Wednesday, January 6, 2010

American Fences at the Zumbrota Area Historical Society

Near us, in a small town about an hour south of the Twin Cities named Zumbrota, there is a local historical society. I love that people are working to preserve their heritage. While larger organizations may have more resources--they also have larger responsibilities. Despite the Minnesota Historical Society's impressive record on statewide history and their archives, (I toured their archives once, very cool and state of the art) larger groups simply cannot preserve all the little nuances of small town life. There are just too many small towns and too many stories.

Many people assume smaller history centers lack quality because of their lack of resources. I worked in a county museum once--it had some very good work. However, that did not keep me from wondering how good a small town museum really could be. I admit it and I admit I was wrong. Very wrong. The Zumbrota Area Historical Society turned the old fire hall into a museum. It has gotten grants for their work and they recently lobbied to get the Smithsonian traveling exhibit on fences.

Years ago, I visited the Smithsonian in Washington with my then four year old daughter. It was massive, left me breathless and feeling like I had barely scratched the surface. (Because I had barely scratched it!) I questioned when I would ever get their again. I am lucky--the museum came to me. Well, not me personally but it came to my area. In their exhibit on fences, the museums are able to convey how important they are. From the earliest split rail colonial fences to the invention of barbed wire, fences have reflected the careless approach to natural resources that horrified 17th century Europeans who knew of the clear cutting of American forests to the mechanized manufacture of the barbs that made fencing easier and more economical.

The exhibit also discusses the history of free range laws--how people used to build fences to keep livestock OUT of areas, rather than confined IN areas. While some states still have free range laws, incoming residents are challenging those laws and sometimes creating conflict. The laws also reflected discriminatory attitudes of the time. African Americans and immigrants who had often had sheep were often required to fence in their livestock, while white males who owned cattle could allow their stock to roam free. The same needs, but different animals of different peoples were treated differently. It is a very thought provoking exhibit. I am impressed with both the quality and the value of it. Fences will be at the Zumbrota Area Historical Society until the end of January. It will then move onto the Minnesota towns of Fergus Falls and Roseau.

Zumbrota was fortunate--I understand that it was only one of five places in the state to be chosen for siting of the exhibit. I had wanted to bring my mother before she returned home. I discovered days before that it was only open on the weekends. I felt silly. On the door was listed two contacts to arrange an alternate time. Only in a small town could I contact a person and have them open the museum just for us. Though the museum was free, it was only right to make a donation. Thank you A for doing that for us!! There are many traveling exhibits, people may visit the website for American sites to find a local one. I caution Minnesotans: the map link for the state seemed to be dead today, however, clicking on the word name will work. Exhibits also travel the globe; people interested in that may visit the traveling exhibits home page. This is something that I would definitely do again!!!

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