Minnesota Local History Blog.

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Advice and help with building history capacity.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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History Where It Happens– Historical Markers in Minnesota

By: Elizabeth Koele | Interpretation | May 9, 2022

You might spot historical markers at interstate rest areas, local and state parks, or at simple pull-offs along the road. They come in different shapes, sizes, and materials, but all share a similar purpose–to draw attention to history. They stand as a reminder that history happens everywhere and isn’t solely confined to museums and historic sites. There’s countless stories to tell and an unlimited number of places to tell them.

Many states have prolific historical marker programs, with thousands of markers spread across their landscapes. Here in Minnesota, we also have plenty of markers to go around and a long history of erecting them.

History of the Minnesota Marker Program

Minnesota’s historical marker program was inspired by the exponential increase in automobile traffic and expansion of the trunk highway system in the 1920s. The Minnesota Historical Society and Minnesota Highway Department (a predecessor to the Minnesota Department of Transportation) joined together to mark historic locations and capture the attention of tourists traveling across the state along new roads.The earliest markers took the form of steel plates, painted white with black lettering. The signs were placed just along the road with the intent that motorists could read the content without halting their journey, undoubtedly made possible by naturally slower traffic.

A pair of people stand before a white metal sign framed with a log mount. The marker is titled "Christmas Lake"

Christmas Lake historical marker in Shorewood, Minnesota. Circa 1939. Image from Minnesota Historical Society Collections

Gradually, the program began to erect more substantial structures to display the markers. Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, New Deal groups like the National Youth Administration (NYA) constructed elaborate brick or stone “shrines” to frame metal plaques. This marker style required visitors to stop and get a closer view to read. As time progressed, these “permanent” markers continued to evolve into plaques mounted on more straightforward plinths of concrete and stone.

For those traveling around Minnesota today, they’ll mainly encounter markers erected in the last fifty years. Beginning in the 1960s, the marker program shifted away from complex construction to simpler aluminum signs cast by Sewah Studios, an Ohio company responsible for creating numerous states’ historical markers. These less-intrusive markers led to a greater variety of locations–moving beyond major highways. MNHS continued to steadily erect new markers in this style until the early 2000s, when a reduction in funding paused the program.

Surveying Markers

A twenty-year break can create a lot of questions. Where are the markers and are they still there? What do they look like and what do they mark? There’s some catching up to do, and this is where I come into the picture.

For the last several months I’ve been traveling the back roads of Minnesota, hunting for historical markers. Pulling from past records and sources like “Minnesota History Along the Highways,” I compiled a list of markers to search for–a little over 200 markers erected by or directly connected to MNHS.

The next challenge was determining where to search for the markers. Some were easy to track down on maps and crowdsourced websites, while others required scanning Google satellite and street views or even piecing together clues from photographs. Once located, I travel to a marker and record GPS coordinates, take extensive photographs, and note its physical condition. The photos also allow me to transcribe a marker’s text later.

A vertical stone structure surroudning a dark metal plaque titled "Christmas Lake"

Christmas Lake historical marker in Shorewood, Minnesota. Surveyed October 27, 2021. Photo by Liz Koele.

At this point in the project, only a small handful of markers remain to be surveyed. Next steps include taking a closer look at their stories, processing the collected survey data, and preparing a report with recommendations for the future of the marker program. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates on the MNHS historical marker program in the future.

Historical Markers Near You

Despite the focus on the state marker program, there’s no monopoly on markers in Minnesota. MNHS is far from the only organization to erect historical markers. Created by local historical societies, civic organizations, and others, Minnesota is home to thousands of markers beyond those included in our survey.

If you want to explore markers across the state, check out websites like The Historical Marker Database or the Historical Marker Project. Consider getting familiar with your local markers and keeping an eye out while traveling. You might be surprised by what you find!

Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest

By: Joe Hoover | Interpretation | July 3, 2012
The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest's opportunity to house its entire collection at the University of Minnesota's Anderson Library has freed up the organization to allow it to develop and focus on interpretation, outreach and education.

History Overnight

By: grabitsdm | Interpretation | Preservation & Facilities | October 6, 2010
Historic Dayton House in Worthington, MinnesotaMinnPost on Saturday October 2, 2010, ran an article on Linden Hills, a two-mansion historic site complex in Little Falls, that discussed the competing concerns when a house museum allows for overnight stays.

This blend between historic house museum and bed & breakfast is not surprising considering the economic times. Small nonprofits need to look under every rock and pillowcase to find resources to preserve the past, and those funds are elusive. Perhaps with the growing popularity of so-called "stay-cations" offering a historic house museum as a place to stay overnight could appear to be a win-win.

