25.6 miles (11.86 miles to MnHS; 13.74 miles home)
Macalester-Groveland, Summit-University, Frogtown, North End, Payne-Phalen
After months of conversation, coordination, and anticipation I was finally on the way to the Minnesota Historical Society’s Record Center on the North End. There I’d get a tour of the little-known building used to store many of Minnesota’s surprising three-dimensional artifacts and its historic papers.
There are some 10 miles between my house and the Historical Society Record Center, meaning a high potential for photo opportunities on the ride there and back. No surprise; I found some compelling ones.
I took this picture looking east along Arlington Avenue just west of the new Arlington Bridge over I-35E. On the left, barely noticeable above the sound wall separating I-35E and the adjacent neighborhood, is the Minnesota Historical Society’s Record Center.
I was buzzed inside and greeted by three Minnesota Historical Society officials, including Dan Cagely. Dan, my host and guide, is Collections Manager for the Historical Society.
MHS collection areas encompass the arts, manuscripts, the Minnesota state archives, photos, film, museum collections, and archaeology. Dan’s sweeping responsibilities involve managing all the physical spaces at which those collections are stored, and security at those sites. He manages the assignment of accession numbers, the unique combination of letters and numbers given to each artifact and allows MHS staff to keep track of each item. “Every single thing that a museum collections curator is going out and getting, we’re processing those collections, assigning accession numbers, putting them away in storage, making sure that their records are up to speed and that you can actually track where they are and remember what they are, who they came from. That’s a lot of my day-to-day.”
This Records Center building has had a career comparable to a perennial backup baseball player. Dan explained it this way. “It was an old beer warehouse distribution center and it was traded to another beer company, and eventually traded for a place down in Florida. Eventually, the Department of Administration bought it for the Historical Society in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.”
Dan began our tour by showcasing the shop areas where the exhibits department fabricates items for upcoming displays and exhibits.
As big and well-supplied as the shop areas are, much of the space inside the Records Center is for off-site storage of Historical Society artifacts. Dan told me that Larger museums have these facilities.
From the shops, Dan took us into one of several places where artifacts are kept. The caged and secured second-floor space held some special and unique items, all from the Capitol. “Cass Gilbert built the Capitol in 1905. Almost all the chairs you’re seeing are Cass Gilbert models. You can see some have been reupholstered and doctored over the years.”
“The modern OSHA standards would be five (legs). They’re trying to figure out do they want to take all these old chairs and add a fifth leg and make a new base for it. Or do they want to refabricate chairs completely and make new ones with five legs that look like the old ones. As the collections manager, I’m going, ‘You’re going to do what?!?’”
Cass Gilbert was more than an architect. As was common then, Gilbert was a comprehensive designer, meaning he conceived of the interior furnishing – from the furniture to the display cases – even some electrical fixtures.
Dan mentioned another unusual aspect of the Capitol furniture. “Normally our artifacts aren’t used or sat on, but we’re really tracking all the 1905 furniture that was at the Capitol or is here or at the other warehouse. All that stuff is being tracked by MHS (Minnesota Historical Society) with accession numbers, so we inventory them every year.”
When Dan Cagely began working for the MHS museum collections, archaeology and historic sites more than 17 years ago, the Society’s holdings were catalogued on an impossibly confusing 23 databases. Some 14 years ago, work began merging those into one database. “There’s still problems that we’re unraveling, but we didn’t know we had those problems when we had 23 different databases.”
Dan used Governor Alexander Ramsey’s territorial desk to explain the bewildering problem of relying on 23 databases. “It’s currently stored at the History Center. It was at the Ramsey House. It was on exhibit at the Tales of the Territory exhibit. It was in our registrar’s database, which was tracking what was on exhibit; it was in the Ramsey House database because it was at the site. It was also in our object Museum Collections database because it was at the History Center, so you had those three records and different staff are updating the different records.
“There’s still problems that we’re unraveling, but we didn’t know we had those problems when we had 23 different databases.”
Manuscripts, archives and other paper records are stored in boxes stacked from floor to ceiling on metal shelves. Capacity in one of the rooms at the Records Center is about 10,000 boxes. According to Dan, the Records Center handles the overflow of boxes from the History Center now that it has reached capacity of about 96,000 boxes (a.k.a. 96,000 square feet.)
Digitizing and providing public access to the hundreds of thousands of documents in the collection is a priority for the Historical Society, but as you can imagine, it is a herculean undertaking. Dan added, “Even once all that happens we still won’t get rid of the originals. We won’t need to provide the same sort of access (to them) that we currently do.”
While important, and prominent – at least in their numbers and storage style, there was so much more to see at the Records Center, from strange to funny to interesting to sentimental and emotionally moving.
Among the largest and heaviest artifacts (in weight and emotion) are the contorted girders from the I-35W bridge that plunged into the Mississippi on August 1, 2007. Dan explained how the Historical Society acquired them. “A lot of those parts were laid out next to where the bridge collapsed. They (MNDOT) had a warehouse where a lot of the stuff was stored. DOT was asking us whether we wanted some of the bridge components. There were some that looked prettier, but these were the ones that were part of why the bridge failed, so that’s why we picked these up.”
