Guardians of History

I have neglected this space for nearly a month due to a road trip with friends, a much awaited visit from my daughter and son-in-law, and the gearing up of a new teaching semester.  It’s the road trip that inspires this post, namely because it renewed my appreciation of people who see to the preservation and interpretation of local history.

First, kudos to Linda Evenson, the librarian-archivist at the Freeborn County Historical Museum in Albert Lea.  Just prior to the road trip, I drove down to Albert Lea for the day intent on retrieving some obituaries from the file I knew that FCHM kept.  I figured obituaries might yield a little better sense of the “characters” in my current research.  I came home with more than I had anticipated.  Linda has made worthy use of volunteers’ time to compile name indexes of old newspapers, plat books, and other records.  In a previous post, I wrote about Fred McCall, a postmaster and drainage opponent who cast his opinions in poetry.  Looking up his name in the indexes showed me the location of his farm, led me to newspaper accounts of his and his wife’s birthday and anniversary parties, and brought me a poem he wrote, in his 80s, on the occasion of his wife’s death.  The man behind the name is coming clear.  The finding aids Linda Evenson has prepared are supplemented by her intimate knowledge of the archives she oversees, some of which still awaits cataloging.

As my friends and I drove down the Mississippi toward our lodgings in Decorah, Iowa, we thumbed through a stack of backroads travel books and kept alert to brown historic site signs. We would not let the pressure of “getting there” dissuade us from seeing what lay along our route.  Our favorite surprise required a two-plus-mile drive along a loosely graveled road lined with orange cones and construction machinery.  The road took us through a lovely valley between river bluffs.  Finally, a bit after the odometer signaled that we should be there, a bend in the road brought us in sight of the Pickwick Mill, a restored grist mill first opened in 1858. We pulled up just as an elderly man climbed into a pickup, the only other vehicle on the property.  He had just locked the place up and was heading home.  Our questions must have piqued his pride, because he quickly offered to let us in.  We had a choice between watching a 20-minute movie or paying $3 a person for a guided tour of the first floor.  We chose whatever he planned to tell us. He apologized for not being able to show us any working machinery, because the power was turned on only for tour groups with advance reservations.

I would call his presentation style laconic enthusiasm.  His voice was quiet and unmodulated; he rarely cracked a smile, but his knowledge of every item on display was extensive and illustrated his passion for the mill and its history.  He told us, for example, that he kept busy between visitors cleaning out nooks and crannies and sorting the material found there.  Among the recent finds was a paybook showing the names and pay of the first 6-man (or was that 5?) team employed at the mill in the late 1850s. He didn’t seem at all displeased that we took time to read and discuss the names and speculate about their working conditions.  He asked us if we would like to step out onto a balcony on the river side where we could get a view of the millwheel.  As we did, expecting a quick glimpse, the wheel began to rumble and turn.  He had surprised us by switching it on–a great favor that enhanced our fascination with the site.

He explained to us that the mill had been in danger of demolition back in the 1980s, until local citizens banded together to save it and organized as a non-profit to secure funding and guarantee its future.  He had farmed in the area and was one of several volunteer tour guides.  We were welcome to explore other floors (there are 7 in all, two of them underground) on our own, and my friends did.  I am not fond of steep, open-slatted stairways, so I went outside to look closer at the river and millpond and to admire neighboring Lake LaBelle.

Near the door I spotted another reason to be appreciative:  a sign announcing that the mill restoration had benefited from a Minnesota Legacy Grant.  In the election of 2008, Minnesota voters approved an amendment that would increase the state sales tax by three eighths of one percent through the year 2034, with receipts dedicated to water and wildlife conservation, parks and trails, and arts and culture, including local history.  At a time when some politicians are signing no-tax pledges, we citizens agreed to tax ourselves to care for treasured aspects of our state’s heritage.  The legislature has created a Legacy Amendment website where Minnesotans can keep track of how the funds are spent.  Thank you, Minnesota voters, for the privilege of visiting the Pickwick Mill and for all the other benefits the funds provide.


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