Washington County Historical Society celebrates 80 years

Artifacts from the Washington County Historical Society's collection will be displayed during the annual meeting and 80th anniversary celebration. Pictured here are old newspapers, a fire chief's horn and the first donation ever made the the historical society, a copy of "History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

Artifacts from the Washington County Historical Society’s collection will be displayed during the annual meeting and 80th anniversary celebration. Pictured here are old newspapers, a fire chief’s horn and the first donation ever made the the historical society, a copy of “History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

“The Stillwater Historical Society met last evening — at least if it did not meet we wish it had.”
So began an 1881 editorial in the Stillwater Daily Sun calling for the creation of a Stillwater or Washington County historical society.

The society should be created, the piece argued, while notable figures still lived, such as Stillwater’s first mayor, John McKusick, and Rev. William Boutwell, an early missionary to the region.

“There will be a Stillwater Historical Society sometime, but every year that the organization is delayed will make more difficult its work when it does organize,” the editorial said.

Despite the Daily Sun’s prodding, such an organization didn’t take shape for more than 50 years. But since its formation in 1934, the Washington County Historical Society has gathered and guarded the stories of the area. With its 80th anniversary next month, the society is taking time on Thursday, March 27, to celebrate its own story.

According to Washington County Historical Society Executive Director Brent Peterson, in 1934 a women’s group meeting at the Lowell Inn decided there should be a historical society. The Stillwater Rotary was also meeting at the Lowell Inn, and the women pitched the concept to its members.

“The women’s group went over to the Rotary and said, ‘We have this idea, would you be able to help get this off the ground?’” Peterson said. “And that was the organization of the historical society.”

The first official meeting of the society was Wednesday, April 11, 1934. About 75 people gathered at the Stillwater Public Library and elected the county schools superintendent Edward E. Bloomquist as the organization’s president.

During that meeting, the society also accepted its first donation, a copy of “History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley.”

The book remains part of the collection today.

“We keep (donated items) forever,” Peterson said.

For six years after its inception the historical society operated from a room at the Stillwater Public Library, but as its collection grew, the space became cramped. With the help of State Sen. Karl Neumeier, the society purchased the former Stillwater Prison warden’s house from the state for $100. It opened the house as a museum in 1941, making it the second oldest house museum in Minnesota.

In the late 1970s, the society expanded by purchasing the Hay Lake School in Scandia from the Forest Lake School District. The 1896 one-room school house had closed in 1963, but a community group had turned it into a museum, which the historical society continues to operate.

The nearby Johannes Erickson log house was also purchased around the same time and was moved about a half mile to the site of the school in 1980. The society carefully restored the log house.

In 1974 the warden’s house, the Hay Lake School and the log house were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1975 the Washington County Historical Society was instrumental in preventing demolition of the historic Washington County courthouse in Stillwater, the oldest courthouse in Minnesota. The society donated the first $10,000 toward its preservation.

Society members also made plans in the 1970s for a replica of the carriage house that once stood behind the warden’s house in Stillwater, but it took many years to raise the funds. In 1995, workers broke ground and completed the structure the following year. With the addition of heating, air-conditioning and a bathroom in 2001, the carriage house became the best location to store the historical society’s extensive collection.

The collection continues to grow, so the society has purchased a 14,000 square foot building at 1862 Greeley St. in Stillwater. Currently rented by MnDOT for use as the St. Croix Crossing bridge project headquarters, it is planned as a state-of-the-art museum and research facility.

Peterson says the facility will make the society’s collections more accessible and useful to the public, which is important because education is a focus of the organization.

Several objects from the collection will be featured on March 27 during the Washington County Historical Society’s meeting. Board member and retired Air Force Col. Thomas Simonet will give an overview of the area’s history using the objects, as the group celebrates its anniversary. One of the artifacts on display at the meeting will be the copy of “History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley” that was the original donation to the society.

The evening will only include a small sample of the stories represented by the society’s collection, however. After all, each artifact has its own story, Peterson points out.

“We’re the keeper of the stories,” he said. “And some of our stories are attached to tangible items, such as uniforms, such as school bells, such as books.”

In Peterson’s mind, the past 80 years and the present time is part of an “eternal relay race” to keep the stories alive from one generation to the next.

Contact Jonathan Young at jonathan.young@ecm-inc.com

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