Dan went on to say that there is a reverence around the bridge pieces. “All the battle flags are over at the History Center from the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Every time we’re talking about them on tours you’re thinking about what those flags went through and the people that went through them with it. The bridge is very similar, where people died.”
There is a piece or two in the bevy of artifacts that seem out of place. “Generally what we collect is made in Minnesota, used by Minnesotans, sometimes brought to Minnesota, that belonged to relatives before, whether they lived in Massachusetts or Norway, or wherever. It’s unusual for us to have a Pennsylvania 1780s-1790s fire pumper,” Dan said.
Among Dan’s favorites in the MHS collection are two horse drawn wagons. “I lived on a farm for six or seven years so I’ve liked this U.S. Mail delivery wagon, and the Dayton wagon. You look at what businesses started off doing and I’m not sure how much people would think of Dayton as coming to deliver supplies to your doorstep.”
Dan enjoys the steamer trunks in which European immigrants brought their belongings to the U.S. “There’s so much information you can see. Owner information is on there. Stickers from where they were traveling. Norwegian ones where there’s rosemaling on there, cursive writing.”
“Vice President Mondale. We have almost all of his records from when he was vice president. We’ve got a lot of 3-D things that came over at the same time. These are the remnants of some of the 3-D things that we didn’t want 30 years ago. You can imagine, when they lost the election, his whole office got sent out here, as did all his records. A lot of his records were are restricted for a certain amount of time, but he’s been very good about working with us.”
There are some 250,000 artifacts in the Historical Society’s immense collection, according to Dan. “I would say 60, 70,000 things are out here. There’s 96,000 boxes in the manuscripts collection. There’s about 10,000 out here. If you think of the museum collections, it’s not just the History Center and this building. It’s all the historic sites as well. There’s a lot of things on display at the historic house settings at our sites.”
Dan told me about two unconventional artifacts, stored elsewhere, from the USS Minnesota, which was involved in the Civil War battle between the USS Monitor and CSS Merrimac (Virginia.). “The Merrimac/Virginia had destroyed one US ship and the Minnesota had run itself aground to get away. The Merrimac/Virgina was coming back the next day to finish off the Minnesota when the Monitor showed up and started dueling. So we’ve got this hardship’s wheel that was on display for about a year. We’ve also got a ship’s bell that’s on display in the library.”
Then there is MHS’s impressive assemblage of undergarments. “We have the largest museum underwear collection in the world. When Musingwear shipped it away from Minnesota we got representative samples of lots of their underwear.”
The focus of what is collected, said Dan, changes over time. “For decades it was Civil War and large things like that, and farming. We collected wedding dresses or formal Sunday suits. Then over the years we started collecting things that had to do with the day-to-day, not special moments. Work overalls that had been patched up over and over and over but a farmer used for 40 years. There’s more of a balance. It’s not just when Teddy Roosevelt or Babe Ruth came to town, but rather documenting businesses that existed in towns.”
Two hours at the Historical Society’s Records Center passed unbelievably quickly. I’ll always appreciate the expansive tour and insight into the MHS collection, which reinforced the importance of preserving our history. The vastness of the collection, both in quantity and variety, led to many thoughts, including: What an exciting, challenging job the collections staff has; the mix of toys, cars, canoes, antique wash machines, an old voting machine, and floral arrangements is better than a great grandparent’s attic; the resourcefullness of Minnesotans – inventors to imigrants – is impressive.
Continuing north on Jackson Street to Arlington Avenue, I went west one block to Trout Brook Circle, an interesting name since it isn’t a circle. The Trout Brook moniker is common in this area.
My far-from-direct trip home increased the prospects of photo ops. I continued south and west into the North End, where I stopped at the handsome one-time farmhouse at 503 Orange Avenue West.
Cathy Trana and her husband purchased this home at 503 Orange Avenue West in 1999. Prior to that, they rented a place less than a mile away. “We dreamed what we wanted in a house and when we saw this property it was like everything we wanted. We only looked at one property.
Cathy continued, “We came to the open house on Sunday, the first time anybody had seen it. We made an offer that day and got an offer by midnight that night because we were ready to buy and they didn’t want to keep showing their house ‘cause they had little kids.”
Cathy and her husband have put a great amount of work into improving the landscaping everywhere in a small area next to the driveway. “At some point people just dumped their household debris – not garbage – probably when they did renovations. So there’s glass and brick and all kinds of stuff in there so we haven’t quite figured out what to do with that as a landscape feature yet ‘cause it’s a can of worms every time we get into there.”
A couple of interesting historical footnotes about the house at 503 Orange Avenue West: The home was built in 1900 (for the Christian and Elizabeth Schletty family and was part of a farm. The Schlettys acquired several large parcels of land in the area and, as the children grew and got married, the farmstead was subdivided and parcels given to them. Lastly, in “The Street Where You Live, “ Don Empson points out that Elizabeth Schletty named a neighborhood street after the family name with a slight change.
My last stop on this ride was just down the street at 570 Orange to examine the garage decorated with old hand tools.
Click on the following links to see a map of the August 28, 2015, ride. There are two links; one for the ride To the MHS Records Center and the second for the return trip.