The Gift of a Museum

Do you want to hear a story?  How about a long, complicated one?  If you’re game, read on to find out how The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum came to be.

To tell this story properly, it’s best to start at the beginning.  The impetus for forming the Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) came through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), specifically through the WPA’s district supervisor, Sarah Thorp Heald, who called the original organizational meeting on July 28, 1936.  One of the primary purposes of the new organization, along with collecting the history of Morrison County events from the time of Zebulon Pike’s 1805 expedition to the present, was to record biographies of county residents.  This is informally referred to as the WPA biography project, but was officially listed as WPA Project #3870.

Space Becomes an Issue

Val Kasparek, who was elected as President of MCHS at the first meeting, was also in charge of the local WPA biography project.  In addition to these roles, he served as Curator of MCHS.  While the work of the WPA biography project was being conducted in an office in the Vertin Building at 30 East Broadway in Little Falls, MCHS didn’t find a permanent home until April 1938.  At this time, the Morrison County Board of Commissioners provided one room in the basement of the county’s Historic Courthouse as a place for the Society’s collection and work.

The space was adequate for a time – a very short time.  Artifact and archive donations poured in, and MCHS chugged along in facilitating and storing the biographies collected through the WPA.  In a letter dated February 27, 1940, Val Kasparek was telling Fred Johnson, President of the Brown County Historical Society, that “our room is getting crowded.”

The search for a new museum space started immediately, with suggestions either to add on to the courthouse or build a separate structure on the courthouse lawn.  In a synopsis of MCHS activities from July 15, 1936, to March 27, 1943, it became apparent that the search for additional space had stalled as quickly as it had begun, and for very good reason.  In Kasparek’s words, “We . . . interviewed certain wealthy men to donate enough money to buy the material to build an addition to the Morrison County courthouse and under the WPA project, to house the museum, but owing to the war activities the matter is postponed.”

As of May 31, 1951, we get a glimpse of the enormity of the problem with this report from Kasparek:  “There are 1110 “antiques” donated by the liberal citizens and 311 “historical” write ups and their personal experiences and many hundreds of photographs and pictures of interest and most of them are exhibited in the museum but many cannot now be shown due to lack of space.” (MCHS report by Val Kasparek)  In addition, there were 1,131 WPA biographies to store.  All of this was housed in a room approximately the size of MCHS’ current research room, which is about 15 ½ by 30 feet.

The theme of overcrowding persisted past Kasparek’s death in June 1951 and continued through the decade and on into the next, with new MCHS members tackling the issue.  By 1952/53, Curator and Secretary/Treasurer Alex Huddleston had hit upon a partial solution by jettisoning part of the collection, primarily taxidermy mounts, to the log cabin at Pine Grove Park.  In 1954, he created a display area in the basement hallway of the courthouse, where some of the larger agricultural implements were showcased. (LFDT, Jan. 28, 1954)  This did not fully alleviate the situation, however, because by December 1956, Huddleston was exclaiming, “There just isn’t enough space!” in the pages of the Little Falls Daily Transcript.  Compounding the problem was Huddleston’s effectiveness in growing the collections, which included a loan of over 100 items from the private collection of Harry Ames.  (LFDT, Dec. 29, 1956)

Reenergizing the Historical Society

Huddleston was not destined to see a solution to the Society’s lack of space.  He died of a heart attack on August 5, 1958.  (LFDT, Aug. 6, 1958)  This event put the organization into a slump, with no evidence of annual meetings being held between 1958 and 1961 and board activity appearing to slip into dormancy.  As had occurred following the death of Val Kasparek, Huddleston’s death left MCHS without a rudder.  In both cases, Arch Grahn, Field Director of the Minnesota Historical Society, stepped in to reenergize the Society.

In a letter dated November 27, 1962, and addressed simply “Dear Friend,” Grahn noted that “even though the interest and pride of individuals in their county’s history continues to increase, the Morrison County Historical Society has ceased to function.”  He set a meeting for December 4, 1962, at the Morrison County Courthouse for the purpose of reactivating the Society and urged “Dear Friend” to bring “a delegation of your interested friends and neighbors.”  MCHS minutes of the meeting confirm that there was no President of the organization at the time and that the Minnesota Historical Society was in charge of the meeting.

Scouting Structures and Locations

A new board was elected, with Ralo Bailey assuming the presidency.  Space remained the critical issue, and in September 1963, a motion was “made and approved to appoint a building committie [sic] and to get it working as soon as possible.”  (MCHS minutes, Sept. 10, 1963)  “As soon as possible” began in earnest in 1966, with investigations into the cost of cement block buildings and steel structures.  Possible locations were scouted within the year and on into the next couple of years.

In November 1968, after looking at a house west of Pine Grove Park, the old cannery building, the old Grace Covenant Church, and the Northern Pacific Depot, MCHS purchased a piece of land along Highway 27 and 9th Street on the west side of Little Falls.  This became known as the West Broadway property.  Once the land had been purchased, it had to be improved, which included clearing brush, bringing in dirt fill and having water and sewer pipes run to the site.

Now that MCHS had a site, the discussion turned toward the design of the museum itself and how to pay for it.  While space may have been the obvious issue, the issue behind the issue was really a lack of funding.  The board of MCHS had been steadily working to improve the organization’s financial position, both through membership drives and by approaching the County Board of Commissioners when state statute allowed for county funding for historical societies.  To raise money for museum construction, Leo Coenen, one of the members of the MCHS board, suggested starting a building fund drive in March 1969.

