17 years in the making, Washington County Heritage Center opens Saturday

With just a few days to go before the grand opening of the Washington County Heritage Center in Stillwater, Brent Peterson this week was overseeing last-minute details and answering myriad questions.

Could he help lift a glass display case in the John Runk exhibit? Were duplicates of the same piece of audio-visual equipment ordered on purpose for the Royal Credit Union Education Center? Will the glass doors for the exhibit on black baseball arrive on time?

“Yes. No. I don’t know,” Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, said Tuesday as dozens of workers buzzed around him installing items, hanging artwork and mopping floors. “We’ve been working on this for 17 years. It’s amazing to see it all come together.”

The grand opening of the $5 million center at 1862 S. Greeley St., will be 10 a.m. Saturday.

One of the first exhibits people will see as they enter the center is “John Runk: A Curious Mind.” Runk, the legendary Stillwater photographer, spent a lifetime documenting the history of the city and amassed one of the largest individual historic photography collections in Minnesota.

Before he died in 1964 at age 86, Runk divided his collection and cameras among the Minnesota Historical Society, the Washington County Historical Society and the Stillwater Public Library.

A camera in the John Runk exhibit at the Washington County Heritage Center. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Many of his cameras, on loan from the Minnesota Historical Society, are on display, including a box camera that dates back to 1895, said Nancy O’Brien Wagner, a partner at BlueStem Heritage Group, which designed the exhibit. “For a camera buff, this is heaven,” she said. “They’re just beautiful. Some of them are in great condition. This one has the rubber bulb still connected — it’s 115-year-old rubber — that’s super unusual. If you know your cameras, this tells the whole history.”

Runk took thousands of photos, documenting everything from prison life to the logging industry on the St. Croix River, Peterson said. Many of Runk’s photos fill the walls, including photos that Runk took of himself.

“He took a lot of selfies, back before selfies were a thing,” Peterson said.

Visitors will be able to see Runk’s notebook; blue glass bottles he used to store chemicals, his hat, and his price list. Also on display: a Kleantone Manufacturing Co., record-cleaning device for Victrolas, which Runk invented and had patented, Peterson said.

Next to the Runk exhibit is a display comparing and contrasting fashions of the 1860s and the 1960s. An 1860s blue silk brocade ball gown, once owned by Stillwater resident Eliza Purinton, is on display in the same exhibit as a dress from the 1960s, and a Civil War uniform is on display next to a Vietnam War uniform once worn by retired U.S. Army Col. Buzz Kriesel.

Part of the “From the Woods to the World” exhibit. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

The largest exhibit, called “From the Woods to the World,” details the state’s logging history, from woods up north to the St. Croix River where they were sent downstream to the mills in Marine on St. Croix and Stillwater. There, they were cut up into logs and made them into lumber and then “shipped all over the world,” Peterson said.

The idea for a Heritage Center was first floated in 2005 during a strategic planning session with the historical society’s board of directors, staff and key stakeholders of the organization, Peterson said. “Out of that came the need to move forward as an organization and to make the mission of the organization — to collect, preserve and interpret the history of Washington County and the state of Minnesota — a true focus of the society,” Peterson said.

In 2013, the historical society purchased the former UFE building at 1862 S. Greeley St. It later rented the building to the Minnesota Department of Transportation for its St. Croix River bridge construction office.

Peterson said the site was chosen because of its proximity to the Washington County Government Center and because it “was in the center of the county to make access easy for all residents and visitors to Washington County.”


A sign near the front door welcomes people to the soon-to-be-opened Washington County Heritage Center in Stillwater. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

The grand opening of the Washington County Heritage Center, 1862 S. Greeley St., Stillwater, will be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission will be free. Special activities include: live music and axe throwing and log cutting by world-champion lumberjacks Jim and Jamie Fischer.

After the grand opening, the Heritage Center will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; cost for admission will be $8 for adults; $3 for kids, 6-17; and free for kids 5 and under. Members of the Washington County Historical Society get free admissions to all the WCHS historic sites.

For more information, contact the Historical Society at 651-439-5956 or email at [email protected].

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