The Steele County Historical Society has officially opened up for the season at both the Village of Yesteryear and the exhibits inside the History Center this week, allowing drop-in tours as well as call-ahead appointments.
Interim Director Jerry Ganfield said that while they have taking appropriate measures and precautions to follow the state guidelines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, he believes that the tours will more or less “look like normal” throughout the summer.
“Our normal traffic is small enough that we can accommodate the 10-people rule, two to five people in a tour is normal for us,” Ganfield said. “The biggest difference is that we’re not doing the bus tours or larger groups right now.”
Ganfield said that the History Center is set up with sanitizer and masks, and that all tour guides will wear masking and bringing sanitizer wipes with them as they move about the exhibits and village. While Ganfield says that it is fortunate that the village is a largely open-air tour, one of the new rules will be that guides will be the only ones opening and closing doors.
“We are just going to try to acknowledge social distancing the best we can, so we might have guides go into some of the smaller buildings with only a couple people at a time,” Ganfield said. During the off months, Ganfield said that volunteers have been able to take advantage of the time to paint and refresh the buildings in the village, as well as update the gardens.
“We have been seeing a lot more foot traffic through the village with everyone being at home during the stay-at-home order,” Ganfield said. “It’s truly nice to see the people walking through the village.”
For the indoor tours, there are currently two exhibits on display at the Steele County History Center, Country Schools: The Beating Heart of the Rural Community and American Legion: A Powerful Factor for Good.
“At one point we were approaching 100 schools in Steele County before they began closing throughout the 1960s as transportation became better and people could go to Owatonna, Blooming Prairie, Medford and Ellendale,” Ganfield said, adding that many township halls throughout the county are former one-room schoolhouses. “There are a lot of people who have been in rural schools, perhaps more than those who have been in Legions. Everybody that is at a certain age went to one.”
Ganfield said that the Legion exhibit tells the story of the forming of the American Legion, with an emphasis on youth sports teams sponsored by the Legion as well as charitable efforts. Both exhibits have an emphasis on Steele County-specific details and include interactive activities for families to take home with them.
“Unfortunately because of the guidelines we have from the state, we don’t currently have a spot for people to do the activities here,” Ganfield said. “But we can talk about them and people can bring them home.”
As the historical society moves into tour season, Ganfield said that they wouldn’t be surprised to see an uptick in those interested in tours due to people looking for new things to do during COVID-19. He said that because of its location near Interstate 35 and Highway 14, both the village and the center see a fair share of passersby from the thoroughfares.
“During the time that we were closed, we’ve really appreciated all the volunteers who helps us maintain the village and get us ready for when we could open back up,” Ganfield said about the preparation that went into the beginning of tour season. “So often we have found that our volunteers are very faithful during hard periods, this one included.”