“It’s a real treasure…it’s one of the only Minnesota Historical Society sites this far south. Visitors experience history where it happened,” said Historic Forestville site manager Sandy Scheevel, welcoming Minnesota’s Senate Bonding Committee to the Meighen barn on a cool, rainy October Wednesday afternoon, giving them a history of the pioneer village that has captivated the attention of southeast Minnesota’s history enthusiasts and of visitors from far and wide.
The Senate Bonding Committee stopped at Historic Forestville, inside Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park, last week, Oct. 28, to learn about why the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) living history interpretive site’s guardians have registered two separate requests for asset preservation funding through the state’s bonding mechanisms. The first request, according to MNHS director of historic sites, museums and institutions John Crippen, is for $350,000 to do interior restoration of the Thomas and Mary Meighen residence, and the second, for $500,000, is for exterior preservation, as “the higher priority is the exterior of the barn, house and store.”
MNHS’s director of government relations, David Kelliher, outlined that the funds are especially important because the site’s buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and require special care while being maintained.
“Part of the asset preservation request is that the barn, house and store need structural work, and the interior (could) be restored,” he said. “The south side of the house needs paint, and because it’s on the National Register, we take extra care in its maintenance and restoration.”
Following Scheevel’s introduction – which included the site’s history from the days when horses were transportation and the railroad a new invention and her statement that “it’s a valuable resource because over 52,000 students have come here” — the senators toured the Meighen General Store. They met shopkeeper Mr. Maloney (George Colbenson) to view the wares available for sale on store credit, Thomas Meighen’s office and the Meighen home’s parlor, stopping in the kitchen to chat with Janie (site supervisor Paula Ruesink), who offered them each a slice of lemon-frosted cake and a cookie baked from a recipe straight out of the Buckeye, a good cook’s guide to home cooking.
Their visit to the store was accompanied by Scheevel’s narration that the town was founded by the Meighens and the Fosters, but that it was also settled by “the poor Irish, who were considered second class citizens. They came here to do what they couldn’t do for their children in the cities and other places. The store is 90 percent original, and in Thomas’s office, you can see how he kept his papers. He was an independent voter.”
In the parlor, she pointed out the portraits of the presidents, citing, “Both parties are represented in our parlor. The Meighens were very strong Irish Catholics…but during our ‘Light of the Lantern’ event, we hold a suffrage meeting in the parlor.”
Mr. Maloney had accompanied the entourage to the kitchen from the store, and at the suggestion that women might want to vote, he was aghast enough to say, “Women??? VOTE?!? Nonsense.”
Scheevel stoked up the wood stove, showing the committee members exactly how hot the iron can get by tossing a handful of water at the top and letting the steam hiss as the droplets flew.
Once the cake was gone, the committee ventured out to the yard to meet the chickens, examine the site’s buildings and get a last look at the barn before filing onto the bus.
Senate Bonding Committee Chairman Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, shared his impression of the town.
“It’s a bit of a pearl in the rough, a place you don’t really hear much about. You see the buildings are very intact, and there’s a lot of history still here. It reminds me…I grew up on a farm, and the wood stove furnace reminds me of the little general store not far from our farm…there are a lot of memories. I think there’s a lot of value in trying to show how our ancestors lived, and we can appreciate what we have today a little more, appreciate our parents and relatives who came before us,” he said. “It really takes a lot of local support and volunteers to serve and help keep this going. There generally has to be a core group of people in this area that has to think it is worth saving.”
Crippen outlined what plans are underway for Historic Forestville if the site receives monetary recognition during the bonding cycle.
“For now, we haven’t done the full design for the exterior, but once we get the architect hired, $500,000 is our best estimate so far. There’s some flexibility in the asset preservation funds, so if the work ends up being $600,000, we’ll be able to take care of the work without a problem,” said Crippen. “The total request is $5 million to $6 million. Depending on what the Legislature appropriates – if we get $3 million, we can go deep down into the list and keep rolling those programs in from the bottom of the list. The brick on the store needs a lot of re-pointing because the mortar is coming out and breaking down the building. The big importance of preservation here is if we let it go too long, the costs will grow and the more we’ll lose the historic fabric of the area.”
Crippen is optimistic that Historic Forestville’s inclusion on the Senate bonding bill is promising, as he is about getting right to work on ensuring that generations of baby boomers through those just born can witness history through the gathering of eggs, tending of a wood stove, mending of equipment, care of a kitchen garden and tasting fresh bread and butter.
“It’s one of 30 state historic sites, and it’s one of the sites with buildings that’s on a higher level of importance and care,” Crippen concluded. “We want to take care of them.”