When it comes to the past, the Blue Earth County Historical Society considers themselves in the business of storage.
“We’re the keepers of the county’s history,” said Jessica Potter, the Society’s executive director. She and other members of the community-serving nonprofit organization are meticulous about preserving notable objects, buildings, and events for all to enjoy. Thanks to the Society’s careful curating, residents of the Greater Mankato Area have year-long access to the personal, pivotal, weird and wonderful events that make a county.
Potter remembered a fascinating story she discovered in the Society’s files about the Ledbetter murder trial in the early 1900s. Journalists from all over the Blue Earth area flocked to the Mankato courthouse to report the strange happenings at the hearing of a woman accused of killing her husband. Although there was plenty of evidence to show she was at least guilty of convincing her hired man to commit the murder, the woman played to the court’s sympathy, even showing up to her trial with her arm in a sling. She was found not guilty. That very week, papers said, the scales fell off the Justice figurine that graced the top of the courthouse.
“It was totally coincidence, but I think that’s just an interesting story,” Potter said. “You can just imagine this woman playing the poor victim role.” Despite the accused woman’s showmanship, she was, in fact, eventually convicted. When the Society found the story, they were enthralled by the vivid detail painted by the news reporting of that bygone day.
“It could be a hundred years later, and you still can just feel that you’re in that moment,” said Potter. The benefit of having a county historical society is that anyone can experience the happenings of long-past as though they were there.
At the Society’s headquarters and museum, a separate space known as the research center is reserved for exploration into the area’s past.
“Somebody that is interested in any aspect of the history of the county, whether it’s a person, an event, or an address, this is where they can come and look through historical records to start putting all of those pieces together,” Potter explained. Even if visitors aren’t looking for specific information, they can simply enjoy learning about the happenings of an earlier time.
Another of the Society’s biggest contributions to preserving the area’s history is maintaining Mankato’s Hubbard House. The Hubbard family originally gifted its ancestral home to the Society to serve as their first museum. When the Society moved to its current location at 424 Warren Street, it was decided to turn the Hubbard legacy building into a historical home museum.
“When you walk through the doors of the Hubbard House, you walk into 1905 Mankato,” said Potter. “About not quite 50 percent of the things on display are actually from the Hubbard family. The majority of the things that are on display are actually just part of the historical society’s collection, and we use them to help tell that story of that time period in Mankato and Blue Earth County’s history.”
The Historical Society has over 25,000 three-dimensional objects in its collection, along with 20,000 photographs. Anything not used in the Hubbard House is displayed or stored in the Society’s main museum or research center.
As a nonprofit, the Society is mainly funded by membership purchases. For an initial fee, members get a year’s worth of free access to the Society’s main museum, special exhibits, research center and Hubbard House, as well as discounts to the museum gift shops and special reduced prices for the many events hosted throughout the year.
One of Potter’s favorite events is the annual Christmas at the Hubbard House.
“It’s the best time,” she said. “The house is filled with historical characters and is usually bustling with people coming to see how we’ve decorated that year.” The historical characters are played by volunteers in period clothing who enjoy the opportunity to step back in time for a few hours.
…we take our job very seriously and the role that we play in making sure that today’s history is preserved for tomorrow.Jessica Potter
“Events like the Hubbard House Christmas are especially fun because I have a chance to play someone who really lived in the house 100 years ago and share her story,” said Grace Brandt, long-time volunteer who played Minnie Hubbard in the 2019 Hubbard Christmas. “We always take some artistic license with these events, since I’m pretty sure no one actually unraveled Mr. Hubbard’s scarf on Christmas. But it’s a fun way to breathe life into characters that you usually only see in black and white photos. Plus, I always learn something about myself!”
As another way to bring history to life, the Society offers Ghosts of the Past every October. Rather than focus on hauntings and apparitions, this event fleshes out notable county characters, showing details of their lives so that the figures seem more like friends than spirits.
Parents with young children also enjoy the Victorian Tea Party that takes place on the Hubbard House lawn every spring, complete with old-fashioned games and refreshments. Earlier in the spring, adults love to visit the annual Surrounded by History Gala that serves as more of a sophisticated night out.
“Last year and this coming year it will have a speakeasy theme,” Potter said. “We’re channeling the 1920s and it will be an immersive experience.” Tickets will be on sale in early 2020.
As with everything they do, the goal of the Society’s special events is to help visitors experience the past. They believe their role is essential in helping the community at large understand where they came from and the bearing it has on their lives.
“It’s very important that someone is doing that and so we take our job very seriously and the role that we play in making sure that today’s history is preserved for tomorrow,” Potter said. “I think it’s important for people to understand the history that surrounds them everywhere they are. Understanding and having an appreciation for the people who came before you – it’s what a community is.”