Living history interpretation is at the heart of Historic Forestville's educational programming for schoolchildren and touring visitors alike. From left, are Jette Berken, Enid Dunn and Laura Potter.
Living history interpretation is at the heart of Historic Forestville's educational programming for schoolchildren and touring visitors alike. From left, are Jette Berken, Enid Dunn and Laura Potter.
It's possible...even towns have friends.

"Richard DeLeo was a longtime friend of the Minnesota Historical Society, and he came to us a year and a half ago and wanted to leave funds for his favorite three historic sites - the Alexander Ramsay House, the Henry Hastings Sibley House and Historic Forestville - and he established a challenge with his estate that for every $2 raised, his estate would add another $1," explained Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) family and individual philanthropy specialist Karen Humphrey, explaining how Historic Forestville, the village inside Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park came to be the recipient of an endowment challenge that began early this year.

Humphrey, who has visited Historic Forestville on several occasions, agreed with MNHS's assessment of the historic village's importance when it noted that "Historic Forestville represents a unique time and place in our history."

Forestville, founded in the 1850s by Felix Meighen and his childhood friend, Robert Foster, was sustained by Meighen's son, Thomas, who kept the red brick store open, employed everyone who lived there and rented homes to them after the railroad bypassed it for a route near Wykoff.

The carefully-preserved store and home and Carnegie steel bridge now serve as a portal to the year 1899, and according to MNHS records, "hundreds of students from communities in our region - 51,700 since the current program began in 1993" have come to learn about "a way of life very different from the one they live today...and through that experience, they learn about the deep roots of their own community."

Humphrey stated, "It's so rare for people to be able to see life as it was in 1899, and walking across that bridge...the endowment will help the site grow, keep it vibrant and creative. It will really be a wonderful source of all kinds of things to be carried out at Historic Forestville."

Site manager Sandy Scheevel observed that DeLeo's passion for Historic Forestville was evident when he visited with his wife, Shirley.

"Mr. DeLeo was a longtime friend of not only the Minnesota Historical Society, but a very dear and good friend to Historic Forestville," said Scheevel. "He first visited the site with his wife, Shirley, in the 1990s and supported the site by donating funds for the reproduction wallpaper project for the historic kitchen. They both loved Forestville. He was instrumental in keeping the site open during the shutdown in 2004 by giving a very large donation to facilitate operations at the site during that season."

His continued support of the site was truly appreciated, but the endowment promised hope for the development of new programming, just as changes were to be made. Scheevel expressed her delight that the prospect of an endowment became a reality.

"Not too long ago, the endowment was a possible development for our historic site," she said. "It now has become a reality. Historic Forestville Endowment Fund has been established with a special challenge from Mr. DeLeo...Mr. DeLeo pledged a gift shortly before his death in 2012. Dick wanted the gift to be used as a challenge to build an endowed fund for our site."

Scheevel related that with each school group that treks across the Carnegie bridge, with each visitor¬¬ ¬- young or old - the living history interpreters share the tenets of daily living as it was at the turn of the last century, and that while not everyone who lives in the area has had a chance to feed the chickens, fan oats or watch as cucumbers are pickled and preserved for winter, the surrounding communities rely on Historic Forestville as an educational tourist destination, as well as a place to find their own history.

"Historic Forestville has long been a statewide resource, but it is also closely tied with the local communities, Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park and beautiful southeast Minnesota," she explained. "This fund will become an increasingly important resource for the site's normal operation budget, providing a predictable source of annual income for programs, educational opportunities, exhibits, maintenance, and other activities that enhance the work and mission of the site. Every gift is important to a stable future for the site. Together, these gifts will enhance the work at Historic Forestville and ensure that it remains a strong a vital resource for future generations."

Only commitments made before Dec. 31, 2014, are eligible for the match, so Humphrey and Scheevel encouraged interested persons to make their gifts - be it through a will, a life insurance policy, a trust agreement, charitable gift annuity or other source - to the Minnesota Historical Society as soon as possible to keep the endowment challenge dollars coming and the history at Historic Forestville as alive as the day it was made in 1899.

For more information about the Historic Forestville Challenge Campaign, call Karen Humphrey at (651) 259-3122 or e-mail her at karen.humphrey@mnhs.org.

Historic Forestville brochures are available at the Spring Valley Public Library.