Paynesville Historical Society is 30 years old

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 8/4/99.

The Paynesville Historical Society was formed 30 years ago as a result of Charles Zapf looking to sell some Indian artifacts he had collected. "He didn't know what to do with them," recalled Don Torbenson, "so he came to me as president of the Lions Club."

While the Lions weren't interested in buying the artifacts, Torbenson was interested enough to stop at the state historical society the next time his work as superintendent of the local schools brought him to St. Paul. "You don't have a historical society do you?" Torbenson remembered being asked. "Why don't you start one?"

That led to a state field director making several visits to Paynesville. "He came out and talked about it and convinced us we should (do it)," said Torbenson.

The society wasn't officially born until October of 1969. Bertha Zniewski was elected the group's first president, with Arnold Kost, vice president; C.C. Tolman, secretary; John McLaughlin, treasurer; and Mary Bugbee, Orion Miller, and C. E. Hanson, directors.

Its primary objectives were "to collect, preserve, and disseminate historical material." Initial membership fees were $0.50 for students and $1.50 for adults.

The first museums
By November of 1969, the village of Paynesville, as it was called then, loaned the society the former NSP building next to the old city hall on Washburne Avenue for the storage of artifacts.

"The city of Paynesville gave us a building downtown, and we filled it up in a month," said Zniewski, who has been the museum's curator for its entire existence.

"People were so excited they just left us boxes by the door," continued Zniewski, who received phone calls from the police department to come and open the museum so the sidewalks could be cleared. "It was so exciting when we didn't have anything," she added.

First Museum In July of 1970, the historical society members voted to purchase the former Methodist church building on Highway 23. The Lions Club assisted in a fund drive to purchase the building. Almost a year later, Dr. C.R. Myre donated a house and two empty lots that adjoined the new location of the museum.

The dedication of the Paynesville Area Historical Society Museum was held on Sept. 26, 1971. Mayor Chet Bartz used a scissor brought to America from Sweden in 1860 to cut the ribbon. George Peterson, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star, attended the celebration.

The society celebrated the opening of the museum in the former Paynesville Methodist Church on Sept. 26, 1971. Pictured (L to R): Father Joseph Varley, Arnold Kost, Cush Tolman, Bertha Zniewski, Mayor Chet Bartz, unknown, and Dave Nysteun from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Continued growth
In 1976, a log cabin was donated to the historical society as part of the bicentennial celebration. It is located permanently at the rest stop on Highway 23 west of town.

In 1985, the Brown schoolhouse was donated to the society. Built in 1892, the school on Rice Lake's Muke Road was given its name because of a family that lived near it. It cost $1,700 to move it from east of town to the society's land in Paynesville.

Despite the addition of new buildings and the construction of a pole barn, space at the museum became more and more precious. At the start, the basement of the old church was rented to the school for kindergarten classes. Then the whole church was used as a museum. Still, they ran out of space. "Of course, we filled this up overnight," said Zniewski. "We used every inch of the church and every inch of the house."

At that property, there was no room for any new buildings, said Zniewski, so in 1996, when an opportunity presented itself along Highway 23 again, but in the northeast corner of town, the historical society voted to sell the old church and Pioneer House and move to the city's east end. They bought an extra lot right away to insure room for growth and moved the schoolhouse to the new site in September of 1996.

Future dreams
According to Zniewski, space is still limited at the museum, which has one insulated building, one uninsulated shed, and the schoolhouse. The museum has to be very selective about the artifacts it accepts, largely due to space limitations. "We've turned down many, many things because we don't have the building to store it," she said.

"Our big goal is to be open, instead of three months of the year, first six months and then year-round," added Zniewski. Working at the museum again this summer are Connie Williams and Kari Brady.

"It's so complete," said Williams, who is working toward a master's degree in public history at St. Cloud State University, of the museum. "I've never seen so complete (of a museum). It has every trade–blacksmith, shoe repair, photography, medicine. Nothing is left out."

The museum also has geneology files.

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Costs for tours are $2 per person or $5 per family. Membership in the historical society costs $15 per year for an individual and $25 for a family. Members can tour the museum free of charge.

The historical society is supported financially each year by the city of Paynesville and Stearns County. Last year, the state historical society gave $500. Over the years, sizable memorials and private donations have supported the project. "To run an operation like this takes money," Zniewski said.

Currently on the board of directors for the society are: Paul Bugbee, president; and directors Jack Bugbee, Doris Dodds, Ralph Fleischhacker, Vince Jenniges, Leo Louis, Ellsworth Schultz, Larry Thielen, and Gil Tritabaugh.

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