The stroke of genius in allowing people to stay in a historic house museum is that these museums recognize that buildings were built for a purpose. In the case of historic house museums, they were originally built to house people and are generally not as well suited to museums. Allowing people to stay in them fulfills the purpose for which the house museum was designed and thus potentially furthers the building's preservation and the organization's mission.

The work of history, though, is not just about preservation. It is also about access. A colleague of mine often tells me there is absolutely no reason to save anything, unless we can figure out how to make what we save accessible and relevant. The blending of museum and B&B also meets this admonition as guests have unparalleled access to the past as they get to rest in its comforts. Not only can they put themselves in the shoes of those that lived in the past by walking the same halls to the same toilets, but they can literally dream where others dreamt.

As with everything else, this blending does not come without risk. Certainly curators and conservators might easily point out the risk to the collections on account of such far reaching access. The collections may be further at risk from plumbing needed to allow occupancy, since it is never a question of if a pipe will leak, but when. And, if the "breakfast" part of B&B involves cooking in the historic house there is also the issue of infestation and migratory residues.

Further risks include working with state departments that regulate kitchens, local building officials who monitor code compliance for occupancy, and the Internal Revenue Service for potential Unrelated Business Income. There may be others.

Linden Hills is not the only historic house museum to offer this opportunity in Minnesota. Among the them are Dayton House in Worthington and the Two Harbors Light Station on the North Shore.

Staying overnight in a historic house museum, though, is nothing new. Many traditionally had caretakers who lived on site for security and other reasons. Folsom House, operated by the Taylors Falls Historical Society, still carries on that tradition. There may be some others that use a portion of their historic house museum as rental property, which can be a locally sticky issue.

Perhaps what is a new trend is both the transient nature of overnight stays in historic house museums and how common it is becoming. There don't appear to be studies showing the prevalence of this trend, but it can be spotted around the world, including the President Paul Kruger House Museum in Pretoria, South Africa, and 80 National Trust sites in the United Kingdom.

There may be other house museums considering taking this step. Those entrusted with these historic resources would do well to carefully consider risks along side of the potential rewards by having conversations with their tax advisor, local building inspectors, health department officials (if applicable), preservation experts, local residents about their thoughts, internally about how such a proposal fits mission, and with those that currently operate historic house museums with an overnight stay option for the public.

Questions you hope no one will ask

By: grabitsdm | Interpretation | September 29, 2010
This was a session at the AASLH Conference in Oklahoma City last week. The point was that the emotionally charged questions and those questions that require a complex, nuanced answer are precisely the kinds of questions that bring people to visit historical organizations. Although these may make tour guides cringe, these kinds of questions bring out passion and curiosity, and inspire dialog and learning. We ought to embrace these questions, relish the opportunity to discuss them, and welcome people to ask them.

On the horizon, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 anniversary may prompt some of these kinds of questions.

What questions do you hope no one will ask? What are you doing to prepare docents and tour guides to answer difficult questions?

Reconciling Modern Users with History

By: grabitsdm | Interpretation | Information Technology | March 29, 2010
The Sunday March 21, 2010, St. Paul Pioneer Press carried an interview between Dan Carr of "The Collaborative" and Gov. Tim Pawlenty. In the interview, Gov. Pawlenty makes a statement that "we have a government that is kind of a 1940s industrial model in a world that is becoming an iPad. Those two things are going to be reconciled and the marketplace will decide this."

Politics aside, the remark prompted a parallel thought, replacing "government" with "historical society" and "marketplace" with "user."

Some kinds of cultural institutions will have less trouble adapting to changes and expectations. One can easily see how children's museums in particular can allow individuals to be in charge of robust choices in real time. Historical organizations also will easily adapt to the expectation of less emphasis on physical location through the addition of digital content and being able to share history outside of its bricks-and-mortar location, though the storage of documentation has to happen somewhere.

However, historical organizations may have more difficulty in letting go control of the facts of history and how the story is presented. Or will it be?

In what ways have you begun to adapt to more modern expectations? Specifically how have you attempted to stay ahead of this rapidly changing set of expectations? In what ways might historical organizations stuck in a "1940s industrial model"?

Finding eTime with Children

By: grabitsdm | Interpretation | Information Technology | January 25, 2010
USA Today carried the story Kids' electronic media use jumps to 53 hours a week. If one goal of local historical organizations is to be where people are, and children spend 53 hours a week on average with electronic gadgets, what should local history museums be thinking about?

One approach might be to embrace all of the eGadgets and aim to put programming in them where children will encounter them. Another might be to include more of this kind of hardware in our exhibits, websites, and public programming. Another still might be to forgo eMedia altogether to offer children a break from what they do, instead of piling on more time. There should be further strategies: how will you use electronic gadgets to your advantage?
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