Historical society director now teacher as she steps down from full-time role

Students file into the old-fashioned school during the 2017 session.
By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Spring Valley Tribune

Julie Mlinar is resigning and going back to school to teach, although her term is just five days.

Mlinar recently resigned from her role as director of the Spring Valley Historical Society. However, she will be “helping with plenty for a while, like with the Old Time School Days.  I actually get to be one of the teachers this year,” exclaimed Mlinar, who has served as the society’s director for the past 11 years before recently handing her duties to new director Stephanie Bowe Osterhus. 

While she’s not going to be in charge anymore, she’s still excited about the opportunity to teach Spring Valley area children about their local history at the close of the 19th century, and being just a volunteer affords her the time to do so. Old Time School Days, which will run from July 23 through July 27 this year, has some changes. The school days will be held for five days this year instead of two two-day sessions so students can come one to five days during that week and each day will be different.  The society is also working on new ideas for the class, food, craft and game times.  

Mlinar will join retired Kingsland kindergarten teacher Marilyn Erdman at the front of the classroom in the historical society’s museum buildings, offering an opportunity for youngsters, half-pints, short stacks, whatever they may be called, to experience the lack of technology and the real work that was involved with living approximately a century ago. The society presents the program to allow students to experience firsthand what it was like for their great- and great-great grandparents to attend school without the luxuries of computers and calculators — using only a slate to work on and books to learn from. 

“Besides reading, writing and arithmetic, the students will be playing games, making crafts, learning songs and music of that time period and helping with chores that need to be done during the everyday life of a pioneer, including some food-making,” she said.     

She hopes that participants of Old Time School Days learn how their ancestors persevered against daily challenges and how that made their lives better — to know what their past was like and how hard that life would have been — to appreciate those who have come before who have made their lives easier.  Mlinar remarked that conveying the true historical ways of life can be challenging, but that Old Time School Days pupils often seize upon the opportunity to try “new” things like churning butter, sewing on a treadle sewing machine and using slates for their schoolwork. 

“If it had to be done this way every day, the newness would wear off and it would become something that had to be done, and not so much fun anymore…you can see that some are always trying to think of a way to make the job easier, but it always comes down to just old-fashioned hard work,” she said.     

Parents are encouraged to help their children find play clothes for the adventures ahead, offering a chance to dress up for the occasion.  

“The students don’t need to bring anything with them, but we do encourage everyone to dress up as if they were going to school in the late 1890s,” said Mlinar. “We will have extra bonnets and a couple of caps for the boys if needed.  Though we don’t plan on anyone getting dirty, there is always the chance at recess time, and depending on the weather, the students might get a little sweaty from the working and playing.” 

Most days, Mlinar has come home from working at SVHS’s museums not having needed to wear her own play clothes, but that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t gotten an education in local history while serving as director.  Upon taking the job in July 2007, she pledged to teach everyone she encountered — small or tall — about Spring Valley’s local history.

“One goal I do have is I would like the people of Spring Valley to be more aware of the treasures we have here,” she said at the time. “There’s a lot of people who, when I told them I’m working at the museum, said, ‘There’s a museum in Spring Valley?’ 

“My goal is to let the people in our area know how important it is to know what the past is so that we can see where we’re going and where we’ve been. People need to know so we won’t make the same mistakes as we have in the past, and so we have somewhere that we’re focused on in for the future.  We get so many people from out of town and different countries that know more about the museum than our local people do.  There are so many people who have never been here, or if they have, it’s been so long ago that they don’t even know what’s here…we do add to the collection, and we have some really interesting novelty things.”

That’s why, as she departs from her position as director, she maintains that one of the best ways to educate residents on their rich local history is to start by teaching them before they realize that they’re learning and that what they’re doing — living without electricity or hauling water to make each day go well — is work. 

 “We have a lot of fun working with the children with this project, and I hope that they will walk away with a better understanding of their history and a better appreciation for their teachers and school that they have today,” said Mlinar.      

Old Time School Days, which runs from Monday, July 23, through Friday, July 27, is held at the building behind the Methodist Church Museum. It is geared for students in grades one through six, but kindergarteners are allowed to come if there is room.  It is a very limited space with room for only 12 to 15 students every day, so parents need to register their kids ahead of time.  The days of the school run from 9 a.m. to noon each day, with check-in from 8:45 a.m. to 9 a.m. 

The Methodist Church Museum is located on Courtland Street in Spring Valley.  Registration may be completed by calling the museum at 507-346-7659. The cost is $9 per day per student, but scholarships are available through the society. Contact museum staff for information. Participants should bring a copy of the Laura Ingalls Wilder book "Farmer Boy" if they have one.