The Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and Research Library are about the area’s past, but its officials look forward to the day they believe they can safely reopen the building.
The historical society’s board decided at its Tuesday, April 20, meeting to postpone reopening at least another month to ensure its staff and volunteers have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’ve been assessing on a monthly basis all along, just based on local numbers and things like that,” said Hillary Swanson, executive director of the society. “One of the biggest factors in deciding to wait again was waiting for the opportunity for all of our staff to be fully vaccinated.”
There were 2,000 new COVID-19 infections and 10 deaths as of Friday, April 23, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, with almost 54% of the population fully vaccinated.
“We were aiming to be open probably sometime in June. We’ll meet again on May 18 to reevaluate,” Swanson said. “But two main exhibits that will be new are a Brainerd exhibit for the upcoming sesquicentennial (of Brainerd) and also an exhibit on the village of Old Crow Wing.”
"We were aiming to be open probably sometime in June. We’ll meet again on May 18 to reevaluate. ... But two main exhibits that will be new are a Brainerd exhibit for the upcoming sesquicentennial (of Brainerd) and also an exhibit on the village of Old Crow Wing."
— Hillary Swanson, executive director of the Crow Wing County Historical Society
The three-story building adjacent to the County Historic Courthouse is owned and maintained by the county. It once housed the county jail and sheriff’s home. But the museum has been closed since March of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was sad to not be able to have people in the building enjoying the collections,” she said. “We have still been able to have people access research remotely through emails, phone calls, things like that.”
The permanent museum exhibits include ones related to lumber, railroad, farming, mining and education, while the library includes thousands of photographs, microfilms, books and historical documents. The facility attracted more than 2,000 visitors in 2017, according to officials.
“We’ve used our time very wisely and really taken advantage of the time we’ve been closed,” Swanson said.
The historical society had earlier received a $47,649 grant to replace the storage shelving in the attic and second-floor closet, a grant made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund of the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment.
“With our attic storage, for the first few months, we really just spent putting artifacts on the shelf, getting things organized back in place up there, which was really kind of fun and advantageous — kind of a treasure hunt,” she said of the time spent in the closed building.
Swanson said a lot of those artifacts were previously not accessible and the staff was able to find things that have not been seen by the public for a long time, but will now be displayed.
“A big part of it was going through our archaeological collections. And we were able to find and put back together a group of items from an amateur archaeologist in the 1930s by the name of F.T. Gustavson, and he really had an exceptional collection of old pottery shards,” she said.
The museum and library received “quite a few” phone calls from the public inquiring about when the building would reopen, according to Swanson.
“Other buildings are opening, Minnesota Historical Society sites will start opening now, so we really want to be among those organizations with getting back open to the public. And I do feel like people are becoming more excited about history,” she said.
The museum and library were housed in the courthouse basement in 1933 before relocating to its current site at 320 Laurel St. in 1983.
“We have a total of three part-time staff,” Swanson said. “And two of us are in the younger age bracket, so we didn't have the availability of a vaccination until after April 1. … Just because of the size of our staff, if someone’s sick, we can’t operate, obviously.”
The half of a dozen people who show up weekly to volunteer before the pandemic were in the age group that would put them at greater health risks if diagnosed with COVID-19.
“We’ve been working a lot on updating exhibits, adding items and adding interpretation. We’re really making sure that the exhibits are specific to Crow Wing County. We just really want people to come in here and learn something about where they come from,” she said.