By Emily Bialkowski
The Houston County Historical Society began moving into its expansive addition April 4, an effort 15 years in the making and valued at $1.2 million.
The addition links directly into the old, main museum at the Houston County Fairgrounds and will allow for the proper care, storage and exhibition of the mountains of artifacts the society has collected over decades.
The fruition of this project and all its planning, soliciting and work literally brought society President Shirley Johnson to tears as she watched volunteers carry over century-old oak cabinets from the bowels of the old museum up into the bright, new 10,000 square foot facility.
“There’s been phenomenal support from all of Houston County. I can’t begin to express the society’s gratitude for all the support. It’s just been a phenomenal experience,” Johnson said.
In addition to 10,000 feet of new display space, there is 6,500 square feet in the basement for growth and storage.
Johnson said the change will completely enhance the experience of visiting the museum. Once organized and laid out, the exhibits will follow the history of Houston County “telling its story” from glaciated times forward.
“We have so many beautiful artifacts we wish to showcase and want to use as educational tools. Visitors will get a better feel for Houston County’s history, and we will be able to have more hands-on experiences for kids. If there’s anything I don’t like, it’s the message, ‘Don’t touch,’” Johnson said.
Even the volunteers from Caledonia Lumber and the Sentence to Serve program could be seen eyeballing the aged tools, dolls, clothing, furniture and more as they helped carry items up.
Private donations, grants, foundations, organizations, business, estates, memorials and townships of Houston County have all contributed to this momentous day, Johnson said, adding, “It’s such a long list.”
Up until this point, no money has been borrowed for the project.
The perseverance to keep plugging away over the course of 15 years was fueled by the dire lack of space and inability for society volunteers to find places to really showcase the artifacts, Johnson said. “In 1998 when we acquired the land, we knew this would take a really long time.”
Construction began in November 2009.
The old museum has been designated a research center and library, which society Vice President Deb Ray said she knows will get used.
“In 2012 we’ve had visitors from 30 different states and eight foreign countries,” Ray said.
Helping all those visitors have been many dedicated volunteers who clocked more than 8,000 hours of time in 2012.
“It’s a great boom for the county and Caledonia,” Ray said. “I think it’s a little jewel in our town – there’s so much information and history.”
The society will set out permanent displays related to topics such as religion, military, a photo studio and children’s space and will also have rotating displays to keep interest high and to protect delicate artifacts. Some clothing items, for example, would be ruined by light and their own weight if left out all the time.
“The main thing was we wanted to be able to tell the story of Houston County in a better way. We tried to keep it so people could really feel like they’re part of this,” Johnson said.
The historical society continues to work through this time of transition but will keep the museum open. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. Appointments can be made at 507-725-3884 and tours are welcome.
Besides exhibits and artifacts, the Houston County Historical Society has extensive resources, including:
• Microfilm of county births, deaths and marriages
• Land and probate records
• Declarations of intent and naturalization records
• County newspapers
• County state and federal census
• County Lutheran and Presbyterian church records
• 19,000-plus photos
• Community histories
• Church histories
• Cemetery recordings & records
• Obituaries, news clippings and ephemera records
• Plat books and maps
• Miscellaneous school, church and business records