After nearly seventy-five years of existence, the collections of the Morrison County Historical Society have evolved from a small group of “antiques” and “pioneer histories” to a museum filled with artifacts and archival materials relating to the history of Morrison County, Minnesota. The purpose of the Society at the time of its formal organization included collecting “material of every kind”, a purpose that continues to be fulfilled (County Historical Society Completes Its Organization; Little Falls Daily Transcript; 1 September 1936). As the collections grow, new dimensions are added to the rich depths of Morrison County history “…for the education, information, benefit, and enjoyment of the people of Morrison county and future generations.” (Minutes from organizational meeting; 28 July 1936).
The first formal gifts to the collections of the Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) were made in the summer of 1938, barely two years after the organization was officially established. The initial items were photographs and maps, archival materials that continue to serve as key assets. Among the earliest artifacts were an assortment of three-dimensional objects, including logging hooks, oxen shoes, a bear trap and even an organ that was converted into a desk. Donated to MCHS by the family of Charles Edward Vasaly (1869-1935), a newspaper editor and seven-term mayor of Little Falls, the organ had originally been used at Fort Ripley for entertainment. After fairly modest beginnings, the collections soon began to grow at an increasingly rapid rate. In 1951, MCHS president Valentine Kasparek reported an inventory of 1,110 antiques, 311 historical write-ups, several hundred photographs and “pictures of interest”, and 1,131 Works Progress Administration biographies. Today, the size of the collections numbers well over fifty thousand.
As donations poured in, space quickly became a critical issue. In a letter dated February 27, 1940, to Fred Johnson, president of the Brown County Historical Society, Kasparek expressed his increasing concern over lack of space. At the time, MCHS was housed in the basement of the Morrison County courthouse in a room that was approximately the size of the museum’s current Research Room, which measures about fifteen by thirty feet. This room served as the home of MCHS for almost four decades courtesy of the Morrison County Board of Commissioners. Sixteen years later, curator Alex Huddleston exclaimed in an article published in the Little Falls Daily Transcript, “(t)here just isn’t enough space!” (Collection Grows as Space Declines; 29 December 1956). When MCHS moved into The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum in 1975, it must have been a dream come true for the collections. Today, over thirty-five years later, it is hard not to repeat Huddleston’s lament, “(t)here just isn’t enough space!” As with many other cultural institutions that have collections in their care, space at MCHS seems to have always been and most likely always will be a key concern.
Substantial changes have also occurred in the accessioning process for the collections, the method of cataloging used by museum professionals to document a collection. The original collections records at MCHS were notes handwritten in a series of small hardcover ledgers. The information for each item consisted of what would now be considered less than bare minimum – the name of the donor (sometimes only the last name and first initial) and a one to two word description of the item donated, such as “scenes” or “clamp”. By the end of the first ledger, which was used until the fall of 1946, the information had become somewhat more descriptive, typically consisting of a phrase or short sentence, such as “Photo of Pine Tree Lumber Co”. Today, museum management software allows for a sophisticated level of specific information to be recorded for each item. Most items in the collections at MCHS now have several pages of associated documentation plus detailed digital photographs. The numbering system has also changed significantly. From a single ascending number (i.e. “1”, “2”, “3”), the system now consists of a set of three numbers (i.e. #2011.1.1). This set creates a unique object identification for each item and identifies the year it was received, the chronological order in which it was received within that year, and the number that item is within the donation. For example, #2011.1.1 represents the first item in the first donation that was added to the collections in the year 2011.
According to the newspaper article announcing a call for the formation of a historical society in Morrison County, the purpose of the organization would be to “gather historical information about the county, mark historical spots and secure specimens.” (WPA to Organize Historical Society In Morrison County; Little Falls Daily Transcript; 25 July 1936). After nearly three quarters of a century, the Morrison County Historical Society continues to fulfill this original purpose with “…the discovery, preservation and dissemination of knowledge about the history of Morrison county and the state of Minnesota….” (County Historical Society Completes Its Organization; Little Falls Daily Transcript; 1 September 1936). As a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving artifacts and historical information regarding Morrison County and to educating the public about the history of the county, MCHS continually seeks to use the collections in new and increasingly accessible ways. Visitors to The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum are welcome to enjoy the richness and depth that is the ever-evolving collections of the Morrison County Historical Society.
By Ann Marie Johnson
Curator of Collections
Copyright 2011, Morrison County Historical Society
The article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter in 2011, Vol. 24, No. 1.