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With grants, Olmsted County History Center seeks to reconstruct the past

The History Center is applying for Minnesota Legacy Grants to rehabilitate its historic farmstead.

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This room on the ground level of the barn would be made into a classroom.. The History Center of Olmsted County has applied for funding to repair several structures and features of the Stoppel Farm. 06/15/2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Look in the attic of the stone house at the History Center of Olmsted County, and you might be confused about what you discover: Rather than dusty storage boxes, this one holds another roof underneath its rafters.

What’s inside is the original roof, ripped off by the 1883 Rochester tornado. Rather than going to the effort of removing the damaged roof, owner George Stoppel simply built on top of it, using the old one to anchor the new and making a new roofline to boot.

According to Wayne Gannaway, the History Center’s executive director, this unexpected remodeling is just one of many examples of constant adaptation in the story of Stoppel and his family, which ranged from switching careers to repurposing spaces.

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To preserve the Stoppels’ story, the History Center is planning a multi-phase, multi-year restoration project. Preparation began in January, with the commissioning of construction drawings from Miller Dunwiddie, a Minneapolis-based architectural firm skilled in historic preservation. The drawings will be used to apply for Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grants, also known as Legacy Grants, which will fund the rehabilitation of the George Stoppel Farmstead, including its caves, stone house, smoke house, barn and silo.

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“We decided last year that we’re going to move away from the bite-sized projects -- a little here, a little there, but not moving toward giving the public access to this historically significant property -- and instead go all-in and restore it and make it accessible to the public,” Gannaway said.

The first step of construction will be stabilization of the foundation of the smoke house, which is being pushed inward by the earth around it, and then work on the barn's roof. Beyond these tasks, the plan includes a bathroom and classroom in the barn’s bottom level, lighting in the caves and ADA-compliance updates, redecoration and the recreation of a porch for the stone house.

Work could start as early as January. The project will require multiple grants, since most large Legacy Grants total around $200,000 and the project is estimated to cost $2 million, according to Gannaway. Funding will also be supplemented by donations collected by the History Center.

The preservation of the farmstead and its history is valuable, Gannaway said, because of the lessons the past can teach us and because the Stoppel family’s journey is emblematic of larger historical currents.

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The History Center of Olmsted County has applied for funding to repair several structures and features of the Stoppel Farm. 06/15/2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

“It's the story of our country, which is immigration,” he said.

Immigrants from the German state of Württemberg, the Stoppels arrived at their farmstead in 1856. Family lore says they spent their first winter here in one of the caves they carved in the hillside. Stoppel, a cooper by trade, initially farmed wheat, and eventually transitioned to dairy farming.

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While the History Center has already discovered much of Stoppel’s past, it plans to apply for a $10,000 Legacy Grant for research about why Stoppel came to Minnesota.

Gannaway draws a parallel between work on the Stoppel Farmstead and the History Center’s ongoing work within the community, including preserving modern immigrant stories and subsidizing community garden plots for immigrants and refugees looking to grow fresh food.

He hopes the rehabilitation project can emphasize the significance of the past and its connections to the present.

“It's not just a story about yesterday,” Gannaway said. “It's a story about today, too.”

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