OH, THE THINGS YOU LEARN upon visiting a grassroots historical society run by volunteers in a small town.
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.
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.
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.
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).”
In the museum collection, you’ll also find the usual military (including Civil War cannonballs), school, telephone and other small town artifacts.
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…
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.
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.
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