Eight historical societies now preserve the legacy of just one lake, but this could soon change now that six of these organizations tasked with archiving Lake Minnetonka’s history embarked last summer on an exploratory process into more formal collaboration—anything from “realignment” to full consolidation.

The Westonka, Wayzata, Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka, Deephaven and Minnetonka historical societies, as well as the Museum of Lake Minnetonka (aka the steamboat Minnehaha) are part of the reorganization study, which is funded in large part by a $52,000 Heritage Preservation grant secured last June.

Arts Consulting Group is leading the project alongside representatives from each of the historical societies involved. Long Lake’s West Hennepin Pioneer Association and Excelsior’s Minnesota Streetcar Association are not involved in the project.

Overlap in collections, volunteers and donor pools means that the different organizations are often competing for the same resources, said Aaron Person, president of the Wayzata Historical Society who is also running lead on the project.

The archival processes, newsletters and other administrative functions can also be duplicative, he said, and lead to burnout among volunteers—and it’s nearly all volunteers, usually just a “core group” of them, running each organization.

But on a more cosmic scale, there is also the fear that only a fractured interpretation of Lake Minnetonka history exists, its pieces scattered from Wayzata to Westonka. 

“The history of any one of these communities is totally contingent on all of the other communities,” said Person. “History won’t stop at the municipal boundaries.”

VOLUNTEER FATIGUE

On the path to a more complete interpretation of Lake Minnetonka history is the more immediate question of sustainability.

“Preservation is building membership. You can’t pay your rent with a grant,” said Liz Vandam.

Vandam is a volunteer with the Westonka Historical Society (WHS) in Mound. Most Saturday mornings have her archiving the museum’s collections. She also writes its newsletters. And serves as its treasurer.

It’s a picture recreated all along the lake: a small group of people—whether volunteers, members or donors—who keep the network of historical societies going. In Deephaven, it’s just one person.

“We’re so overwhelmed with running the organizations that we don’t have time for the fun stuff,” said Vandam.

The fun stuff is the research: scavenging for new information, creating presentations and displays—the stuff that draws both volunteers and members to these organizations.

But the burnout from everything else is real, said Vandam, who said there’s a “fatigue” in fundraising. There’s a fatigue in the constant volunteer drives, in maintaining the membership rolls, in putting out newsletters, in just the bare administrative piece that comes with running any organization. “It’s a viability piece. We are worried about the future.” 

NOT THE FIRST ATTEMPT

The year was 1966. Great Northern had just sold the Depot in Mound for $1 and one year later, a group of locals banded together to save it from being razed. The amateur preservationists had the Depot moved during the early morning hours to its current location at Surfside Beach. Eventually, they allowed the title to revert to the city for lack of funds.

The Depot still stands, but that newly formed Lake Minnetonka Historical Association was eventually folded into the Westonka Historical Society. Other consolidations along the lake were attempted in the 1990s and again in 2004.

“There have been so many attempts, so this is not the first time that we’ve reached out to try to support each other,” said Vandam.

But this is the first time they have the backing of grant money and the know-how of a consultant. The current exploration is also one with more of a “bottom-up” approach than in past, added Person, who said there are more people involved both on the leadership end and in the input they hope to get from members.

There is a big concern within each of the organizations involved about a potential loss of identity, but Person said he doesn’t see that happening, no matter what the exploratory study recommends. Instead, he said he sees an increase in services offered and a cohesion among residents who may want to support their historical society but, at present, aren’t sure which one.

“We’re all trying to reinvent the wheel,” said Person, adding that there is a “feudalism” in the way Lake Minnetonka’s history is now being told that just doesn’t make sense.

There could also be opportunity to tell a more comprehensive history if organizations shared their collections with each other, he said. “This could be a gateway into our beefing up Native American history […] this could potentially be a first ‘step zero’ for that.”

“We’re constantly looking for history,” added Vandam. It’s usually down to the local historical societies to maintain records of family histories, and Vandam said it’s an intention of WHS to be able to file interviews, obituaries and photographs from all the old homesteads and from anyone who wants their legacy preserved—but it takes people to do that.

The historical societies sent out a survey this month to introduce some of their ideas to their members and get a feel for what their membership wants. For Vandam, she said she’s hoping the survey will get people to look outside of what they know and “be brave enough to see something different.”

“Let’s tell the story about the whole lake,” said Vandam. “That’s what we’re doing, we’re all preserving little pieces of it [and] we’ll keep doing that, preserving our part—but let’s collaborate.”

The organizations expect to have a more solid idea by mid-summer of what that collaboration will look like.

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