct research. We bring people together to explore and learn from their past.
Q: Last May, the museum asked residents to submit photos and stories about life during the pandemic. How does the museum intend to collect and share these details?
A: Collecting information on current events is a priority for the museum. Today's happenings are tomorrow's history. We rely on donations and we seek out specific items that are representative of an event or series of events. For COVID-19 specifically, we are asking people to write down their thoughts, recollections and remembrances and to share them with us. We have asked people from various professions in the community (doctors, for example) to save items from their offices (posters, masks, etc.) and we've taken pictures and asked for photos of pandemic experiences. Remember the empty shelves of April 2020? How we share these is yet to be determined.
Q: Does the museum have artifacts from the 1918 pandemic? What are the similarities between the pandemics from a local vantage point?
A: The museum has in its collection a nurse's uniform from 1918 and we have done research on the pandemic using our archives. Our May 2020 museum publication chronicles the 1918 pandemic in a story compiled by archivist Steve Penick.
The Spanish flu was first reported in the St. Cloud area in September 1918. A doctor at the time was reported as saying, "There have been several cases of influenza in St. Cloud, most of them of a light form, and the disease must be prevented from spreading. It would be well if those who have the disease keep away from all public spaces such as theaters, churches and all crowds."
Over the next two weeks, those venues shut down and schools closed their doors. By mid-October, cases grew and the Diocese of St. Cloud offered space as a temporary hospital with 200 beds.
A popular home remedy endorsed by a local paper was a paste made from braised onions, goose grease and a small dose of turpentine, which was placed on a cloth on the patient's chest.
Q: The museum recently remodeled its gallery. What was the impetus behind the remodeling and how do you hope it better serves the public?
A: The existing exhibit space was dated and because of the configuration group size was limited. People visiting museums today expect to see exhibits that change often in spaces that are flexible. During the pandemic, visitors also want the safety and comfort of wide open spaces where you can maintain some distance from others.
The museum has an amazing collection of artifacts but we could only highlight a small piece of it with the existing floor plans. We were also limited to how we worked with educational groups because of the design. Mandated closures and the cancellation of programs gave us a chance to jump-start plans that were already in the works. The new space is more flexible and functional.
Q: Last spring, the International Council of Museums surveyed museums in more than 100 countries and found more than 80% expected to reduce programming and 10% in North America worried they might permanently close. Has Stearns History Museum seen cuts — and how are you working to ensure the museum's survival?
A: Stearns History Museum never completely closed during the pandemic. The building was closed for a time but we never stopped serving the public. While we were following work-from-home orders, we flipped all of our program offerings from in person to online within a matter of days. We invested in technology and staff training. The switch to digital content is permanent for some programs. We will, of course, bring back in-person programs but the digital content delivery is here to stay and opens us up to a wider audience.
We were fortunate to be able to keep our core staff intact through strategic budget cuts, redirection of funds and through continued generous support from our donors and members. We are also fortunate that Stearns County supports the history museum. We worked during 2020 to adjust initiatives and plan for the uncertainty of the next couple of years. We embrace uncertainty and are willing and able to pivot to change.
Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299