ST. CLOUD -- March 27th, 1936 – Stearns County Historical Society organized

For seventy-five years the Stearns History Museum has been shaping (and re-shaping) itself in order to serve and supply local residents with tangible displays of our local histories.  How fitting it was, then, that the museum began in the Courthouse’s Community room and was publically funded by the Works Progress Administration.  The Stearns County Historical Society was organized on March 27, 1936.  As a result of local involvement and federal support, the museum held approximately 1,000 material objects and boasted about 2,000 oral histories from pioneer families by January 1939.

At this point, the rumblings of the Second World War were felt through the county, evidenced by the museum’s closure.  For over three years, the museum’s office in the courthouse was closed due to the reallocation of funds and the space that housed the local relics was given over to more explicitly patriotic efforts; it served as the civilian defense headquarters for the area.

During the next two decades, the museum attempted to cement its place as an indispensible regional institution.  An especially dynamic character dedicated to the museum’s success was curator Polly Williams.  In a 1953 Times article, Williams discloses her secret to the successful museum:  “We want no Ph.D’s arranging things into eras, classes, ages and groups. That’s the way a museum curls up and dies.”  Accordingly, William’s desire to create accessible history was reflected in her choice to display a two-headed pig as well as rocks brought in by local children.

William’s incessant drive to engage visitors was part of a broader effort to solicit more widespread community participation.  The late 40s and 50s were marked by involvement with area events such as the Centennial Farming Celebration and guest lecturers.   The late 1960s and 70s brought increased efforts to solidify a permanent location for the museum’s collection and research center.  In 1960 the library had relocated from the courthouse to the county library building (formerly the Unitarian Church), increasing its proximity to youth, displayed in 1966’s attendance record; 1,500 of the 1,800 guests were children.

During the 1970s the museum began shaping itself into what we may recognize today’s Stearns History Museum, as efforts towards the professionalization of the museum began to increase.  In 1975 the museum received non-profit status and formally allied itself with the Minnesota Historical Society.  Grants were received to further catalogue items, microfilm local publications, and systematically document local histories.  Though in 1978, the museum once again relocated to the First National Bank building, the latter part of the decade and early 80’s were marked by intense efforts at raising the funds necessary for the new museum space.

On June 30th, 1982, the official groundbreaking ceremony took place at the museum’s current location and in 1983 the museum opened its doors to Stearns residents.  The new location finally provided the museum with a centralized and secure space, enabling research, exhibits, and programming to occur concurrently.  Having established a “home” for itself in St. Cloud, the Stearns History Museum has continued to grow into the indispensible resource that Polly Williams had once envisioned, even without the two-headed pig.

Thanks to Sarah Atwood and the Stearns History Museum for their help with our series, "This Date In Central Minnesota History".