There was no shortage of ideas for the layout and construction of the museum.  A building plan was presented to MCHS by Lee McKinnon, the County Civil Defense Director, in May 1969.  A few months later, in September, Gilbert Gustafson presented his plan for a new museum.  “It [involved] a steel building with moveable walls in the interior.”  (MCHS minutes, Sept. 11, 1969)  During this stretch of time, there was talk of hiring an architect, but the idea didn’t make much headway.  Before all was said and done, plans would eventually be put forth by Gladys Coenen, Jan Warner, and two architects, but that’s getting ahead of our story.

A Sudden Turn of Events

Unbeknownst to the current cast of characters, the seeds had been quietly sown years earlier for an upcoming turn of events.  In 1957, Alex Huddleston received membership dues and a donation from a couple who wished to remain anonymous.  Following the reinvigoration of MCHS in the 1960s, they began to attend the organization’s meetings after being invited by a friend.

Something about the organization piqued the couple’s interest, so much so that they decided to give a sizeable donation toward the building fund.  The contribution was announced at the Society’s membership meeting on January 22, 1970, but not the names of the donors, who had again requested anonymity.  Their primary concern upon making the donation was in getting an assurance that the building would be maintained.

Within the year, their donation would increase.  Because MCHS was largely unproven as an organization, there were several conditions that accompanied the donation.  Understand that these “conditions” were more like suggestions, rather than demands.

Along with their concern that the museum be maintained, the donors requested that an architect be hired and that the building be designed to “represent some phase of County history.”  (MCHS minutes, March 19, 1970)  MCHS could choose the architect, but its choice had to meet the approval of the Minnesota Historical Society.  The donors asked for the right to approve the design and location of the museum.  They also wished to remain anonymous “for the present.” (MCHS minutes, March 19, 1970)  The board of MCHS passed a motion in favor of these conditions at its meeting on September 16, 1970.

The Minnesota Historical Society served as the custodian of the contribution, releasing funds as needed for paying bills associated with construction.  Art Warner, President of MCHS, was selected to be the liaison between MCHS, the donors, and the Minnesota Historical Society, whose representative was director Russ Fridley.

MCHS formed a Museum Design Committee and Russ Fridley supplied a list of architects who had experience in designing museums.  The committee interviewed three candidates and recommended Stanley Fishman of St. Paul for the project.  During its February 18, 1971, meeting, the board approved hiring Fishman.


Wedded to West Broadway

While it would appear as though the matter of building a museum was about to become easier after hiring an architect, that wasn’t the case.  Fishman immediately set to work on designing the museum, but couldn’t come up with plans that all parties would agree to.

Then, there was the matter of location.  The donors were hoping that a site on the Mississippi River could be found, while a group of people associated with MCHS, some of them board members, remained wedded to the idea of using the West Broadway property.  After a considerable amount of investigation into sticking with the West Broadway property and checking out other potential sites, the issue got sorted out in May of 1972, when it was discovered that Louise and Frank Smuda owned a piece of property they were willing to sell.  It was a river site, just south of the Charles Lindbergh home and perfect for a museum, so it was immediately purchased.

By November 16, 1972, Fishman’s idea for a floor plan for the museum was agreed upon, but not the roofline for the building.  The Historical Society was looking forward to breaking ground in the spring.  (MCHS minutes, Nov. 1, 1972)  After several meetings with the architect over the winter months, Art Warner described the building plans at the March 15, 1973, board meeting.  “Since [the proposed model] was unsatisfactory,” Warner intended to meet with Russ Fridley the following day “to discuss further plans.”

A meeting scheduled with Fishman resulted in him not making an appearance.  After this, the MCHS board decided to terminate its contract with Fishman and he willingly obliged by the time the June board meeting rolled around.  (MCHS minutes, June 6, 1973)

Back to Square One (But Not for Long)

It was back to square one in terms of finding an architect and the board wasted no time in scheduling interviews.  On July 2, 1973, Ren Holland, chair of the Museum Design Committee, recommended that the firm of Miller-Dunwiddie-Architects, Inc. be selected and the board approved.  By July 12, Foster Dunwiddie, architect on the project, had already analyzed the needs of the museum and was working on zoning requirements.  Preliminary drawings of the museum were reportedly shown at the MCHS annual meeting on August 27.

Things moved so quickly under Dunwiddie’s leadership, that bids were let in January 1974 and the board came up with a proposed name for the museum:  The Pine Tree History Center.

A few weeks prior to groundbreaking, MCHS received a letter from the donors saying that they were willing to contribute the entire cost of the building provided the museum was named “The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum.” At this time it was also decided that no other historic structures were to be placed on the museum site.  As MCHS owned the old Freedhem Church and the original District 1 Schoolhouse, the board eventually decided to transfer these buildings to interested parties.

Groundbreaking & Construction

The museum groundbreaking took place on February 24, 1974.  (MCHS minutes, Feb. 21, 1974)

By the end of September that year, Dunwiddie reported that museum construction was due to be complete in about three more weeks.  (MCHS minutes, Sept. 30, 1974)  Work on the museum’s exhibits was already well underway.  John Low had been hired to design the exhibits.  Virginia Westbrook and Jan Warner assisted him in writing exhibit text.

The Morrison County Historical Society officially took occupancy of its new museum on February 15, 1975, in the midst of continuing exhibit construction, delivery of furnishings, hooking up the burglar alarm and telephone, purchasing insurance, and figuring out staffing and maintenance of the facility.

The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum was dedicated “to the citizens of Morrison County in memory of Charles A. Weyerhaeuser by members of his family” on August 24, 1975.  Bob Sivertsen, Foster Dunwiddie, and Art Warner cut the ribbon.  Sarah-Maud Weyerhaeuser Sivertsen and Carl A. Weyerhaeuser unveiled the dedication plaque.  The plaque, which was designed and made by local artist Tad Jensen and hangs in the museum’s entry, reads, “This museum was built in memory of Charles A. Weyerhaeuser, 1866 – 1930”.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2008, Morrison County Historical Society

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