One way to create a stir is to do something unexpected, like moving an old garage rather than tearing it down and building a new one. My family recently moved our 1950s-era garage to a new location on our property. The project generated a lot of curious skepticism and much interest in our quiet neighborhood. As information was shared and the project took shape, the initial skepticism changed to admiration and respect. Structurally sound, in good condition and having a proven ability to withstand natural disasters better than its younger neighbors, the garage was worth saving. The whole experience got me to wondering how much our perceptions about preservation and what can be saved are influenced by appearances. If, for example, a garage is old and worn does that mean it no longer has a useful life? If a manufacturing plant is abandoned does that automatically make it an eyesore? If a piece of metal is corroded and full of rust does that mean it no longer has a story to tell? In many cases, the answer is no.
Large structures such as manufacturing plants can seem to pose complex preservation problems when they are abandoned, leading to calls for their immediate demolition. When the Hennepin Paper Company of Little Falls filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and ceased operations, the site was quickly deemed an eyesore, an environmental hazard and a health concern. Situated along the banks of the Mississippi River near downtown Little Falls, the mill had been a fixture in the community and a major employer for over a century. The company began operations in 1890 and manufactured a wide variety of paper, including newsprint, construction paper and at one time every Crayola crayon wrapper in the country. (SHPO, 2005) Efforts were made to attract another business to the site but these were unsuccessful, perhaps hampered by references to the former mill as an industrial relic, a mess and a disaster waiting to happen. The City of Little Falls acquired the property in 2002 and, though it was determined not to be a risk to the environment at the time, site assessments did document hazardous chemicals, asbestos and soil contamination. After it became clear that another business would not be attracted to the site, plans were developed to turn the property into a park. Region 5 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) grants available through the 2001 federal Brownfields Act helped to clean up the site and triggered review under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The review determined that the Hennepin Paper Company property was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, being the location of the oldest paper mill west of the Mississippi River and a prominent American Indian portage and gathering place. Through the combined efforts of local community and civic leaders and with state and federal involvement, a natural park was developed featuring views of the Mississippi River and salvaged elements from the former mill, such as brick foundation arches, mill stones and the bottom section of the mill smokestack. Dedicated on June 25, 2005, Mill Park is an excellent example of an eyesore that was saved.
Size does not seem to matter when it comes to questions about preservation. Earlier this year, a collection of objects was brought to the museum by Jim Lang, a Little Falls resident who likes to dive in local rivers and lakes. Among the items he brought to the museum was a large saw blade fragment found in the Mississippi River. The blade seemed interesting (isn’t everything interesting to museum curators?!) but was in poor condition and covered with rust, making it a questionable addition to the museum’s burgeoning collection. Leave it to MCHS executive director, Jan Warner, and board president, Art Warner, to see the blade and exclaim, “Oh look, an ice saw.” What followed was a history lesson on ice cutting in Morrison County. Until the mid-20th century, when refrigeration became affordable, ice blocks were cut by the ton during the cold winter months. The blocks were stored in sheds packed with sawdust and were sold year round throughout the community. Little Falls had a number of ice companies, including Trebby Ice Company, Peerless Ice Company, People’s Ice Company, City Ice Company, Natural Ice Company and Drellock Ice Company. Most of the companies made use of the Mississippi River which runs right through town. Besides ice cutting, stories related to the fragment include water quality and the environment, the relatively contemporary story of diving river and lake bottoms for fun and “treasure” and the ever-evolving issue of gender roles. In the early 1930s, a Mrs. Schlichting, the “lady iceman,” is reported to have had quite the business driving an ice delivery truck in Little Falls. She could split 500 pound ice cakes into the right size, sling them over her shoulder and put them in the iceboxes of various homes and businesses throughout the city. (“Ice Harvesting.“ Morrison County Historical Society. Little Falls, MN. n.d. Presentation) Needless to say, the saw blade fragment has been added to the museum’s collection, expanding the richness and depth of the history of Morrison County.
As a society, we tend to value what is new and young, undented and unsmudged. My family’s slightly dented, semi-smudged old garage may not have seemed at first glance to be the best candidate for preservation and reuse but it proved worthy. As society, the environment and our understanding of the world changes and we move toward placing greater emphasis on weighing the option of adaptive reuse rather than destruction and demolition, the influence of visual impressions will fade as the benefits of preservation, in the right circumstances, grows. When the Hennepin Paper Mill site was turned into a park, it strengthened the health of the surrounding community. When the ice saw fragment was extracted from the depths of the Mississippi River, a new tool was acquired helping to teach about a time before electricity. Preservation is not about saving only those things that appear perfect. Before we add to our already growing landfills and shrinking natural resources, we need to look beyond the surface of things in order to make the best decisions and get preservation right.
By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2013, Morrison County Historical Society
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 26, Number 3, 2013.