Minnesota Local History

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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Favorite Children

By: grabitsdm | July 14, 2010
A reporter from the Pioneer Press called the other day to talk about listing on the National Register of Historic Places childhood homes of people who later became significant. There is some debate by historians as to whether or not where someone lived as a child shaped or even represents the significant thing a person might be known for later. For instance, the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home in Sauk Centre is where Lewis grew up, but he did not write his novels there. Does the home in Sauk Centre represent his Nobel prize-winning writing?

Similarly Frances Gumm (later Judy Garland) was born in Grand Rapids MN, but her family relocated when she was three. How much did those first three years of life set the stage for Judy's later significance?

Recently further information about aviator Amelia Earhart turned up to show that she was a student in St. Paul in 1913.

There are many other examples, but these three spring to mind. Searching the National Register of Historic Places for "listing a childhood home" turned up nearly 400 leads to childhood homes of presidents, artists, inventors, and many other famous Americans.

Other historians argue that childhood places do shape who people later became. Whether local historical organizations do or not matters less than whether we are consistent in how we select what represents our stories. One of the exhibit ideas that has yet to take root is to show what native sons and daughters have done in the world. Sometimes local history organizations can be too focused on just what happened within their borders and do not tell the story of their people on a state, national, or world stage. For example, Pope County Historical Societyhas been sharing the story of Glenwood native Cleora Helbing, former director of education at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1930s-50s, even though the things that document Helbing's significance did not originate in Pope County. Many other Minnesotans have accomplished significant things after leaving home. How might these stories be documented and shared? What's the right balance between local-specific and what locals do in the world?

How might you tell the story of people from your community that have had a role in the wider world?

Diversifying Burdens

By: grabitsdm | July 7, 2010
Many local historical organizations are all-volunteer, have boards of a half dozen to perhaps fifteen members, memberships a few more than who serves on the board, total budgets (if they even create a budget) of about $12,000 per year, and offer a solid variety of programs. For organizations like these and countless others, some allege that 90 percent of the work is often done by 10 percent of the people involved. Attend nearly any church and one hears remarkably similar statistics. However, that statement is often not exactly true, either. Many times most of the responsibility falls on the board chair.

Overloading one person with so much responsibility has its pros and cons. One the good side, information about what the organization does is very centralized, the public knows who to call, and not too many people have to share the burden. The cons are practically legion: burnout, exhaustion, decline in health, secretiveness can develop, things get missed for want of a second pair of eyes, no one wants to run or even be groomed to succeed the incumbent, anyone elected to chair always dies in office (President for Life), and more.

For organizations that have concentrated responsibility in just one person, how would you go about diversifying responsibilities? Is this even desirable?

Another measure

By: grabitsdm | June 22, 2010
The Pioneer Press recently noted a report from the Humphrey Institute on where women stand in Minnesota today. When reports like this appear in print it often prompts the thought that the statistics can be broad, and then leads to the question of whether the stats are true in any given location.

Do you use reports like these to check the status of your community against wider trends? If so, how do you incorporate them into your work? If not, why not? The work of history, after all, is all about recording history as it happens.

More Heritage = More Security

By: grabitsdm | June 14, 2010
Last week at the Minnesota Digital Library annual meeting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Keith Ewing quoted author Thomas Savage:

"It's knowing who your parents are that counts, and your parent's parents and your parent's parent's parents, for the more heritage we can produce the more secure we feel, the more and older the snapshots, and portraits and silhouettes, objects, candle molds, wooden churns, brass tea kettles, locks of hair, faded letters coming apart at the fold, valentines and pressed flowers.  A name without a knowledge of those who gave it to us, the tilt of nose, the ring of voices, is hollow..."

 --"The Sheep Queen" (1977).  Originally published under the title "I Heard My Sister Speak My Name."

The statement that "the more heritage we can produce the more secure we feel" certainly could be one explanation of the proliferation of local historical organizations. Starting organizations could heighten the sense of security that a community feels as it undergoes transformations. The statement though also suggests that it is the public that seeks greater security in knowing its origins.

How might historical organizations build users and supporters by trading on this perceived need for greater security?

