Isanti County Historical Society building destroyed by arson

By Rachel Kytonen

When the Isanti County Historical Society Heritage Center went up in flames around 6 a.m. on Friday, July 8, with it went 150 years of Isanti County history.

Firefighters from Cambridge and Braham battle the flames at the Isanti County Historical Society Heritage Center during the early morning hours of July 8. Photo by Andy Fiedler


Isanti County Sheriff Russ Monson said Friday morning, while walking around the Heritage Center, that the building was one of several arson fires that occurred around the Cambridge area during the early morning hours.

The Heritage Center, located on five acres in the northwest corner of the Isanti County Fairgrounds, was built specifically to house the Isanti County Historical Society collections and historical records, and was a total loss.

The other notable fire was to the storage shed at Sandquist Park, that housed maintenance equipment and other items, and also appears to be a total loss.

Monson explained around 6 a.m., 911 dispatch received a call about the storage shed on fire at Sandquist Park. Shortly after that, a deputy spotted smoke coming from the Historical Society, and Cambridge Fire was called. Braham Fire also assisted in battling the blaze at the Historical Society.

This afternoon, firefighters remained on scene, and were in the process of relieving computers and any other items that could be salvageable from inside the Heritage Center. State Fire Marshall Denise DeMars was also on scene, and working on the investigation.

If anyone has any information on the fires, call Investigator Rob Bowker at 763-691-2414 or the Tip Line at 763-691-2426. A $2,500 reward is being offered for information that leads to the arrest and convictions of those responsible for the fires.

Monson said the multiple fires that were set this morning, were all around the same area, from Sandquist Park down to Flanders Street.

Smoke filled the sky during the early morning hours. Photo by Andy Fiedler

Several volunteers and members of the Historical Society board, as well as community members including State Representative Kurt Daudt and Isanti County  Commissioner Susan Morris, gathered around the Heritage Center as word of the fire spread throughout the community.

The other buildings on the Historical Society site—an 1870s Pioneer Log Cabin and the Olson summer kitchen—were not harmed by the fire.

Kathy McCully, executive director of the Isanti County Historical Society, said she learned about the fire after receiving a phone call around 8:50 a.m. She was the last person to be inside the Heritage Center when she left on Thursday, July 7, around 6 p.m.

“It’s just devastating,” McCully said while watching the firefighters work on the building. “I’m in disbelief. It’s literally 150 years of archived collections, photos, archival donations … It’s all gone.”

The Isanti County Historical Society, created in 1964, has been actively seeking donations to its collection for 47 years, McCully explained.

“This is a huge, huge tragedy,” McCully said. “Even though we are fortunate no one was inside the building when the fire started, the things we lost are irreplaceable. It’s not just one family’s family photos that were lost; it is everyone’s family photos that were lost.”

Damage from the fire that happened on Friday morning, July 8. Photo by Rachel Kytonen

Tesha M.C. Pettit, former Isanti County Historical Society Board president from 2004-2009, was devastated by the news.

“The loss of this building is such a loss to the community.” Pettit said. “As the only historical society in Isanti, the Isanti County Historical Society has documents and artifacts that no one else does. We’ve been collecting important items since we were created in November 1964, and house the majority of our items at the Heritage Center. As our office, it is the lifeblood of the historical society.”

Pettit recalled the hundreds of hours Historical Society Board members and volunteers put into the Heritage Center. Portions of the first phase of the building plan (offices, foyer, museum/exhibit area, meeting room/library, restrooms) were ready for occupancy in February 2003. Four years later, the museum/community hall, kitchen and collection storage area were completed.

“The Heritage Center in the northwest corner of the fairgrounds is the result of many hours of volunteer labor, as well as generous contributions from local businesses and residents,” Pettit said. “It wasn’t easy for a small organization to undertake such a large building project, but it was done under strong leaders who had big dreams. To see all that time and effort go up in flames is heart-breaking.”

ICHS Executive Director Kathy McCully and State Fire Marshall Denise DeMars survey the damage during the mid-morning hours of July 8. Photo by Rachel Kytonen

Pettit said she came into the organization shortly after the Historical Society had moved their offices and archives into the new Heritage Center facility.

“We worked so hard over the next four years in order to gather the donations and manpower we needed to finish off our kitchen and community room,” Pettit said. “It wasn’t an easy thing to do as donations were being cut at non-profits across the country, but we did it with the help of some great people.”

