January shuffle underway at county history center

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP Fillmore County History Center directors Bretta Grabau, left, and Sara Sturgis open a Norwegian trunk that is part of the museum's collection.

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP The mannequin graveyard is a macabre collection of pink ladies and wicker forms that used to populate the museum, but with the exhibits being overhauled, they are being put into storage.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Sara Sturgis and Bretta Grabau are doing the shuffle.

Up to their necks in history – and mannequin parts – the two Fillmore County Historical Society directors are in the middle of shuffling exhibits at the Fillmore County History Center in Fountain, carrying everything from fossils and farm tools to dapper suits and the mannequins that wear them from one room to the next as 2020 begins at the center with a fresh start, new events and fewer blank stares from the plaster people gallery. 

Executive director Sturgis remarked that now is the time to take on giving exhibits, collections and programming an assessment and overhaul to help Fillmore County residents and visitors learn more about the county’s history, from two-headed calves and bootlegging to murder mysteries. The history lesson even includes the Fillmore Fungi, which will play vintage baseball in collaboration with the center and through the board’s blessing. 

“We have planned an activity or event every month in 2020 and are still looking to add more,” Sturgis said.  “We’re assessing and identifying the items in our collections, and we also received a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to update our collections cataloging program.  We will be working over the next year to transfer to that system, which includes completely transitioning our paper records to the digital catalog.”    

While the lights may be on at the museum in the elbow of Highway 52 throughout January, the collections are being assigned new places for display. January is maintenance month, she noted, so the museum is closed to walk-in visitors, allowing the directors to do some updates to the layout of the museum, as well as some winter tune-ups to the building.  The museum is still accommodating remote research requests and people who want to schedule a visit. 

“Some of the more visible differences here are the programs and the tweaks to the museum we will be making in January,” she said.  “Our goal this year is to create a space in the main part of the museum for rotating or traveling exhibits.  The rest of the museum would showcase the more permanent exhibits with family objects that people have always enjoyed seeing.  We’re also taking a look at how we can make the exterior of our building more eye-catching.  A more behind-the-scenes difference is that we are updating and implementing policies that help guide our work, especially our collections policy.” 

Determining what actions and events would take place during a specific month took a collective effort of the directors and the board with input from the larger community. 

“We’ve got hands-on programs, off-site programs, interactive programs, guest speakers,” Sturgis said.  “Our aim is to make history alive and relevant in a way that appeals to as many people as possible. 

“The weather really decided, too, what we planned for when.  We doubled up on some events in early winter and the fall in the instance we have to cancel.  We focused most of our family events in the summer months.  We had heard, especially, that people were interested in genealogy lessons, and the FCHS had done some in the past, and then we saw how popular the library classes were this fall.  I’m especially excited about our new partnership with the Fillmore Fungi vintage baseball team.  They will be offering a demo day in May.  I think our events can shine a light on the resources that the FCHS offers the community.  We have many objects that can tell county stories and family stories.”    

Sturgis noted that the directors are always looking for any input the community would like to offer, particularly the exhibits and stories people would be interested in seeing while visiting the museum. 

“We’ve already heard that there was a desire to use the research library more easily, so now it’s open whenever the museum is open, rather than needing an appointment,” she said.

Volunteer assistance is also heartily accepted, as there are always more tasks than the staff has time to manage due to the county’s vibrant history.  Right now, the directors are looking for people who would be willing to fulfill document requests and do some much-needed data entry and computer work.  The center has many resources that, if indexed, would be a great addition to the research library, she noted, adding that much of that work can be done from home. 

Also, the board is still looking for a District 5 representative from the southeastern corner of the county, which includes Harmony, Canton and Mabel.   

While January’s all about sorting the society’s collections into shape and exhibits that make sense and tell Fillmore County’s story, potential donors to the museum need to consider carefully what items they would like to have preserved as part of that. 

“We really want to encourage people who are considering donating an item to contact us first to discuss their item, rather than bringing it directly to the museum.  One important note for people to know is that we really have to look at each object for its historic value specifically related to Fillmore County, rather than its market or sentimental value.  The FCHS already has an estimated 50,000 items in its possession, and we really want to make sure we have the ability to preserve and care for each object in perpetuity,” Sturgis said.  “We’ve also updated our scope of collections to reflect what the FCHS sees as priorities for telling the stories of the county and its residents.  For instance, we are no longer accepting family Bibles.  However, there is great genealogical information in them, so rather than accept the whole Bible, we take a digital photo of the information.  We are always looking to add to our photo archive of families, sceneries, buildings and topics.”

Among the items that Sturgis encountered during the January shuffle was a box of hardtack allegedly from the Civil War as well as a scroll containing some original land surveyor notes from the early 1850s. 

Grabau was especially intrigued to find the alarm clock found at the scene of the Olson Brothers’ murder in the 1930s, as well as a water cup from World War II that has the person’s name, serial number and places that person was carved into the metal.  

Sturgis and Grabau joined the staff as executive director and assistant director this past June, and Sturgis feels that their order of business is to become better acquainted with the county’s residents – alive and past, its history and the things that relay that history to others.  The executive director said of her goals for 2020, “Personally, I think it’s feeling more settled in our roles as staff and seeing progress on some of the initiatives and efforts we’ve put into motion, and hopefully seeing them be well-received by the public.” 

As new staff members, they’re spearheading the society’s membership engagement. 

“We always encourage people to become members of the FCHS.  Memberships are what enable us to afford new exhibit supplies, obituary binders, archive boxes, microfilm, etc.  We also updated our membership benefits last year, so we hope people will find additional value in becoming a member.  Our events are open to all, however, members do receive a discount on some of our events that require registration.” 

The Fillmore County Historical Society is a non-profit member-supported organization whose mission it is to tell the stories of Fillmore County through programs and collections.  Although January is for preparation, the center already has registration available for its genealogy sessions and Tap into History events. Find more information online at https://fillmorecountyhistory.org/events/.

“We are always looking for more interesting and effective ways of meeting that mission and encourage people to reach out with their questions and ideas,” Sturgis said.