Sentimentally Significant

By: grabitsdm | June 2, 2010
One of the more difficult elements to evaluate in history is sentimental sentiments. A fairly common observation from those working in local history is of attempted donations, be they buildings or an old item from the attic. It seems as though there is a general perception that if people are attached emotionally to something, then that adds to the evidence that the something is historic.

Historians look askance at sentimental feelings for things and want to know "What does this mean?" The answer to the question has to be an articulated argument based on facts and set firmly in context. And yet, for many people, a statement of sentimental worth is enough to make something historic.

How do you talk with potential donors about historical significance when their offer is motivated by sentimental feelings?

Is Public History Women's Work?

By: grabitsdm | May 19, 2010
American Historical Association released a study on What the Data Reveals about Women Historians. Of particular interest is the final chart showing the change among public history workers from 1979 to 2009. In support of the chart, the ratio of men to women in the State Historic Preservation Office at the Minnesota Historical Society has gone from 8 men and 5 women in 2000, to 6 men and 11 women in 2010.

What factors contribute to this trend? What remedies might you suggest to encourage more men to enter the public history field? Or, is this trend appropriate, inevitable, or not a factor for the health of the public history profession?

Vision for Success

By: grabitsdm | May 19, 2010
Our semi-regular column on Key Statements for Success now turns to Vision Statements. In Defining Keys for Success we noted that Vision Statements tend to be motivational, and primarily aimed at those who labor for the organization. Such statements also lay the groundwork for demonstrating worth to financial supports by documenting a significant return on investment. However, such statements also should provide a sense of urgency that the work of local historical organizations cannot wait and subsequently be marginalized. History Matters, after all.

Vision Statements really provide the answer of why what we do is so important to do well. If mission springs from the heart, then vision provides the cold-steel backbone of logic-inspired resolve. The two must work in a delicate balance. Here's a suggested Vision Statement based on the experiences of about 500 local historical organizations in Minnesota:

Vision: Specifically, this organization:

Informs sound public policy through the direct experience of the past.

  • EXAMPLE: In talking with one county historical society in the lakes and resort region of the state, they told me about their plan to be helpful to county policymakers. Apparently local ordinances could be stronger in their definitions on lakefront land use. Some owners used the vague language to their advantage to avoid certain responsibilities, which then caused community tension. The county historical society believed it could conduct an oral history project to help elicit a consensus on definitions that would be useful to the policymakers in revising ordinances. Several other organizations have mentioned similar initiatives to help policymakers improve the rules their communities live by. These are ongoing stories, so it will remain to be seen whether these efforts will bear fruit.


Provides a neutral healing environment for people to address the affects of events on their lives.

  • EXAMPLE: The Anoka County Historical Society's award-winning exhibit, "Vietnam: The Veterans' Experience" made solid use of Veteran's Administration counsellors. ACHS staff contacted the VA to be on hand during the exhibit's opening, and on call in the event the exhibit opened old wounds. Controversies, polarizing events, and trauma can be difficult material to use to tell stories, but done well such stories can be healing. In an age of social justice and urgent social issues, this is one area that history organizations should bring to the fore to show how important history is for the public good.


Empowers people to make solid civic and environmental choices.

  • EXAMPLE: The choices we make shapes future identity. Charlie Nelson once mentioned a meeting he attended in a community that was considering tearing down its obsolete water tower. Little progress was made between those that wanted "improvement" and those that wanted preservation, until David Nystuen pointed out that the city's letterhead featured the tower as a symbol of its identity. There must have been a reason the city chose that icon in the past, and to the credit of Kasson, their water tower remains. History is a part of the civic fabric and is part of the natural environment - consider the ongoing story of the Stillwater Lift Bridge, for example. By retaining evidence of the past, historical organizations can enable people to discover why choices were made, and therefore discover a deeper meaning of the value of history resources in the community.


Enables understanding of today.

  • EXAMPLE: The Carver County Historical Society conducted an oral history in 2003 with people involved in the 1997 merger of the cities of Norwood and Young America. Documenting the choices and results of events in history will enable people now and in the future to understand better and respect more thoroughly people. This should be thought of as increasing human dignity across time. Over the years many workers at historic sites and in history museums have mentioned how visitors often arrive with misconceptions about themselves and the past; namely, that somehow we are much more evolved and sophisticated than people now dead. History tells us otherwise, of course. Just as there are nonprofits that combat other ugly thoughts about fellow human beings, history organizations can increase the dignity of people who, in many cases, can no longer speak for themselves. The way that is done is to record history as it happens, or at least shortly thereafter.