Former Isanti County Commissioner and current State Representative Kurt Daudt, serves on the Historical Society board.

“As I came out here this morning, I really didn’t know what to expect, but the Heritage Center is totally destroyed,” Daudt said. “This just makes me sick. Hundreds of thousands of documents have been destroyed, and you can’t run to the store to replace those items. A lot of work will have to go into this clean-up and hopefully the community will pull together.”

Damage from the fire. Photo by Rachel Kytonen

McCully said the Historical Society will move forward.

“We will get together next week, and we will re-group and decide how to move forward,” McCully said. “And once the building is deemed safe and secure, we will go back inside and see what items we may be able to save.”

A show of support was also coming this afternoon from the community as Arby’s in Cambridge donated sandwiches and beverages to the workers at the Historical Society, and Lowe’s in Cambridge also donated 10 plastic tubs for the Historical Society to use for any items they may recover. Wendy’s in Cambridge, also donated some food items at cost to the workers and volunteers.

Anyone wanting more information about the Historical Society or wanting to help in anyway, can call Kathy McCully at 763-689-4989.



  • Tesha

    Anyone who would like to make a donation to help offset some of the costs of this devastating fire can make one online at:

    Or, mail a check to:
    the Isanti County Historical Society, 33525 Flanders St. NE Cambridge, MN 55008.

    As soon as we’re organized, we’ll also be looking for historical documents, family histories, photos, etc. to replace what was burned. We’re hoping to open a temporary office soon.

    • Margaretha Hedblom

      The arson is a terrible blow to Isanti Historical Society and the important work to preserve the history of the county. I have always been very impressed with this work and know how much time and efforts have been put into this project by employees and volunteers.

      I think it´s very important that this work can continue. It´s hard to build a future if we don´t know our background. We must not be defeated by a mad/evil/sick person´s outrage. Or maybe by some youngster´s “lack of meaningful work”. Time will show what the reason for this terrible fire was.

      I also hope that this loss of your history will make people look for documents, photos, items and so on to build a new platform for the area. It is probably impossible to “restore” all the contents of the archives. I also hope friends in the provinces of Dalarna and Hälsingland, Sweden, from where so many immigrated to Isanti county will try to help fill in the gap. Any letter, written or typed story is something worth preserving.

      In my research many people from the area have helped me to find contacts and information. I am very grateful to them. The former directors Marilyn McGriff and Valorie Stavem-Arrowsmith have always done a wonderful job for me.

      Many of your Swedish friends think of all of you today and hope that the reconstruction will start soon and be as successful as possible. Or best regards to all,


      Margaretha Hedblom, Malung, Sweden

  • Valorie Arrowsmith

    One’s first reaction to the loss of the Isanti County Historical Society might be, “It’s so sad to think about all of those items and artifacts that are gone.” In reality, there are more artifacts stored in attics and barns and trunks and cupboards within the county. Now could be the time that some of those items will find their way to the ICHS.

    The biggest loss, however, are all the documents, the photos, the oral histories, the subject files and the boxes of reports, meeting minutes and organizational and community papers from many groups within our county. We entrust the historical society with our corporate history. It is there that we go when our club, group, church, business, township, or community needs to put together an exhibit about our history, our starting points and all the news that has happened to us in the meantime. It is there that we go to do our school and college projects. It is there that we go to do research about families, early settlements, individuals, including political leaders, professional leaders, civic and commerce groups, even festivals, like the Cambridge Swedish Festival or Braham Pie Day or the Isanti Rodeo.

    It is likely that those resources, held in one place for all to use, are gone. Some documents and photographs were duplicates and as county residents we can help to locate copies and have reproductions made. Some photos in both public and private domains, stored in shoe boxes or better yet acid free boxes, can become part of the new collection as the ICHS archives team gathers itself for the monumental task of rebuilding our history.

    It is a charge that we each must adopt, so that our children and grandchildren can turn to the ICHS archives in the future to help them with their school project; so that the next group in the county that celebrates its 100th anniversary will have public resources that help to tell its story; so that we have a public repository that belongs to all of us because it represents who we are and how we have shaped Isanti County’s story.

  • Jen Dawson

    I am terribly saddened to hear about the fire at the Isanti County Historical Society. I grew up on the Olson farm and have fond memories of the summer kitchen. I am relieved nothing happened to it. It is only because of the Historical Society that it still stands today. They do wonderful things for the community and those responsible should be ashamed for robbing the community of their irreplaceable past treasures.