Historical Society arson investigation is ‘on-going’

Rachel Kytonen

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

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 of July 8.

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

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. It is estimated that approximately 70 percent of the collections at the Heritage Center were completely destroyed, either by the fire or water damage.

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.

Photos and documents have been recovered from the metal filing cabinets in the Isanti County Historical Society office. Items are singed and wet, but they were not destroyed. Photo by Tesha M. Christensen

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

On Tuesday, July 12, Monson said there have been no arrests made in the case, and asked for community cooperation.

“The investigation is still active and on-going and evidence is being processed,” Monson said. “I’m sorry I am not able to pass along any further information at this time.”

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 Friday morning were all around the same area, from Sandquist Park down to Flanders Street.

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 Friday 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 once-beautiful community room is now a pile of rubble and ash. Destroyed in the historical society were the light fixtures from the Cambridge Post Office that were donated when that building was remodeled. Photo by Tesha M. Christensen

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.”

Tesha M.C. Pettit, former Isanti County Historical Society Board president from 2004 to 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.”

Isanti County Historical Society 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.”

Roger Wm. Anderson, past board member and past president of the Isanti County Historical Society, said the fire is a great loss to the community.

“The loss suffered July 8 with the destruction of the Heritage Center is tragic, because so many things lost can never be replaced,” Anderson said. “Personal letters, photographs, old newspapers, all things particular to Isanti County that helped make it what it is today.  It is an overwhelming loss and a great tragedy to the community and the state. I just hope people will come together and support the Isanti County Historical Society both with donations of artifacts, personal material, and books relating to Isanti County and support the organization with generous donations.”

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.”

Marilyn McGriff, the first executive director of the ICHS from 1979 to 1989, said her first thought was of all the photographs.

“When I was director, there was a big effort to collect photographs and have copies made,” McGriff said. “I then started thinking about all the subject files we had of every category imaginable. The Historical Society has always had to make do with so much equipment that has been scrounged or donated because no one else can use it. It’s time for the Isanti County Historical Society to be treated as a first class citizen.”

McGriff said credit should be given to the Minnesota Historical Society for all the work they did at the grounds this past weekend, including Duane Swanson, who is an archivist for the MHS and lives in Braham.

McCully said the Historical Society will move forward.

One of the pictures that was restored during the clean-up efforts. Any items that were recovered suffered from charring and/or water damage.

“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 has also been coming from the community as Arby’s and Wendy’s in Cambridge donated sandwiches and beverages to the workers at the Historical Society on July 8. Lowe’s in Cambridge also donated 10 plastic tubs for the Historical Society to use for any items they may recover. Also, due to the generosity of Larson’s Implement, the Society will be able to freeze the photos and documents they salvage and then freeze dry them to preserve them. Larson’s donated the refrigerated truck.

Anyone wanting more information about the Historical Society or wanting to help in any way, can call McCully at 763-689-4989. Tax deductible donations to offset costs can be mailed to the Isanti County Historical Society, 33525 Flanders St. NE, Cambridge, MN 55008 or made online at www.ichs.ws.

If interested in donating items to rebuild the Historical Society archives, email [email protected]

The Society is not accepting items at this particular time, but is interested in knowing which items people may have that are potential donations once the Society has the wherewithal to accept them.

There is also an online form at www.ichs.ws/donation-form.html. For more information visit www.ichs.ws/fire.html.