History is something that needs urgent attention, and your vision can communicate that to volunteers, staff, and financial supporters who all make the work possible. Can you think of other compelling reasons to do the work?

Compensation for history

By: grabitsdm | May 11, 2010
Yahoo! recently presented a story on the Worst Paying College Jobs. Although one might expect to see "historian" on that list, there were ten others listed instead. So, plugging a few numbers into PayScale and setting it to Minnesota, the result was just above $51,000/year. PayScale also offers a free account, which might be useful in setting compensation at local history museums.

However, the PayScale result tendered does seem to be higher than reality. In 2006 the Local History Services Salary Survey showed that executive director salary was approximately $42,000. Still, another number is always useful to boards that wrestle with setting appropriate compensation to attract and retain talented staff.

What other tools do you use when considering compensation?

Risking 501(c)(3) status

By: grabitsdm | May 7, 2010
Minnesota Council of Nonprofits published a list of more than 7,500 nonprofits that risk losing their status for failure to file the Form 990-N by May 15, 2010. Local History News and Minnesota History Interpreter have covered this story since the law was passed in 2006.

If you are on this list, please take the necessary steps to file the 990-N right away. If you notice your neighbors and colleagues, please pass along a friendly reminder. Local history has worked very hard to attain nonprofit charitable status to care for history in the public trust. It would be unfortunate if the capacity to preserve history were diminished by loss of this important status.

Below is a list of local history organizations in Minnesota that appear on this list:

Albany Heritage Society
Ann Bickle Heritage House (Glenwood)
Atwater Area Historical Society
Barnesville Area Heritage Society
Bechyn Historical Society
Big Stone County Historical Society
Canon Falls Area Historical Society
Chaska Historical Society
Christie Home Historical Society
City of Minnetonka Historical Society
Clarissa Community Museum
Clarks Grove Area Heritage Society
Cold Spring Area Historical Society
Columbia Heights Historical Society
County Center Historical Society (Wabasso)
Crow Wing County Historical Foundation
Dakota County Veterans Historical Society
Elmore Area Historical Society
Fort Belmont Foundation (Jackson)
Fulda Heritage Society
Historic Pipestone
Hollandale Heritage Huis
Hubbard County Historical Society
Lanesboro Historic Preservation Commission
Living History Society of Minnesota, Inc.
Lucan Historical Society
Maple Grove Historical Preservation Society
Medford Area Historical League
Menagha Area Historical Society
Mesabi Heritage Society
Mille Lacs County Historical Society
Mille Lacs Lake Historical Society
Minnesota Finnish-American Historical Society
Minnesota Society of Architectural Historians
Morristown Historical Society
New Brighton Area Historical Society
Paul Bunyan Historical Society (Akeley)
Pine County Historical Society
Polish Heritage Society (Winona)
Proctor Area Historical Society
Rapidan Heritage Society
Richfield Historical Society
Sand Hill Settlement Historical Society
Shoreview Historical Society
Springfield Area Historical Society
Tower-Soudan Historical Society
Trimont Area Historical Society
Truman Historical Association
Vasa Museum
Verndale Historical Society
Viking Sword Historical Society (Ulen)
Waconia Heritage Association
Warroad Historical Society
West Concord Historical Society Foundation
Wheels Across the Prairie Museum (Tracy)
Wilkin County Historical Society
Woodbury Heritage Society
Wykoff Area Historical Society

Looking ahead

By: grabitsdm | April 27, 2010
It has been 23 years since the Minnesota Historical Society hired Nina Archabal to be its director. Much has changed in the way that local history is preserved and made accessible. The most noticeable change might be in how common electronic systems have become, such as cataloging software like PastPerfect. There are many other ways, also, that the times have changed. The way in which local history attempts to tell a more inclusive story is one, just as the expectations of our patrons is another. You might be able to name a few more.

Now would be a good time to reflect on those changes and to provide some encouragement to the board of the Minnesota Historical Society as it begins the search for a new director.  What will be important to the local history community in Minnesota to accomplish in the next 5 to 15 years? What kinds of qualities might you expect to see in a new director of the Minnesota Historical Society?

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