It took more than a decade of planning, nearly $2 million and an opportune real estate deal to get this far, but the Washington County Historical Society is months away from opening its new history museum.
For historical society executive director Brent Peterson, time can't move fast enough.
"This has been something our organization has been needing since the early 2000s," he said.
The new building — Peterson said the society will call it the Heritage Center — is still undergoing renovations, and COVID disruptions to fundraising mean the building will only be partly completed when it's opened this fall. Still, it's a big step forward for a group that prides itself on representing the history of the area where Minnesota was born.
"It's overdue," said Ryan Collins, a local history teacher and member of the Historical Society's board.
It was in 2005 that the society first decided to build the Heritage Center after years of running two interpretive museums: one at the Hay Lake School and Erickson Log Home in Scandia, and another at the Warden's House Museum in Stillwater, which has displayed historic artifacts since 1941. The two-story stone house built in 1853 at the site of the old Stillwater prison wasn't fulfilling the historical society's mission, and with more and more foot traffic over the years, a larger space was needed for exhibits, research and classroom space, Peterson said.
Several sites were considered before the historical society lucked into a great deal: a 14,000-square-foot building at 1862 S. Greeley St. in Stillwater that had been the home of a light manufacturing facility.
The Historical Society bought the building in 2013 for $795,000 and leased it to the Minnesota Department of Transportation for five years, paying off some of the mortgage. The remainder was paid with grants and donations.
Now that MnDOT has moved on, workers are busily converting office spaces into three exhibit areas, a lobby, a museum store and a classroom. About $2 million for the conversion has been raised, but ultimately the society will need about $5 million.
The first three exhibits will feature the photos of well-known St. Croix Valley photographer John Runk, display fashions of the 1860s and 1960s and offer a hands-on look at the area's lumber history. Additional exhibits on Native Americans of Washington County and Black baseball in Washington County will greet visitors in what will become an exhibit area in the lobby.
Bluestem Heritage Group of St. Paul and Split Rock Studios, the same group that worked on an exhibit at CHS Field, will create some of the exhibits.
Once the Heritage Center is up and running, the Warden's House Museum will remain open, said Tom Simonet, the Historical Society's treasurer.
"The Warden's House is a fabulous place and a destination to go to, but [it] is getting old, and we need to make sure we maintain [it] for future generations," he said.
The delays caused by COVID were substantial, especially for fundraising, Simonet said. It was decided that rather than wait to complete the project, the society would get the exhibit spaces done and open the Heritage Center this fall. A second round of fundraising to finish the building will be required after the pandemic. (To donate now, visit their fundraising website.)
It's the Historical Society's hope to be open in the fall, but they'll also follow the governor's recommendations, Simonet said.
"We're anxious to open. The stories right now are sitting on shelves. And in boxes," he said. "And it's by having the Heritage Center, maybe all of a sudden someone will look at an artifact and say, 'Hey, this needs to be preserved for future generations!' "
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329