Connecting people through the power of history and culture

In a 1976 article, the St. Cloud Times described the Stearns County Historical Society (SCHS) as a “family that is trying to function without a home.” Since the society’s organization in 1936, there were desires and discussions to build a museum to safely house and display the society’s artifacts and archives. However, it would take almost 50 years to see that dream come to fruition.

SCHS was formally organized in March 1936. The society quickly began collecting artifacts and conducting biographical interviews of early Stearns County residents using Works Projects Administration (WPA) funds. At a board meeting in October 1936, it was decided that contact would be made with the WPA and city and county officials to discuss the funding of building a museum. Unfortunately, these discussions never materialized a committed plan to construct a museum, but in 1939 the county allocated space for SCHS in the Stearns County Courthouse in St. Cloud. The museum room was on the ground floor with a display case on the second and storage on the third. Except for a hiatus from 1942-1945, the SCHS museum space remained in the courthouse for about twenty years.

In 1960, SCHS moved the museum into the basement of the Stearns County Library headquarters building – formerly the Unitarian Church – at 4th Avenue and Highway 23 in St. Cloud. The building was owned by the city of St. Cloud and several community organizations would call it home over the years. Although the museum remained open and was maintained by a curator, the society itself was almost totally defunct. By 1966, 30 years after the society’s founding, SCHS had been inactive as an organization for over a decade. According to a St. Cloud Times article, the Minnesota Historical Society “threatened to take over the collection if the society is not revived,” which is its right by state statute. That same year, SCHS reorganized.

However, this new reorganization was short lived, and by 1974 SCHS was again inactive and concerns over Minnesota Historical Society’s intervention loomed once again. At an April meeting of city and county officials that year, the city of St. Cloud asked the Stearns County commissioners to find a new home for the museum and its artifacts as the community building at 4th avenue was considered hazardous and a danger to the artifacts housed inside. Spurred by these concerns, SCHS members Edward Zapp Jr. and Patricia Morreim spearheaded the second reorganization of SCHS in less than a decade. The society reorganized in June 1974 and in October that year, Zapp was elected president of SCHS.

Zapp’s priority was constructing a museum in which to permanently and securely house the society’s artifacts and archives. He envisioned a combined arts and heritage center, where citizens of Stearns County could enjoy and engage with all aspects of local history and culture. Ruth Knevel was hired as the society’s first Executive Director and later David Ebnet came on board as a fundraiser and grant writer to assist in the building project. By the end of 1978, SCHS acquired a total of 6 acres for the building project – 3.5 donated by the Hugo Weyrens family and 2.5 provided by the city of St. Cloud – located between 33rd Avenue and Highway 52 in St. Cloud.

1981 kicked off a year of fundraising of private donations with a goal of $1 million. Cy Kuefler, a local realtor, was hired to lead the campaign. On February 26, 25,000 solicitation letters were mailed out to residents of Stearns County asking for contributions to the building projects. Notable donations include $50,000 from Zapp National Bank, $50,000 from Cold Spring Granite, $30,000 from the Gannett Foundation, and $125,000 from the Whitney family. In 1982, Gohman Construction was awarded the building contract and ground was broken June 30 of that year. By the end of 1982, the goal of $1 million in private donations was reached with a $10,000 donation from the Burlington Northern Foundation.

The dedication and grand opening of the museum was June 30, 1984 – exactly two years after groundbreaking. Stearns County native and U.S. Senator David Durenberger spoke at the ceremony. That same year, SCHS received the Regional Development Award for the development and construction of the museum. In 1985, SCHS received a citation from the National Association of State and Local Historical Societies. In this citation, the leadership of Ed Zapp Jr. was recognized and praised.

40 years later and the legacy of Edward Zapp Jr., Ruth Knevel, David Ebnet, and so many others lives on. Stearns History Museum expresses its deepest gratitude for all those who contributed to the planning, development, and construction of the museum which still houses the county’s artifacts and archives. We are also grateful for the continued support of the residents of Stearns County, the Stearns County commissioners, and all of our partners who help support our mission to engage with and preserve the history of Stearns County.