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A Story Locked Away

photo of the drawerRecently a small inadvertent time capsule was discovered at the Minnesota Historical Society. A drawer that had been locked perhaps since 1913 was unlocked, and inside were discovered many documents, photographs, buttons and ribbons from Minnesota Farm life at the beginning of the 20th century.

Years ago, a piece of old farmhouse furniture was donated to the National Grange at Oliver Kelly Farm in Elk River, Minnesota. It was to be used in interpretation of the Grange movement founded by Oliver Kelly. The piece of furniture is unusual, but could be called a "secretary", as it serves partly as a desk, but also as a dresser, and has a mirror attached to the back. The secretary has been in the possession of the Minnesota Historical Society, since the Kelley Farm was donated to the Society in 1961. Recently, this piece was reviewed and declined for the permanent collections because of its lack of provenance and condition. Most recently, it was proposed for a long-term loan to the Dakota County Historical Society for display at the Le Duc House in Hastings, MN. Prior to this loan, Objects Conservator Tom Braun was asked to clean it. During this cleaning, Tom noticed that one of the drawers was locked. The locks were somewhat primitive, and in short order, the lock opened.

Inside he found a small treasure trove of documents, apparently placed there by a farm mother named Heman B. Roe, who lived in Lansing, Minnesota. The earliest date found was 1894, the latest date 1913. Because the National Grange purchased the Kelley Farm in 1935 and actively solicited donations of furniture to the site in the 1950s, the items clearly predate both National Grange and Society ownership of the site. The drawer has likely been unopened since the 1910s or 20s. Included in the drawer were:

  • A ribbon from the 20th annual meeting of the Minnesota Dairymen's Association in New Ulm, 1897.
  • A tantalizing letter from W. A. Lange of Alberta Canada, written on February 5, 1912, to Katherine Roe, regarding the settlement of a $90 debt incurred by someone named Clarence.
  • A page from a calendar, November 1912, listing market prices for oats, barley, flax, and wheat.
  • Receipts from B. L. Stimson, a Lansing grocer, for a globe (40), a box of cigars ($2), and six oranges (20)
  • 18 photographs of children and adults, including three tiny tintypes.
  • Several documents that appear to be made by or written by children: named Pearl, Hattie, and Leon.
  • A handmade "carved" paper card from (her husband?) Lou D. Roe.
  • Several references to the Order of the Eastern Star (the Masons), including a card from a member, Mrs. O. C. Le Bar.
  • A ribbon from the Grand Chapter, Order of the Eastern Star, Minnesota, 24th Annual Meeting, in St. Paul, 1902.
  • A paper Christmas napkin, on which s written "Mary L. Fuller, Age 84, April 25 1908."
  • 15 buttons advertising dairy processing, farming equipment, tractors, piano repair, and guns.

All of these colorful and varied items give us clues to a story where there was thought to be none; a story locked away for almost a century.