Jackson County Historical Society facilities getting long-needed update
LAKEFIELD — Books are piled high on shelves, artifacts are tucked into every nook and cranny and photographs fill the walls of the Jackson County Historical Society headquarters on Minnesota 86 in Lakefield.
But it’s not just the “things” that are stored there that are being preserved for posterity. The stories behind those things are even more important.
“Some people have the misconception that the historical society is a museum,” explained JCHS Executive Director Mike Kirchmeier. “Our mission is to preserve history.”
With that mission in mind, the historical society staff and volunteers spend their days documenting the county’s residents — both past and current — cataloging photographs and preserving all the tidbits of daily life that tell the story of Jackson County.
Currently their tasks are being made a little more difficult because of an upcoming renovation.
Lakefield has been home to the county’s historical archive since the 1970s. Long ago, the historical society was housed in the basement of the courthouse in Jackson and then moved to a building on the fairgrounds.
“In 1974 the historical society went to the county board to seek new quarters, and this building was chosen by the Minnesota Historical Society as being the most suitable of the two options at the time,” explained Kirchmeier in the quarterly newsletter. “Now, 40 years later, we are still in the same building. After 40 years of acquiring artifacts, the building is filling up so that storage areas and display areas become one.”
In its former life, the building housed an implement dealer, so it wasn’t set up for a museum or research facility.
“We’ve added to it, remodeled and pieced things together over time,” Kirchmeier said. “It’s a central location for the county, which is good, but it’s not the population center.”
Recent infrastructure improvements have included replacing the roof, insulation and updating the heating and cooling system. Now, the focus has turned to making the facility more aesthetically pleasing.
The front room and office area of the building will be opened up, with a new drop ceiling and lighting installed. The project will hopefully include paint and new flooring, depending on available revenue. Energy-efficient lighting will be installed throughout the building.
“They’re going to set it up so when people walk through (the display areas) the lights will come on,” Kirchmeier said. “They’ll stay on for 30 minutes, and if there’s no activity they shut down.”
Work is slated to being this month, with the hope the project will be completed by the beginning of May when schools groups typically visit the museum. In preparation for the project, there’s been a lot of rearranging of the museum’s assets. For instance, memorabilia from the doctor’s office display is currently housed inside the jail cell. Historical reference books are piled high in a small storage area.
“Our biggest problem is that over the years we’ve filled up,” said Kirchmeier. “Where do you put all the stuff? I think it might come to the day where we have to re-evaluate all our artifacts.”
But despite the organized chaos, the museum is open for people who may want to research their own family history or take a gander of what is on display in the museum.
“We have a lot of artifacts and a few pieces that are unique,” said Kirchmeier. “It just depends on what turns you on.”
A longtime museum volunteer, the late H. Ed Carlson, constructed many of the museum’s displays, including a “Main Street” section that features the bank teller cage from the Okabena bank allegedly robbed by the infamous Bonnie and Clyde; a beautician’s shop; general store; and the aforementioned jail cell. Antiquated farm implements and an original piece of dirt from a pioneer sod house are set up farther back in the building’s large shop area. There are also displays devoted to the Heron Lake’s rich hunting history, the county’s veterans of military service and schools.
One of the most unique historical aspects of Jackson County, Kirchmeier noted, is its early history, having been the site of not just one but two Native American uprisings — 1857 and 1862. Staff member Mary Chonko is currently researching the early settlers involved in the 1857 event. Kirchmeier has been working for several years on a book devoted to the area’s Civil War veterans.
“When each person passes on, some of that history is lost,” said Kirchmeier about the need to document not just major happenings in history, but what daily life was like in past eras. “Everyday life was part of the big story of every body who has lived here.”
He encourages people who are cleaning out homes to give the historical society a call if they have anything they think might be of historical value. Too many times, Kirchmeier said, people dump old pictures because they don’t know who the people are in them, when with a little bit of research those details might be turned up.
One of the historical society’s biggest needs is for volunteers.
“If people are interested in history, they can pick just about any subject to help us out,” he said. “We need more volunteers who are really willing to come and work. We want them to use their talents to the best of their abilities. It could be as simple as going through microfilm to look for obituaries, or all the old clothes need to have garment bags sewn to protect them. But we can also use people who are capable doing painting and building displays.”
Of course, people can also help out future generations of researchers by writing down their own family or business history and doing such simple things as labeling pictures with names and places.
“Now is a good time to label those pictures,” noted Kirchmeier in the newsletter. “We have many fine pictures at the Jackson County Historical Society; it is a shame that we don’t know who or what they all are.”
When the remodeling project is done in a few short weeks, the Jackson County Historical Society staff and volunteers hope that it will be a more welcoming locale for people who want to delve into genealogy or just check out the history of their community.
“Our goal is to make it a better place,” Kirchmeier said.
The Jackson County Historical Society & Museum is located at 307 N. Minnesota 60 in Lakefield. For more information, phone (507) 662-5505; or email email@example.com.
Daily Globe Features Editor
Beth Rickers may be reached