Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota Faces: Rural community volunteers March 6, 2015

Portrait #10: Helen Newman and Cindy Packard

Helen Newman, left, and Cindy Packard work on a Morristown sesquicentennial scrapbook in June 2013.

Helen Newman, left, and Cindy Packard work on a Morristown sesquicentennial scrapbook in June 2013.

When I photographed life-long Morristown resident Helen Newman nearly two years ago clipping newspaper stories and taping them into her community’s sesquicentennial scrapbook, I knew I’d met a cherished volunteer.

She was settled behind a teacher’s desk with Cindy Packard, visiting her hometown from Colorado Springs, on the June afternoon I walked into the District #54 Schoolhouse Museum with my notebook and camera. My presence didn’t stop Helen from focusing on the task at hand. She understood the importance of saving documents.

But there was more than dedicated volunteerism that drew me to the then 87-year-old. Her friendliness and gentleness of spirit reminded me of my mom. I think, had they lived in the same rural area, they would have been friends.

Helen died on Monday. She was all I assessed her to be, and more.

Her obituary is a beautiful tribute to a woman who led a joyful life. She clearly worked hard, loved deeply and lived out her faith in God.

Her four surviving children wrote an especially heartfelt obit that includes this descriptive paragraph:

Our Mom was a kind and generous person who believed the best in all people. She was a wonderful friend. She believed in us and was our biggest cheerleader. Some of our favorite memories of our Mom are: Her wonderful smile that would light up a room; her love of dancing; her awesome full-body hugs; her boundless energy; her green thumb; and her canned beef and pork chop dinners.

What a wonderful way to be remembered—for believing in others, for kindness, for dancing…and for canned beef and pork chop dinners.

FYI: To read Helen’s full obituary, click here.

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This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

 

Preserving a small town’s history in a Minnesota country schoolhouse June 7, 2013

The District #54 country school, built in 1870, was moved into Morristown several years ago to a site next to the old mill along the banks of the Cannon River.

The District #54 country school, built in 1870, was moved into Morristown several years ago to a site next to the old mill along the banks of the Cannon River.

OH, THE THINGS YOU LEARN upon visiting a grassroots historical society run by volunteers in a small town.

One of my favorite images is this one of volunteer Helen Newman's hand. She was cutting and taping info into the 2005 sesquicentennial book lying on the desk.

One of my favorite images is this one of 87-year-old volunteer Helen Newman’s hand. the life-long Morristown resident was cutting and taping info into the 2005 sesquicentennial album shown here.

Nothing against sprawling museums with paid staff—those places are fabulous, too. But there’s something especially touching about folks from a small town collecting photos and artifacts, memories and information, to display in a building(s) with a deep connection to the community.

You’ll find exactly that in Morristown, population around 1,000, in Rice County in southeastern Minnesota. Set next to the Cannon River are the Morristown Feed Mill, once home to a sawmill and flour mill, and the District 54 Epard School moved in from a few miles north of Morristown and today the District #54 Schoolhouse Museum. The Morristown Historical Society maintains both buildings, which I toured during the recent Dam Days community celebration.

I didn’t study the content of the two buildings like a local with an intimate connection to this place. Rather, I picked topics of particular interest to me to read and photograph.

Information about the Ku Klux Klan's presence in Morristown and the region.

Information about the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Morristown and the region.

For example, I was unaware that my county of Rice was home to Ku Klux Klan chapters and hosted the first statewide Klan convention at the fairgrounds in August of 1924. Chapter #26 was headquartered in Morristown with other chapters in nearby communities like Faribault and Owatonna and Austin and Albert Lea further to the south. Certainly, such membership doesn’t please me. But I’m thankful the Morristown Historical Society didn’t ignore this negative part of the town’s history. We need to learn from our mistakes.

A “Morristown Crime Wave of 1914” display also caught my eye with crimes such as profane and abusive language, drunken and disorderly conduct, and stealing fish noted.

News stories about the devastating 1900 fire.

News stories about the devastating 1900 fire in downtown Morristown.

In another display, a front page article published in the February 1, 1900, issue of the Morristown Press detailed a devastating fire which destroyed 20 buildings, nearly the entire business district, in downtown Morristown. “Loss will reach $35,000,” a sub-head reads.

Mrs. Lydia Meehl, who helped so many Morristown area women birth their babies.

Mrs. Lydia Meehl, who helped so many Morristown area women birth their babies.

My friend Dale, who joined a historical walking tour on the day I visited the schoolhouse museum and mill, learned about his place of birth in the Meehl Maternity Home. Hundreds of local babies were birthed there with the assistance of licensed practical nurse Mrs. Lydia Meehl. A newspaper story quotes the 82-year-old Meehl as saying she “loves them all (the 500-plus babies born in her maternity home).”

A snippet of the artifacts and info displayed inside the schoolhouse turned museum.

A snippet of the artifacts and info displayed inside the schoolhouse turned museum. Those are Civil War cannonballs on the shelf near the center of the photo

In the museum collection, you’ll also find the usual military (including Civil War cannonballs), school, telephone and other small town artifacts.

Helen Newman and Cindy Packard work on a sesquicentennial album.

Helen Newman and Cindy Packard work on a sesquicentennial album.

As a bonus, I met 87-year-old Helen Newman, who’s lived in Morristown her entire life, and Morristown native Cindy Packard, visiting her hometown from Colorado Springs. The two were seated behind a hulk of a desk inserting info into an unfinished album about the town’s 2005 sesquicentennial.

Packard brought with her a few items for the schoolhouse museum, including a spatula imprinted with “Our Twentieth Year LLOYD’S FOOD MARKET, Morristown, Minn.” She kind of hated to give it up, but…

Switchboard wires and switches reportedly from Adolph Hitler's bunker.

Switchboard wires and switches reportedly from Adolph Hitler’s bunker.

Upon my request, the pair pulled the spatula and a snippet of wires and two switches from a plastic bag resting on the corner of the desk. The switches came from the switchboard in Adolph Hitler’s bunker and were brought back by Oscar Ahlman to Hewitt Thomspon in Morristown, according to a note accompanying Packard’s donation.

Helen and Cindy visit while they cut and tape information into the album.

Helen Newman and Cindy Packard visit while they write, cut and tape information into the album. I told them just to ignore me and my camera and they obliged. I simply love this photo of the pair.

And that’s how these small town museum collections grow—with donations from the likes of a hometown girl come home every year and the dedication of volunteers like the 87-year-old Newman.

BONUS PHOTOS:

There's something about an old school map that takes me back to Vesta Elementary School, my childhood school.

There’s something about an old school map that takes me back to Vesta Elementary School, my childhood school.

A display of school-related items includes a lunch pail.

A display of school-related items includes a lunch pail, books and photos.

Presidential portraits grace the blackboard by the teacher's desk.

Presidential portraits grace a corner blackboard by the teacher’s desk.

FYI: To read a previous post on the historic Morristown Feed Mill, click here. A second mill post will be forthcoming. Also check my recent archives for stories from Morristown Dam Days.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling