Dana Knaak likes what he hears at the History Center of Olmsted County.
“I hear more positive conversations around the History Center than there were a couple years ago,” said the patron and volunteer of the center at 1195 West Circle Drive.
He said changes started with the arrival of Wayne Gannaway as the center’s new executive director, but recent months have also brought added efforts to coordinate volunteers and renew interest.
It’s also been a time of new ideas, such as the Friday night drive-in music and movie events, which bring new faces to the grounds.
“The pandemic has helped make some of these things happen,” Knaak said,
However, the pandemic has also brought concerns.
Traditional events, such as Fall Fest, have been canceled due to concerns about gathering inside, and daily activities must be structured to ensure the center doesn’t exceed 25 percent occupancy.
“That includes both our exhibit space and our archives,” Gannaway said.
While the History Center is open, Mayowood remains closed until further notice, and Gannaway said that’s anticipated to be at least through the end of the year, meaning the organization’s revenue from Christmas tours will be lost.
In the annual report published in June, former History Center Board President Tom Leimer said an anticipated pandemic-related $100,000 budget deficit was reduced to $15,000 with the aid of a $79,300 federal loan through the Payroll Projection Plan, which helped the center maintain its staff of six full-time and two part-time employees.
Still, Gannaway said the organization isn’t in the clear.
Membership numbers have risen, along with some related donations, local government support is uncertain.
This year, Olmsted County provided nearly $290,000 for the center, and Rochester committed $30,000. The amounts were equal to 2019 contributions.
“We’re kind of bracing for hits next year,” Gannaway said.
The city’s recommended 2021 city budget, which seeks to hold the city’s property lax levy at the 2020 level for 2021, doesn’t list a contribution to the center.
City Administrator Steve Rymer said the council will discuss funding for various agencies, including the History Center, on Sept. 21.
“This does not mean they won’t receive funding, though I will be discussing it with the council,” he said.
The county has also proposed holding its property tax levy steady for 2021, but County Administrator Heidi Welsch said county commissioners voiced support for the History Center in the past.
“At the same time, there are so many community needs to consider,” she added. “The board will make a final decision during budget sessions in November.”
While the History Center could be facing reduced funding, Gannaway said its mission remains vital in the wake of 2020 events.
“As a public history organization, I feel like it’s our job to gather the evidence of what’s happening today, so our descendants can learn from us,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s shortsighted for public officials to cut the budget of museums of all kinds.
“We actually are the recorders of pandemics, of race issues, of all these problems are happening right now.”
History Center staff and volunteers are already working to document the history that has been made this year.
Volunteer Walt Rothwell has been logging newspaper accounts related to the pandemic, from world news to local sports impacts.
“Most of them are public health, but anything related to the pandemic I’m trying to include,” he said.
Gannaway said the effort is important because many museums discovered in recent years that they lacked artifacts and archival materials related to the 1918 flu pandemic.
“It’s harder to tell that story if you aren’t collecting for it,” he said.
Rothwell said seeing the impact of current history doesn’t have to wait 100 years.
“I looked through most of these issues previously just for my own reading,” he said of his review of copies of the Post Bulletin published in the last year. “Now as I really go through them in detail, it’s amazing to see the first few articles come out where it was a distant problem and then see it get closer and closer to our community and then see the extent of involvement across all businesses, education and sports. It’s really like a tidal wave.”
The History Center is also collecting personal stories from the pandemic.
Archivist Krista Lewis said 25 people have submitted their stories so far.
“We haven’t really got much since July,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s just because it’s been going on so long and it’s not new anymore or if we just need to reboot it.”
The stories documenting experiences during the pandemic can be submitted through the center’s website at www.olmstedhistory.com. The online form simply asks for the submitter’s name and city or township.
Gannaway said History Center staff are discussing what artifacts should be collected to document the local pandemic’s impact, as well as how local residents and organizations responded.
Amid it all, he said, the center continues to adapt, from planning an online lecture series to replace in-person lectures that have had to be put on hold, to planning a virtual cocktail party in connection to its creepy-doll contest.
After last year’s Halloween-connected glimpse at the center’s doll collection went viral, Gannaway said staff planned to enhance it.
“We’re doing it again this year, because we have a lot of creepy dolls that are itching to be seen by the public,” he said, adding that he hopes the online event helps build momentum.
Knaak said he’s also been looking for opportunities to draw more people in and noted some newcomers could already be on the grounds.
Since he started meeting on the grounds with a small group of friends for a socially distance weekly coffee, he said he’s noticed more people walking through the site for exercise
“I’ve never seen that before the pandemic,” he said, adding he thinks it can raise awareness of the center.
“I’m excited about that, because sooner or later we will grab one of them and drag them inside and maybe they will become members,” he said.
Historical hootenanny rescheduled
The History Center of Olmsted County’s newest event, Bluegrass and Bites, was rescheduled to Saturday following the weekend rains.
The noon to 6 p.m. Sept. 19 events will feature three bluegrass-influenced acts -- Root River Jam, the Double Down Daredevils, and Becky Schlegel joined by Clint Birtzer and Eric Christopher of the High 48s -- as well as food vendors, including Taco JED and Forager Brewery.
The goal is to raise funds to help preserve the 1860s-era George Stoppel Farmstead.
Tickets -- $15 for adults and $10 for age 15 and under -- are available at www.eventbrite.com/e/bluegrass-and-bites-a-hootenanny-at-the-history-center-tickets-115531238043