Over the years, Todd Mahon has become such a wealth of information about Anoka County history that one well-placed observer says he’s the human equivalent of Google.
That’s high praise, coming from Tom Ward, a board member of the Anoka County Historical Society and lifelong resident of Anoka. Now Mahon, 40, who led the society for nine years, has taken his expertise to a new job, at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. His last day on the job in Anoka was Feb. 13.
This line of work never gets “old,” Mahon says.
It’s the stories that made him gravitate to history in the first place. As a child, he’d buy vintage dime-store novel reprints in souvenir shops about Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Wyatt Earp during family camping trips to national parks.
In college, a public history class further “opened me [up] to a bunch of new ideas,” he said. But it wasn’t until he started working in museums that he saw a professional path for himself.
Early in his career, when Mahon worked part time at the Hennepin History Museum in Minneapolis, he loved to snoop around the collections in the venerable mansion after hours. It felt a bit like he was living out a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.
He says he’s drawn to the “stuff” of history, like a beat-up kayak that arrived at the Anoka County History Center a handful of years ago. The vessel, which is held together with duct tape, is tied to a record-setting venture by the late Randy Bauer in the 1970s. Bauer and a couple of friends circumnavigated the eastern part of the country in the kayak.
The trip wasn’t done to make money and it didn’t change society, but Mahon says “that’s what I like about it: the self-discovery aspect.”
So much to know
Although he’s an expert on county history, Mahon says “I know a fraction. There’s too much to know.”
One thing that’s become clearer to him is “how the larger tapestry of public history fits together.”
For example, he said he has gained a better understanding of how the Civil War still has a “direct impact 150 years later on how we live today.”
It’s fascinating to hear about Aaron Greenwald of Anoka, who is thought to have been the first Minnesotan to volunteer with the Union Army, and the impact it had on his family, Mahon said.
The story of Lydia Hancock of Elk River, a nurse for the men of Company A, the Eighth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, provides a valuable female perspective on the war, one that’s also local, he said. Hancock was an activist for veterans and army nurses and their families.
The longer one lives, the less distant history seems, Mahon said: “Things cross over and suddenly you understand how your life intersects with others.”
Those connections may even play out at events. After a program about the history of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, a grandson of former deputy H.T. Hanson approached Mahon, armed with old photos. That was fun to see, Mahon said, adding that he likes “the people aspect” of the job.
Don’t like history?
When people say they don’t like history, “I ask, ‘Do you like baseball or quilts?’ ” Mahon said. Usually he learns they follow the “history of subjects they like” but don’t think of it as history. “It never came up in class,” he said.
History is “a way for people to be more engaged in their community … how we got to the point that we are at” as opposed to the idea that “those who don’t know history are damned to repeat it,” Mahon said.
Take suburban development after World War II. Similar communities arose in metro counties all over the country at the same time, he said. In that sense, what happened in Anoka County, which grew largely as a result of lumber milling and agricultural industry, has national implications.
Often, Mahon fields questions about history as it pertains to everyday life.
When the Mississippi River was shallow a couple of springs ago after a winter with little snow, Mahon said he “was getting a lot of calls about people finding stuff in the river,” everything from old bottles to rail spurs.
Other regular inquiries are about “what happened with a house, who owned it before, why the street name is what it is. Sometimes we have an answer. Often we don’t.”
With the volume of items out there, it’s easy to see how a museum can get too full, Mahon said. In 2008, the Anoka County Historical Society had to undergo a “de-accession” process, or letting go of objects. It can be hard to grapple with something like that because people may think “community treasures” are being thrown away, Mahon said.
That’s why a lot of museums do it quietly. By contrast, the Anoka County society made it a big deal. “We took the opportunity to educate our members about what we want and don’t,” and the care that it takes, Mahon said.
‘Smart and thorough’
Mahon’s strength is in reading people, said Vickie Wendel, the program manager at the historical society. “Sometimes you have to have a crystal ball” to figure out what people are after.
Also, he kept a casual open-door policy that made for a free flow of ideas. People were always stopping by to talk shop, Wendel said. “I don’t know if I ever saw his door shut unless the cleaning person left it that way.”
Nor did Mahon shy away from ambitious projects, like a yearlong exhibit about the county’s sesquicentennial, in 2007. It involved everything from fireworks to a wagon train traveling across the county to publishing a book.
Another high-profile undertaking was the project on the former State Hospital in Anoka. It’s “a very emotional topic for a lot of people” and brought out a lot of personal stories, Mahon said.
The society researched the buildings, the approach the hospital took to treatment and so forth. “The subject matter was compelling, and I think it was important work,” Mahon said.
Ward, the 91-year-old Anokan who likened Mahon to Google, writes history-related articles for the community newspaper. In one, he noted that when Anoka’s population was only 4,500, the city had 15 grocery stores, while today it has none. Mahon helped him flesh out that fact to tell the story behind the change.
Ward said Mahon wants “history to be true and honest. So much history gets distorted. Even with me on a couple of things, he said, ‘well wait a minute,’ ” that’s not accurate.
He’s going to be “very hard to replace,” Ward said. “I’m going to miss that young man something fierce. He did so much for us.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.