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David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Clearwater County Historical SocietyMinnesota has 87 counties, and there is a county historical society in each one of them. This statement is significant, but often might be said without really acknowledging how important that is.

Goodhue County Historical Society dates itself to 1869, but could also trace its ancestry to the Red Wing Historical Society in 1857. Others trace their ancestry to a county old settler’s association (to be a member, one had to become a permanent resident by a certain date). While all heraldic old settlers’ associations reached a point where death severely eroded membership and capacity, some of the old settler’s associations changed their organization to become the county historical society – such as the Cottonwood County Historical Societyin Windom.

Sorting out the origin of the concept to establish history entities by county is murky. It seems that as historians and governments organized history work that a deliberate choice was made to use the relatively stable county structure. After all, the last change to the number of counties in Minnesota was in 1922 when the legislature created Lake of the Woods County. More work should be done to determine the origin, however.

As the Great War ended, the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety had begun to organize the records of soldiers from Minnesota, as early as 1917. The Minnesota Legislature recognizing that the state had sent four times the number of men into World War I as it had into the American Civil War, knew it needed to make those records publicly accessible. Thus it passed the War Records Commission Act of 1919, which required a war records commission for every county. Based on that framework the Minnesota Historical Society embarked on a 60-year campaign to assist citizens in every county in establishing a countywide historical organization.

Some began a county historical society to take on the work of preserving the war records, such as the Wilkin County Historical Societyin Breckinridge. In other counties like Stevens, the war records commission later became the county historical society. As the War Records Commission Act wound down in 1925, it wasn’t long before the New Deal programs of the 1930s infused new money into organizing permanent county historical societies, such as the Stearns County Historical Society in 1936, now the Stearns History Museum accredited by the American Association of Museums.

People have asked why the Minnesota Historical Society would create what appears to be competition for itself. In the first decades of the twentieth century the reason generally was to popularize history and in so doing strengthen the discipline. That network now is critical support for a healthy state historical society.

How many states, like Minnesota, have a county historical organization in each and every county? This question was posed in February 2011 to those who work with local historical organizations across the country. Here is a chart of the responses:

State Counties County history organization* Percentage
Arizona 15 c. 7 47
Connecticut 8 4 50
Georgia 159 c. 80 50
Illinois 102 89 88
Indiana 92 92 100
Iowa 99 46 47
Michigan 83 63 76
Minnesota 87 87 100
Missouri 115 c. 102 89
New Mexico 33 12 36
New York 62 60 97
North Dakota 53 49 93
Ohio 88 77 88
Oregon 36 35 98
Pennsylvania 67 67 100
South Dakota 66 30 46
Texas 254 254 100
Wisconsin 72 c. 66 92

Some states, like Texas, actually have county historical commissions – formal functions of the county government. In the case of Texas, that’s a requirement and hence all counties have an entity responsible for that county’s history. Indiana, and other states, has a requirement of a county historian for every county. While the emphasis is not on organizations, most county historians are part of a countywide historical society. While there is no requirement to have a countywide agency in Minnesota, clearly the people of the state in each county decided that there would be such an organization.

Minnesota is not alone in having a county historical organization for every county. Of the 1,491 counties represented, approximately 1,220 have a countywide historical organization. That over 80 percent of these counties emphasize the need to coordinate the preservation of history and access to it at this level shows not only the commonality of the practice, but also the importance of the practice.

This thumbnail study is perhaps an urgent call to recommit to intentional, organized local history work. The heavy lifting of establishing many of these organizations came amid the agricultural depression of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. During this recent so-called “Great Recession” of the 2000s, some leaders have questioned the need to continue to support history when there are so many other urgent needs. After all, so goes the logic, there is only a certain amount of money. True, but if our forebears found sufficient reason to start under much rougher times, then today’s stewards have even less reason not to continue the momentum.

3 Responses to History for Every County

  1. Darlene Kotelnicki says:

    I have to comment on our Meeker County Historical Society and the wonderful resources and staff. I have used their resources many, many times. The staff is very helpful The old newspapers are probably my favorite. I volunteered to do the costumes for our summer musical, “Oklahoma” this summer. My first stop was the MCHS to look at the old newspapers for the turn of the century styles in the ads. I have this passion for old photos and the staff have been very patient with me. If I remember seeing a photo, and they also remember it, we look until it is found. I did a lot of work on our city’s Historic Context Report, completed in 2009. The staff suggested the 1990 oral histories as a reosurce; about half are transcribed in written format. I started reading the first Sunday afternoon in 2009 and just told Jim Milan, the director, to lock me in the building until 2010! What a wealth of information. They are now being used for radio spots for our public education grant. The staff and resources at the Meeker County Historical are a real asset.
    I have also been to the Brown County HIstorical Society and Blue Earth Historical Society do family research and found them all very helpful. Our counties are truly blessed in MN for these treasures.

    Reply

  2. Krista Finstad Hanson says:

    I am the author of “Minnesota Open House” (MHS Press, 2007) a vistor’s guide to Minnesota’s Historic House Museums. While I didn’t visit every county historical society I came pretty darn close.

    My book highlights 197 museums located in historic houses, and some historic houses are also the county historical society museum. And of course many of the historic house museums are operated by the county historical society.

    When I give talks on my book (which I am still willing and available to do for any organization is interested in having me out to speak) one of my greatest challenges is to urge people to go out and visit these sites.We all want to preserve this history for the next generation, but we have to start by visiting these museums with our current youngest generation to build that interest in preservation and continuation of the operation of these historic sites.

    How many of us have never visited the museums in our own immediate area but are willing to drive elsewhere to be tourists? While many Minnesotans have visited the JJ Hill House or Glensheen how many have made that effort to finally get down to see the Le Duc House in Hastings?

    Or have you driven by the Ard Godfrey House in Minneapolis countless times and wondered what it would be like inside? Go check it out! It’s a treasure trove and much bigger inside than you would imagine!

    Or how about the wonderfully charming Knute Nelson House in Alexandria which is the Douglas County Historical Society museum. The basement is a wonderfully climated controlled research room. The historic features of the house are in tact and there’s much to learn in the bedrooms-turned-exhibit space.

    You just can’t overlook all the homes of our famous Minnesotans. Sinclair Lewis, Charles Lindbergh, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Garland, Maud Hart Lovelace, and other notables all have historic house museums honoring them.

    I also can’t get enough of those great living history museums where costumed guides busy working in the kitchen or the fields make you feel like you are stepping back in time. The Landing in Shakopee, Forestville, and NorthWest Company Fur Post are a few of my favorites.

    I am partial to the Gibbs Farm in Falcon Heights (Ramsey County Historical Society) where my daughter and I have volunteered for the past two summers. That’s another call to action too – volunteer! So many museums and historical socities could use younger volunteers in their ranks for regular or infrequent chores and duties. The Gibbs Farm like many museums is doing a great job of reaching out to families with great events, summer camps, and hands-on activities.

    Summer is a great time to get out and visit those museums you’ve driven by for years. Check out the websites and put some dates on your calendar. Many museums have limited open hours and so it takes a bit of advance planning to be sure you get there at the right time. But I can assure you the effort will be well worth it!

    Now that my kids are older and more of museum-going age, we are looking forward to a summer of visiting these great historical museums.

    Happy travels!
    Krista Finstad Hanson
    St. Paul, Minnesota

    Reply

  3. I am a direct descendant of Hon. William McGillivray of the NorthWest Company. I would like to visit the NWC FurTrade Post with my family.

    Reply

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