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  • Chaska Historical Society

20 Years in the Brinkhaus Livery Stable

By Lisa Oberski

Although the Chaska Historical Society has been in existence since 1980, our move to the Brinkhaus stable in 2003—After Y2K and 9/11, but before a myriad of other events—was a momentous time for the organization.

The historical society had had its home on the second and third floors of the Christian P. Klein mansion, located on the northeast corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, since 1988. The space at the mansion was notable, not only because it was our first home, allowing volunteers to transfer to a central location the precious collections of artifacts and photographs they had stashed away in their garages and attics for safekeeping, but also because of the history the mansion itself lent to our existence. Often people would come visit us because of the opportunity it provided to see the heavy woodwork and hand-painted wallpaper inside the 1911 home.

When it looked like the 1890 Brinkhaus Livery Stable was a strong possibility for a new, shared home for the historical society and the Chaska Chamber of Commerce, then long-time president Tracy Swanson led a fundraising effort to support the city in the complete renovation and restoration of the building, which had served as a useful retail space (an auto parts store) for a number of years, but definitely needed considerable renovation and modification to fit the new purposes. In essence, the building was gutted.

Thanks to the substantial generosity of the City of Chaska, individuals Marcella Klein and John Klingelhutz, organizations like the Chaska Lions, the First National Bank, owner of the Herald Stan Rolfsrud and many additional organizations and individual donors, the fund drive was successful. The Chaska History Center and Chamber of Commerce could now plan for a new, shared home at 112 West Fourth Street.

What followed was a lot of planning; how should the building be configured? Where to put the stairs? What furniture was needed? How could it provide an optimal storage situation for our archives? How would the organizations share the space? Collaborating with the City and the architects, Tracy and then-Chamber of Commerce Director Jacqi Fitzgibbons worked out the details. It was then sent on to John Klingelhutz, whose Chaska Building Center made it happen.

After a painting party featuring volunteers from the Chamber, the City, and the Historical Society, we and the Chamber offices moved into the livery stable in 2003. The historical society had packed its artifacts carefully, and a group of volunteer students from Crown College made the block-and-a-half transfer. A special find in the basement of the Wells Fargo bank building—the Carver County Bank vault door with its exquisite painting—made the half-block journey through the generosity of Wells Fargo, finding a new home on the east wall of the center. (Many children still ask what is behind the door—and are disappointed to find out it’s a brick wall.)

Photos from opening day below. Left to right:

Dave Pokorney, City Administrator, and John Klingelhutz at the opening in 2003.

Visitors had the chance to check things out the night of the opening.

Mayor Gary Van Eyll presents a plaque to Henry “Sam” Roepke in honor of the Roepke family's years of service to the Chaska community.

Many things changed for the historical society with this move. With the presence of the Chamber in the building, we now could have our displays available for public viewing during

regular business hours. In fact, now we COULD have regular displays that would remain up for longer periods of time—previously, except for a couple of years in early 2000-2002, volunteers would haul the limited displays to and from the gazebo in City Square Park each day of River City Days. Now we could leave them up for weeks at a time.

We started the display-making with great gusto—as many as three to four displays a year—only to find that was neither sustainable nor optimal when foot traffic was limited by our hours. We started limiting ourselves to an exhibit or two a year, and to ensure optimal viewing of the new exhibits, we invested in track lighting that could accent regular displays in the new, raised cases as well as in the old display cases we had transferred from the mansion.

The historical society added more regularly staffed hours with the move as well. Though we

were not at the history center as many hours as the Chamber staff, we had the main desk staffed a few hours each day, four days a week, plus an email address and voicemail for messages.

A major change that we slowly incorporated was one that had the greatest impact on how we do our everyday tasks: The growing reliance on technology. That reliance was more than just word processing and spreadsheets. It commanded a role in how we operated as a museum. Thus it was that shortly after our move to the livery stable we recognized an increasing need to clearly identify, organize, and store our collections. It was no longer good enough to “just ask Tracy” where things were or what the significance of objects or photographs were. We needed an organizational database that would help us keep track of our donations, their significance, and their locations. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tracy can still recount how many times I asked her what would happen if she got “hit by a bus.” Those ideas led to what became a fourteen- year project involving many devoted volunteers: Cataloguing each artifact and photograph in our collection and entering the information into a central database.

With the move we kept adding to the ways we benefit the community: We researched more historical questions for residents and businesses. We built in more programming for groups of students, scouts, and other groups—we’ve been able to do Holiday Homes historic tours and Christmas teas, for example, as well as acting as historic tour guides on the horse and carriage rides offered during Hometown Holiday celebrations each December. We added new historical resources, including a co-sponsored walking tour, several new pamphlets, two new books on Chaska history, and a reprinted, combined version of LaVonne Barac’s Chaska: A Minnesota River City, Prehistory to 1950. And we researched, designed and created exhibits each year on a myriad of topics: Sugar Factory? Did it. Schools? Did it. Churches? Did it. WWI and WWII? Did it. There are so many more—and so many more we can revisit.

Besides the increase in the number and types of displays, the years since the move have involved a tremendous ramping up of amount of technology used. Not only did we finish entering our collections into the aforementioned artifact and photograph database, we also redesigned, updated, and added more resources to our website, introduced a quarterly digital newsletter, and, during the global Covid-19 pandemic, provided an online virtual exhibit for our Chaska history fans despite being closed to the public. We digitalized a number of our yearbooks and other sources so that they are searchable. We also worked toward our next big technological step by transitioning to a cloud-based database. Eventually this database will be made accessible for world-wide researchers interested in checking out our photograph, artifact, library, genealogical and topic file resources for themselves.

Our presence on the web extends beyond our website, though, to the world of social media. We built up a FaceBook following through regular postings of the Herald Reports (those quips from the Herald newspapers of the past) as well as short, informational posts, questions, and photographs of interest.

Although our concern for the susceptibility of our volunteers to the Covid-19 virus has kept us from having pre-Covid-19 hours, we are still able to fulfill our mission to the public through our limited public hours and by answering phone, email and snail mail requests. We count on our connections from our social media presence and our presentations and programs for small groups. We are looking toward a time when a new flush of volunteers will help staff the center, allowing us to maintain greater hours to the public—especially beyond the 9-5 workday we are limited to at this time.

The move to the livery stable twenty years ago offered better uses of space for our purposes, which precipitated more exhibits, more hours available to the public, better storage for the Herald collection and our artifacts and photographs, and more. Beyond providing support for the society through maintaining our presence in this historic building, though, it has allowed us to focus on our needs as a museum and as a growing organization. The City’s commitment to the needs of the Chaska Historical Society has highlighted our organization’s many contributions to the Chaska community and provided further evidence of the City’s prioritization and valuation of its history.

Photos of the construction of the Brinkhaus Livery Stable/Chaska History Center below.

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