When talking about his volunteer experiences at Rice County Historical Society, Brian Schmidt acknowledges everyone who was involved in the effort.
Whether covering artifacts in the Historical Society Museum storage room with plastic during a renovation or venturing outside Faribault to collect an historical relic, he insists on giving credit where credit is due.
“I can’t express enough how fun it is to work with the volunteers here,” said Schmidt. “Everyone has different ideas.”
Several years ago, Schmidt donated some of his Fleckenstein Brewing Co. artifacts to the Rice County Historical Society and realized he felt a sense of camaraderie with the other volunteers. For the past decade, he’s spent his days off from Malt-O-Meal/Post Consumer Brands volunteering with the group.
“I wasn’t interested in history at all in high school,” said Schmidt. “But I went to the Fleckenstein Brewery, which was abandoned at the time, and looked for old bottles. That triggered an interest.”
As Schmidt’s fascination with Fleck's Beer expanded to include any piece of Faribault history, he began taking on leadership roles at the society. Now, on his second term as president, he helps conduct meetings and sees more behind-the-scenes pieces of the museum.
With other volunteers, Schmidt prepares displays at the Historical Society Museum and serves on a number of committees. On the collections committee, Schmidt’s volunteer work involves researching the history and significance of “new” antiques. To gather information, Schmidt turns to the public or consults the Buckham Memorial Library’s micro roll collection.
“It’s really impressive, I think, because each item is evaluated one at a time,” said Schmidt of the collections committee.
Filled with items acquired over the last 93 years, space at the society is reserved and limited to items that meet established criteria. Volunteers ask themselves three main questions when evaluating items: Does it have a Rice County connection? Can RCHS take care of it? and, is this a duplicate?
Some of Schmidt’s favorite items, apart from the obvious Fleck's Beer relics, are postcards capturing different angles of Faribault during various eras. He enjoys identifying buildings, former businesses whose storefronts look much different. On the back of these postcards, he records information to spare future generations the same search.
The collections committee might receive letters that request volunteers pick up items from other cities and even other states. Someone in Minneapolis, for example, wanted to donate a heavy cash register from Faribault to RCHS. Schmidt and other volunteers drove to Minneapolis, but the item was so large they couldn’t lift it. The donor ultimately had a moving company bring the cash register to RCHS, and Don Hora used a lift to roll it inside.
Sometimes volunteering for RCHS takes Schmidt and the crew off site. When the Farmer Seed and Nursery went out of business in 2018, he and four other volunteers picked up items and toured the old buildings. While there, Schmidt picked up a large piece of wood that covered a hole in the floor and found a Farmer Seed sign painted on the other side. These are the types of discoveries Schmidt enjoys making.
Being a volunteer for RCHS allowed Schmidt the chance to tour the basement of the Faribault Print Shop, where he discovered an old canvas cover that draped over a skeleton frame. He explained the business owner, years ago, would crank a mechanism to lower the canvas, creating an awning above the sidewalk. The canvas says “Payant's Walgreen Agency,” which leads Schmidt to wonder if there’s a connection to the Walgreen's store or pharmacy.
“It’s neat to save that type of history,” said Schmidt.
The Fleckenstein’s Brewery case at Rice County Historical Society is one Schmidt helped organize. What he hasn’t kept in his home, he’s donated to the display. During tours, he chronicles the Fleckenstein family story from their immigration to the U.S. in the 1850s until the brewery’s closing in 1964. He points out a sign that says “Rathskeller,” indicating a club above the Ernst “Boots” Fleckenstein home where members ate raw meat with bleu cheese and crackers.
“The Fleckensteins in town 108 years gave so much back to the city, so I wanted to give back to them,” said Schmidt.
Some of the relics don’t fit in a case, like the 1946 GMC 2-ton Fleck's delivery truck found in a wooded area about 10 years ago. Thanks to RCHS volunteers, the truck is being restored as a visual piece. Schmidt said the truck restoration isn’t his project, but he likes to help whenever he can.
“Volunteers really make a difference, not only with work and time, but with ideas,” said Historical Society Executive Director Sue Garwood. “So many times volunteers do what someone else is thinking but take these ideas and run with them.”
A current project at RCHS is developing a compact storage system that requires volunteers to organize artifacts into specific categories. Schmidt said he’s not so much involved in this project himself, but Garwood and volunteers Don Hora and Amanda Roberts formed a committee to get the job done.
One thing Schmidt did do to prepare for the new storage unit took the time and effort of three volunteers — himself, Hora, and Gary Meyer. To keep floating dust particles from tainting the artifacts already in the storage unit, the trio taped four to five sheets of plastic to the walls and floors, encasing the relics in a tent-like structure. This project, said Schmidt, took several hours.
“It can never be done by just me,” said Schmidt. “It’s a volunteer effort.”
Apart from completing assigned tasks, Schmidt finds himself contributing to RCHS while hunting for relics on his own terms. A number of the items in Heritage Hall, a large shed outside the RCHS museum, are on display thanks to Schmidt. Among a number of wall hangings he’s collected is a Faribault Curve Bar 7-Up sign that a vendor wanted to sell for $300. Schmidt asked if the owner was willing to donate the sign to RCHS and collected the item for free.
Heritage Hall is rarely open for public viewing, mainly during Rice County Fair week and Night at the Museum, but Schmidt and other volunteers add to the collection all year round.
“When I sit out here [in Heritage Hall] during fair week, I hear comments on the nice displays, and it makes you proud,” said Schmidt.
Even when volunteers aren’t actively covering a shift at RCHS, Schmidt said sometimes they stop in for a cup of coffee to visit and find out what’s going on. Volunteers show up as early as 5:45 a.m. some days to help vendors unload materials.
“It’s my own fun and entertainment,” said Schmidt. “… We talk about births and deaths — I consider it my family.”
With all the hours he dedicates to preserving history at the historical society, Schmidt commends his wife, Toni, for being so supportive of his interests. Their two sons, Derek and Jarid, have bonded with their dad, especially as young children, in his quest to collect Fleckenstein Beer relics — the hobby that led him to RCHS.
“[Schmidt’s] leadership and creativity and enthusiasm is contagious,” said Garwood. “He has an idea, and he also puts time and energy into making it successful, and that’s rare and a gift.”