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Historical Society plan tweaks ‘24 events

Joni Hubred, News Editor

Over the past year, the Steele County Historical Society (SCHS) has hosted 69 events and programs–everything from a memory-focused support group to a children’s Victorian tea.

The group celebrated its achievements and honored outstanding volunteers during its annual meeting held Nov. 16 at Toreys’ restaurant in downtown Owatonna. And they won’t hold another annual meeting until March of 2025.

Executive director Jennifer Thiele, who started in her role May 1, said the traditional November date falls before the end of the organization’s fiscal year. Holding the meeting in March will provide a clearer picture of the year’s activities.

Still, this year’s numbers are pretty impressive.

From January through October:

· 40,000 people visited SCHS facilities

· 525 volunteers donated 12,000 hours

· 361 items were catalogued, with 130 declined and 24 accessioned, or added to the collection

· 4 new oral histories were recorded

Staff and volunteers gave 23 Orphanage Museum Tours, 14 Village of Yesteryear tours, hosted eight community events, and 29 community outreach activities.

The 2023 volunteer awards went to:

· Steve and Nancy Hunt – Volunteer(s) of the Year

· Linda Breyer – GAR Volunteer of the Year

· LaVone Anderson – C-11 Volunteer of the Year

· Boys Scout Troop #253 – SCHS Community Partner

· Silvan Durben – Orphanage Museum Community Partner

Seven months into the job, Thiele said, she has gotten a lot of feedback and has used that to inform programming for 2024.

“What I knew going in is that our organization does more and puts on more for our community, which is absolutely phenomenal,” Thiele said. “But not only does the community appreciate everything we do, our staff enjoys it. Our board and our volunteers participate.”

Thiele said she has heard over and over that people love SCHS programs, but “there’s always room to grow.”

“You’re going to see more adult education programs in 2024, because the community loves them so much,” she added. Even though programs and activities may be fun and entertaining, “I always frame it as educational, because every program we put on ties in history and is an educational opportunity.”

To involve people more in sharing more of their own history, SCHS will offer a “show and tell” event on Jan. 11 via Zoom. It’s a great opportunity for those who have an item that is too large or too valuable or fragile to bring to the History Center, Thiele said.

On Jan. 20, the early American re-enactors who typically hold a rendezvous and camp out on the grounds at the Village of Yesteryear during July’s Extravaganza, will bring a “day in the life”

program to the museum. In addition to providing an educational experience for all ages, Thiele said, “We want them to see this as an opportunity for recruitment.”

In February, SCHS will offer an event for anyone interested in accessing records for the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children to trace their family history. The school housed more than 10,000 children from 1888 to 1945, and those records have recently become more difficult to access.

“It’s a real challenge. Some of the state schoolers in their 90s are trying to find their biological parents and can’t get information,” Thiele said. “We’re trying to work with the state Historical Society to get access.”

The State School will also be the topic at a May 23 panel discussion at the Owatonna Arts Center. Thiele said it will address the social and psychological impacts of placing children there. Along with a college professor and child psychologist, the panel will include local historian Ann Peterson, and hopefully, former state school students.

SCHS will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2024 with a dinner and special exhibit marking the milestone, Thiele said.

Earlier this month, the nonprofit’s board of directors adopted a strategic plan that will guide the organization through 2029. Goals include building a home for the museum’s transportation and automotive history collections; increasing youth programming and outreach; ensuring SCHS financial stability and sustainability; and attracting diverse demographics.

Ultimately, Thiele said, everything that SCHS does is guided by one simple rule.

“Our community is our guiding force,” she said. “We do everything for our community.”


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