Two years ago, a fire may have destroyed the physical building of the Isanti County Historical Society Heritage Center, but it didn’t destroy its spirit.
The Historical Society’s Heritage Center has reopened in its same location after an arson fire destroyed the building and most of its contents July 8, 2011.
“I think everyone is still in a little shock about what happened two years ago and thinking about what we lost,” said Executive Director Kathy McCully. “We had a charred building, went through a demolition and salvaged what we could. We had a lot of meetings about what people wanted from us and we reassessed our mission. Our main focus is now going to be a resource center for genealogy and family history. We want our focus to be on pictures and stories and information on Isanti County. When we walked back into this building, it felt like we were coming home again.”
The community is invited to an open house for the new Heritage Center from 2-5 p.m. Sunday, July 21. A short membership meeting will be held from 3-3:30 p.m.
“We want everyone to know they are welcome to come out here and take a look at the new building,” McCully said. “We are real proud of what we have accomplished out here. We still have some work to do out here, but we feel we’ve done a great job so far and are happy to be back on site within two years of the fire.”
For those unable to attend the July 21 open house, the Heritage Center will be open to visitors during the Isanti County Fair July 24-28. The Heritage Center will be open from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during the fair week.
McCully mentioned the Historical Society will be selling root beer floats and all are welcome to enjoy the air conditioned building. The Old West Society of Minnesota will once again have their 1800s campsite, complete with 1800s cooking and re-enactments of legendary gunfights, set up just to the east of the Heritage Center.
“We want the community to know we are back,” McCully said. “We still have a lot of physical work to do yet inside and outside of the building, but we need to start reintroducing ourselves to the community. The past two years we haven’t been able to offer as many events as we used to, but we are looking forward to getting back out in the community again.”
Tesha Pettit-Christensen served as Historical Society board president from 2004-2009 and currently helps with eNewsletters, updating the website and assisting with various publicity.
“It was a heart-wrenching experience to walk through the charred remains of the Heritage Center the day after an arsonist set it ablaze in 2011,” Pettit-Christensen said. “I wasn’t part of the initial planning and construction of the original building but came in halfway, helping lead the board through the remaining process. So many people had poured their hearts into erecting the facility for this small nonprofit historical society, and it was only open a few years before it was destroyed, taking with it 80 percent of our collections. Everyone I talked to after the fire was also astounded and dismayed by what happened. It wasn’t easy to move forward, but the hardworking volunteers and staff at the Historical Society pulled together to salvage what we could and plan for the future. I am impressed by all that was done.”
McCully explained the new Heritage Center offers a commercially licensed kitchen, a 150-seat banquet room and a conference room. Those areas can be rented out to the community and have their own secure entrance.
The archives and other office areas also have their own secure entrance. McCully explained, in the past, a member of the Historical Society would have to be present after special events to lock up the building. With this new security system, that is no longer necessary.
McCully explained the building also has an outdoor covered patio, much-needed storage space, a reception area and an area to hold their archives. She also noted everything at the center will be digitalized, and the Historical Society will be embarking on a campaign to rebuild its photo collection. McCully noted it is very expensive to properly preserve historical artifacts, which is why the Historical Society is focusing on creating a new digital archive.
“We will be asking for photos and yearbooks that have a connection to Isanti County history,” McCully said. “The history is in the stories of its residents. The ones lost in the fire, are lost in time now.”
For the past two years, the Historical Society has been working out of the Oakview Building owned by Isanti County.
“The temporary space at Oakview was a godsend and allowed us to work on the archival materials that had been salvaged from the fire,” said Marilyn McGriff, volunteer and former director of the Isanti County Historical Society from 1979-1989. “With the help of other volunteers, the items got cleaned up, sorted and numbered. The next step was entering the information about each item into a computerized catalog designed for historical societies. An ‘f’ in the number indicates that the item had been through the fire.
“With help from a Minnesota Historical Society grant, we are now scanning documents and photos and placing a digital image in the catalog. As the backlog of salvaged items decreases and as new items are being donated, we can begin to look beyond the fire. The research room, electronic database and the new archival storage area offer great possibilities to preserve the county’s history and make it accessible,” McGriff added.
McCully explained the Historical Society decided to rebuild in its same location after determining the floor slab and the building’s geothermal heating and cooling system were intact. Joel Grams with Home Sweet Home Designs was hired for the design of the building, with Curt Haugen serving as project manager, together with McCully and Grams.
“Getting everything ready again has really been a group effort,” McCully said. “The Historical Society board was really on board with everything and very committed to doing the best it could do for the society.”
Isanti County Historical Society President Kay Rodrigue said Haugen did a tremendous job as project manager and also spent a lot of time volunteering.
“Curt went well beyond what a normal volunteer would do,” Rodrigue said. “This new Heritage Center would not have been what it is without Curt’s expertise. His dedication shows in the quality of our new building.”
Rodrigue also gave much credit to McGriff for her dedication in preserving what was salvaged from the fire and working on recataloging the documents and photos.
“The entire community has been very supportive as we have worked to rebuild our Heritage Center,” Rodrigue said. “We owe the entire community a lot of thanks, as well as all of our volunteers.”
Historical Society members are pleased.
“The new facility is absolutely gorgeous, and it feels more professional,” Pettit-Christensen said. “The layout is quite similar to the first, but it has been tweaked so that it will work better and truly serve the needs of the Isanti County Historical Society today. There is a conference room. The public area is separate from the work zone — this is especially important when the facility is rented out for various events. One of the most troublesome things about the old building was that there was no space to store tables and chairs for the community room. The new facility has a room set aside for just that small but important function. Before, there wasn’t a good way for staff to monitor the front door. Now we have a welcome desk right there. The kitchen in this new facility is stunning. We had wanted to install a full kitchen before, but we lacked the funds for the necessary equipment and settled for what is known as a ‘catering kitchen.’ With this rebuild, we were able to make the full kitchen happen.”
The Historical Society is hoping the community will utilize the new banquet area.
“I rented the facility for my own wedding reception in 2008, and I can’t wait to attend another reception at the new structure,” Pettit-Christensen said. “It will be wonderful to see people gather again at this fantastic Isanti County resource. The Isanti County Historical Society Heritage Center is a place to not only conduct research and learn about our past and the people who made us what we are today, but also a place to create new memories.”
For more information on the Isanti County Historical Society, visit http://www.ichs.ws or call 763-689-4229.