Trying to preserve itself and move forward, the Le Sueur County Historical Society’s new board met again Thursday evening in Le Center to pick up the pieces and plan ahead.
It won’t be easy. Low on funds, without staffing and trying to clean up assets and artifacts left in disarray, volunteers stepped up and helped move items from the former Le Sueur Museum into one of its remaining properties, the former Cleveland Methodist Church.
Packed full now, including historical items which went into a basement that had signs of mold and water leaks, newly-elected society president Bill Stangler still praised volunteers for their efforts. But he also told fellow board members Thursday, along with a crowd of a dozen in the basement of the State Bank of Le Center, that those items will likely stay put until a new LCHS home can be found.
“We’ve got the electricity on …,” Stangler said.
The historic church, dating to 1869, was put on the sale block in November 2016 by former society executive director Kathy Burns, who was in attendance at Thursday’s meeting. Burns also appeared at two recent Le Sueur County Board meetings, according to Stangler.
Burns, along with three former board members — former president Jenifer Morshing, her mother Donna Morsching, and Evelyn Fierst — were in effect terminated following the end of an over year-long lawsuit brought on by society membership, led by Stangler and long-time LCHS member George Luskey.
Besides Stangler serving as president, life member Dean Pettis will serve as vice president and membership chair. Bonnie Reak was elected treasurer and Ruth Collins as secretary. All four will serve two-year terms.
Other directors on the nine-member board will include Lois Mack (two years) and Bryce Stenzel, Richard Bennett, Mike Frederick and Luskey.
Stangler appeared at the June 25 county board meeting seeking financial assistance as the historical society reorganizes, but “I kind of got shot out of the saddle” with his request for $68,100 over six months. The board eventually settled on $30,000 and a request for Stangler to come back in two months with a progress report.
“That’s a start,” Stangler added.
But later in Thursday’s society board meeting, longtime member Kathy Peterson of Le Sueur praised Stangler’s county board presentation. Peterson, a constant presence at past society events and advocate for preserving the historic Ottawa Township brick church, said Stangler and the new board should remain optimistic that additional funding will come from the county.
“You did a fantastic job, Bill,” Peterson said near the end of the Thursday meeting. “You did a great job. I’m more encouraged.”
Peterson added that commissioners are still likely cautious considering the past “lack of accountability, lack of transparency.” Commissioners had withheld annual funding to the historical society the past several years, citing lawsuit concerns and the need to reorganize.
Starting over, cleaning up
Volunteers put in a frantic two weeks of moving items out of the former Union School in Le Sueur, which had most recently served as a museum before being purchased by Agropur in January 2018 for $190,000. However, a demolition permit wasn’t sought by Agropur until November. Since that time, social media discussion from concerned historical society members and private citizens often sought answers as to where some of the museum artifacts would go.
Luskey, who assisted last Tuesday with other volunteers, said some of the artifacts from the former Le Sueur Museum had previously been moved but was not yet certain where all were brought. The remaining items, including an historic wagon which needed to be disassembled, were brought to the Cleveland church.
The old school and museum in Le Sueur is scheduled for demolition by Gaylord Sanitation beginning July 1. One remaining problem: removing a relatively intact heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
Problems also surfaced at other society properties. Stangler said a Waterville house, purchased in 2017 for $34,000, has been vacant for over two years and in rough shape, with mold. Stangler has been actively trying to market the house and a sliver of adjacent property, but the condition of the home may dramatically lower the asking price. Stangler says there’s no use for the society keeping the property.
It’s a small, modest residence with a bit of land to the south, according to county records. Information obtained from the Minnesota Department of Revenue stated the reason for purchase of the 1930 structure was to allow “development for historic site.”
The 1857 Ottawa brick church is also in disrepair, with its steeple having stood nearby after being removed from the building. Estimates to repair the steeple, the roof and reinforce beams have topped $200,000. Repairs, which were initiated almost five years ago, have been on hold.
In Elysian, “History Hill” is home to two society properties: the former Elysian schoolhouse which dates to 1884 and the Genealogy Center. While the Elysian Museum is in pretty good condition, according to Mack, it will remain closed. The Genealogy Center will for the time being serve as the society’s home front and is in pretty good shape. But Mack, who holds one of two keys to the site along with Stangler, has been volunteering her time, along with Shirley Krenik of Elysian, on cleaning up things at the center in hopes for regular hours.
Board members, however, turned down a request from Mack to give Krenik a key, as well. The board did, however, approve Thursday and Saturday open hours from 1 to 5 p.m. from July 18 through September 11.
“At this point in time, that’s our comfort level,” Mack said. “We’re a little short-handed right now.”
Stangler and others expressed hope that volunteers and the efforts to seek staffing will eventually allow similar Friday hours, as well. Stangler also said volunteers will be needed to man the organization’s historical cabin on the Le Sueur County fairgrounds during the August 15-18 County Fair.
Restoring faith, properties
Stangler said the current membership count is 71 and hopes social media efforts and ongoing marketing will improve those numbers. The organization plans a July 4 open house in Elysian for interested members and citizens.
Rebuilding trust and providing transparency is critical in moving forward, leaders stress. It’s been a decade-long series of lawsuits and controversies. Ten years ago, county records showed LCHS properties valued at $820,400 and total assets of about $1.4 million.
That included a $250,000 Adolf Dehn art collection, some of which remained sitting on the Genealogy Center’s basement floor, which prompted a groan from many in Thursday night’s crowd. Mack said volunteers have since moved those art pieces off the floor, but other technical issues remain before the formal July launch.
All of these changes and the emergence of a new board were the end result of a late May membership meeting which elected the nine new directors. When the historical society was placed into receivership in March by Le Sueur County District Court Judge Mark Vandelist, the organization’s assets were frozen and properties locked up. Receiver Robert Kugler, of Stinson Leonard Street in Minneapolis, handled the transition.
The receiver laid out the assets controlled by the historical society, which includes five accounts, the largest one being an art fund with a balance just over $100,000. The other four accounts combine for less than $35,000.
The art fund was determined to be property of the historical society in a 2015 lawsuit with another entity, the Le Sueur County Historical Society Museum Chapter 1. At the time, the account had $274,729 in it. That was deposited into the historical society’s general fund; $250,000 was then moved into the separate account.
In that 2015 lawsuit, First Judicial District Judge Richard Perkins ordered that the art fund be considered a charitable trust, to be used “for the acquisition, preservation and exhibition of artwork connected by artist or content to Le Sueur County, Minnesota.”
Kugler reported, “A forensic effort to determine whether the approximately $188,000 used between February 26, 2015 and March 27, 2019 were used in a manner consistent with Judge Perkins’ order has not been conducted.”
The society had held a line of credit with First State Bank, but had been closed out, fully paid, on Jan. 17, 2018. The proceeds from the sale of the Le Sueur Museum had contributed to the payment of $99,244. The total sale price was $190,000. At the time, the historical society was required to remove property — artifacts — by June 30, 2018. That deadline has been extended to June 30, 2019.
The society had also sold the Cleveland History Center in December 2016 for $44,000. It still has a house and lot in Waterville, Ottawa Stone Church, two buildings on the Le Sueur County Fairgrounds property, five buildings at the Elysian museum site and Cleveland Methodist Church.
Kugler noted there were many pieces with historical value, but there is no comprehensive inventory of all the artifacts and pieces owned by the historical society.
Luskey and Stangler remain optimistic, but both said the road ahead won’t be easy and volunteers are needed — over 30 helped in the recent move.
“We could not have done it without all the volunteers. We’re very thankful, very grateful,” Stangler said, “It shows that there’s a lot of interest in getting things moving.”