Historic sites reopenby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Several Minnesota historic sites are getting ready to reopen full time this summer, after three years of uncertainty. The state ended funding of the sites in 2003. Last year the Legislature reversed itself and restored the money. Despite the cuts, most of the sites managed to stay open on reduced schedules. Only the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton closed its doors.
Lower Sioux Agency, Minn. — When the state cut overall spending three years ago, the historic sites were among the most visible victims. Some carry the names of well-known people, like the James J. Hill House or the Oliver Kelley Farm. Others had titles associated with important events, like Fort Ridgely and the Lower Sioux Agency.
At first, the state funding cuts seemed like a death sentence. Instead they became a rallying point. History buffs fought back.
"The last couple years were huge, because we had to raise the money to keep it open and that was difficult," says George Colbenson, one of those history buffs.
Colbenson says if one good thing came of the money crunch, it was the outpouring of volunteers. They held bake sales, pancake breakfasts and other fundraisers to keep the sites open, though at reduced schedules.
Colbenson heads a group called "Friends of Forestville," associated with a historic site by that name in southeast Minnesota. He says the group got word state funding was restored in time for last year's July 4 celebration.
"It was like we were celebrating not only the birth of our country, but also the fact that we were able to keep the site open," says Colbenson. "And the number of people that came around and shook our hands and told us, 'Thank you for working so hard to keep it open,' and all those things. It was a very moving time."
Colbenson says the well-wishers used different words to say the same thing -- history matters.
That may be most deeply felt at the Lower Sioux Agency in southwest Minnesota. Many historians consider it the most important soil in the state.
It was here that war started in 1862 between the Dakota Indians and the federal government. Hundreds of people on both sides died in the conflict.
After the war, dozens of Dakota were executed in a mass hanging at Mankato. The government forcibly removed the Dakota people from the state, and confiscated their lands.
The scars of the war continue today for families on both sides. When the site reopens on Memorial Day weekend, there will be new exhibits and activities. Also in place will be a new manager, Tom Sanders.
"There's still healing that needs to be done, in both sides and within communities," says Sanders. "And this place can facilitate that."
Sanders occupies a unique vantage point to see the possibilities of the Lower Sioux site, since he has both white and Indian ancestors. Just as the two cultures are united within, Sanders wants the same thing to happen without.
"The healing's going to come from true understanding," says Sanders. "It's that gaining a respect for the different communities and different ways of thinking about things, the different cultures. If we can do that, then we've accomplished a great deal. And we're going to do that, I fully believe that."
Of all the historic sites, the Lower Sioux Agency suffered most. A grant from the adjacent Lower Sioux tribe kept it open during the summer of 2003. The next year, legislation was passed to turn the site over to the tribe, but the Redwood County board vetoed the idea. Out of money, the site closed in 2004.
Then just a few weeks ago, right in the middle of reopening work, most of the part-time staff resigned. They said they were concerned with the direction being taken at the historic site, although they didn't provide any details.
New staff will open the place on time, but it won't be the only change. The Minnesota Historical Society's Heather Koop says some important business lessons have been learned from the budget cuts. One is that the historic sites need to diversify funding and customer sources.
"The major lesson for me has been to make us more outward-looking, rather than inward-looking, and really keep our focus on what the customer wants," says Koop. "It's easy for me to say I'm really interested in this aspect of history. But if there are only six other people in the world who are, too, then we're in kind of a pickle here."
Koop says lessons learned means each historic site will do things they've never done before, like draw up a detailed business plan.
At their most basic, these sorts of changes are really a history lesson, the same thing workers at the sites deal with every day. They've learned from the past three years, and want to make sure those events are never repeated.
- All Things Considered, 04/26/2006, 5:52 p.m.