COLLECTING AND TELLING MINNESOTA HISTORY FOR 150 YEARS
"Write your history as you go along," said the Rev. Edward D. Neill at one of the Minnesota Historical Society's first meetings, "and you will confer a favor upon the future inhabitants of Minnesota, for which they will be ever grateful."
More than 150 years after its founding, the Society continues to heed that advice, collecting and preserving things that represent Minnesotans of today as well as teaching today's Minnesotans about the people and places that preceded them.
Territorial residents believed they were building a new country, but they also acknowledged that there was already a great deal of history here. "Our children play, perhaps, where generations of children have played centuries before them," Ramsey noted.
The Society today tells the stories of hundreds of generations, including those who left their marks on the quartzite at Jeffers Petroglyphs. The generations who came to settle in the new territory were preceded by fur traders at the North West Company Fur Post and Henry Sibley's headquarters at Mendota and by soldiers at Fort Snelling. James J. Hill's enterprises encouraged growth on the prairies, which the Dakota had fought to keep. In the northwoods, lumberjacks labored, and Ojibwe strived to continue their traditions.
At its founding in 1849 — nine years before Minnesota's statehood — the Society was comprised of a small group of people, including territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey, with a deep appreciation for the past and a vibrant vision for the future. Today the Society is one of the premier historical organizations in the nation, annually offering a broad array of programs and services to more than 1.6 million people. At the brink of a new millennium, the Society celebrated its own history and a bright vision for the future.
When the Society began, Minnesota's territorial boundaries reached to the Missouri River, but the energy of its settlers knew no bounds. St. Paul, the capital and largest city, had 910 people when Ramsey took office as the first territorial governor. Minneapolis did not yet exist.
Alexander Ramsey House
Ramsey passed on his devotion for history to his heirs, who preserved and donated his home and personal possessions so that today's visitors gain insight into the Ramsey family as well as the time and culture in which they lived.
The Society's work is strengthened by its membership of more than 16,000 people who share a commitment to learning from the past. In the beginning, 100 members joined in "conversational meetings" to discuss Minnesota history. They financially supported the Smithsonian Institution's publication of a dictionary of the Dakota language, spurring an interest in publishing that launched what later became the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
MHS Press today has an active list of more than 200 titles. Topics range from historic preservation to farm life, and the list still includes the Dakota dictionary.
People of all ages learn from the Society's programs, exhibitions, collections and publications, but teaching new generations of Minnesotans about their heritage has been a priority for the Society. In 1999, more than 250,000 school children participated in educational programs at the History Center and historic sites. The work of the Society was carried out by volunteers until, in 1869, part-time volunteer J. Fletcher Williams became the first and only paid employee. Volunteers — close to 1,000 per year— remain essential to the strength of the Society today.
Williams was a born collector who actively solicited contributions of money, books, periodicals, manuscripts from the state's leaders, and publicity from newspapers.
As Neill advised, the Society today collects pieces not only of Minnesota's past, but also of its present.
Collections include nearly 550,000 books, 37,000 maps, 250,000 photographs,165,000 historical artifacts, nearly 800,000 archaeological items, 38,000 cubic feet of manuscripts, 45,000 cubic feet of government records, and 5,500 paintings, prints and drawings.
Most of the collections are stored in the History Center, where climate-controlled conditions and professional staff assure that they are maintained for future generations.
In the Society's earliest years, the collections were stored in spare rooms in the State Capitol, a building that burned in 1881. The search for a fireproof building did not reach fruition until the Society's building on Cedar Street — now the Minnesota Judicial Center — was dedicated on May 11, 1918, the 60th anniversary of statehood.
By the time the Society reached its 100th year, growth of the collections required more storage buildings. The answer became an old mule barn and the former warehouses of a mattress company and a beer distributor.
Minnesota History Center
The completion of the History Center on Oct. 17, 1992, brought together the archives, collections and libraries. The $76.4 million project took 10 years of planning and two and a half years of construction. The History Center's design fulfills the Society's dual purpose: to collect and preserve Minnesota's past and make that heritage available to the public.
The Minnesota History Center is at 345 W. Kellogg Blvd. in St. Paul. Auxiliary aids and services are available with advance notice. For more information, call 651-259-3000, 1-800-657-3773 or TTY 651-282-6073.
The Society reaches a worldwide audience through this Internet site, www.mnhs.org. The web site also has information about all of the Society's historic sites. A free guide to historic sites can be ordered by calling 1-800-657-3773 or by filling out an online order form.