Area News | Home | Marketplace | Community

Return to Archived Stories

Paynesville Press - December 10, 2003

Zniewski announces retirement

By Michael Jacobson

Bertha ZniewskiSome of Bertha Zniewski's favorite visitors to the Paynesville Area Historical Museum are groups of school children, who always ask a million questions and are fascinated by the technology of the past.

These kids - who have always lived in a world with refrigerators, cars, and computers - can hardly believe that their ancestors had the need for ice boxes, horse-drawn buggies, and typewriters, all of which, along with countless other historical items, are on display at the local museum, which is operated by the Paynesville Area Historical Society.

Bertha Zniewski announced her intention to retire as the curator of the Paynesville Area Historical Museum to the Paynesville Area Historical Society's board of directors last week. Zniewski was the first president of the historical society, founded in 1969, and has served as curator of the museum ever since its formation.

Preserving the history of the area, for them and for future generations, has always been Zniewski's goal, during over 33 years as the museum's curator.

Soon, though, Zniewski is going to step down as the museum curator. She announced her intention to retire last week during a board meeting for the Paynesville Area Historical Society.

It is time for someone else to take over, Zniewski told the Press. "Well, I just think I started this thing in 1969. And I'm 81," said Zniewski with a laugh. "I'm still interested," she added quickly. "I'd still like to help, but I just think someone else could do it better now."

The Paynesville Area Historical Society was born in October 1969, when the Paynesville Lions Club generated interest by hosting a field director from the state historical society. Zniewski was chosen as the board's first president.

The city allowed the historical society to use a building to store artifacts and within months that building was full of historical items. People were so eager to donate that the police department would call Zniewski at home, asking her to come downtown and clear the sidewalks of donated materials.

By July 1970, the Paynesville Area Historical Society had purchased the old methodist church along Highway 23, started to move items from the downtown building, and began organizing the items into historical displays.

Zniewski, though she grew up in St. Cloud, always had an interest in the history of the Paynesville area, since both her grandparents lived in Paynesville and she was born here, at her grandparent's house.

She did not like to have to come and visit Paynesville as a teenager, so she shocked her mother when as a young bride she and her husband, Frederic, rented a building in Paynesville for a photography studio. They had actually been looking to start a studio in Litchfield, stopped to visit her relatives on the way home, and found a downtown building to rent.

Zniewski, now a widow, has lived in Paynesville for 55 years. "I'm not sorry," she said. "It was a good place to raise children." And a good place to live, she added.

In the summer of 1969, just before being asked to become the first president, which led to her becoming the museum curator, Zniewski took her first European trip, visiting relatives and researching her family history in England and Scotland.

That trip really piqued her interest in history. Since then, she has written two 400-page genealogy books, about both sides of her family; collected over 10,000 buttons; served on the county historical society board for 25 years; and belonged to an Indian history group in Willmar. She is also nearly finished with a genealogy book for both sides of her husband's family.

And she has directed the museum, which has built an archive of more than 9,000 artifacts.

"I'm always working on something," said Zniewski. "My friends say, 'Don't you ever sit down?' But I've always been working on something. That's why I think the historical society was such a good thing for me. I always had a lot of energy."

The museum, which moved to a new location along Highway 23 on the east end of Paynesville in 1996, includes exhibits covering the history of Paynesville, starting with the settling of the early town in the 1850s; the rival North Town built some years later; and the arrival of the railroads around the turn of the century and the establishment of New Paynesville, where the current downtown is located. The museum traces the history of the area through agriculture, churches, lakes, medicine, Native Americans, technology, and transportation. It also includes exhibits about everyday life, such as clothing, kitchen utensils, and entertainment.

While the city of Paynesville and the Lions Club have always been great supporters of the historical society, the museum probably owes the most gratitude to the people who have shared their stories and items. "If the people hadn't brought in all their artifacts to tell about their past history we couldn't even have started," said Zniewski.

Now the museum consists of two buildings, so full of artifacts and so short of storage space that they need to be choosy about what new artifacts they can accept.

The museum also includes the Brown Schoolhouse, built in 1892, which has been moved twice to stand on the museum grounds. (It was moved first from Rice Lake to the old museum and then moved again to the new museum site.) It is meant to be an example of the one-room schoolhouses that once were so common in the Paynesville area.

This spring, said Zniewski, the museum is going to move the log cabin in the Pioneer Park (on the west end of Paynesville between the school and the driving range) to the museum site, too.

Zniewski has never been bashful in her advocacy for the museum. Recently, she said, people have called her about moving a rural church to the museum site, something which she had not intended to do, but immediately began to say would be a wonderful idea. Having an old church would add a great element to the museum and would preserve the church for future generations.

It is this can-do attitude that Zniewski brought to her job as museum curator, and she takes credit for not only establishing the Paynesville Area Historical Museum, but the county museum as well.

In 1971, just a year after starting the Paynesville Area Historical Society, Zniewski visited the county museum, which she described as nothing but a warehouse in a church basement in St. Cloud. So, she approached the county board about moving the county museum to Paynesville, since the only functioning museum was here. "Everything doesn't have to be in St. Cloud," Zniewski told the county board.

Her interest prompted the building of a new museum in St. Cloud.

Sometimes to get things done you have to be proactive, according to Zniewski. "You have to be brave. Someone has to. I guess I'm the brave one," she said.

Zniewski, who plans to continue as curator until next spring in order to allow the historical society board to advertise and hire a new curator, still plans to be involved in the museum. "You couldn't keep me away. It's an interest I've had. You just don't stop," she said.

Contact the author at   •   Return to News Menu

Home | Marketplace | Community