Preserving the past

Published 6:00 am Monday, March 22, 2010

For someone so young, Dustin Heckman sure does feel comfortable around artifacts that are so old.

The 25-year-old executive director of the Mower County Historical Society is, by all accounts, the youngest historical society director in the state. But despite his age, Heckman has quickly adapted to his role since taking over in late 2008, and he now has big goals for the MCHS.

“To me, it’s a unique perspective being this young and working toward all this,” Heckman said.

What Heckman is working toward is a varied list of goals, both big and small. He wants to attract more new members, particularly people his age or younger. But perhaps more ambitiously, he wants to eventually catalog every single artifact at the MCHS — a project that would include roughly 26,000 items when completed, the executive director said. This is in addition to $1 million to $2.5 million in repairs that Heckman sees as possible and needed at the site. Ultimately, his goal is to better show of the county’s history and get more people involved with it through the 16 different museums at the MCHS.

But of course, Heckman’s bigger goals require significant funding, which is something the MCHS simply doesn’t have. The executive director said the organization runs on a modest $86,000 yearly budget. And, including himself, there are just two staff members at the MCHS, neither of which technically works full-time.

The tight budget and slim staff means that Heckman must approach his goals slowly. Rather than tackling a project all at once, he may instead look to break it into smaller segments.

The constraints also significantly impact Heckman’s day-to-day work. Because he is working in an office of two, he often has to wear multiple hats. Perhaps most natural of these is museum curator, as Heckman went to Minnesota State University-Mankato for a history degree. And indeed, Heckman said he does truly enjoy leading tour groups across the MCHS, whether it be to the old-schoolhouse, the fire museum or several different buildings.

But Heckman has learned — and learned to love — other, less familiar parts of his job. Perhaps most acute is his role as de facto fundraiser for the historical society. Because of the MCHS’s limited budget — and because state budget cuts could very well impact places like the historical society — it is essential that Heckman constantly look for and work toward new grants. On a given day, grant writing often takes up the biggest chunk of his time.

Fundraising, however, is more than just securing grants. Heckman is also charged with increasing membership, which is often where his marketing hat goes on. He said the big push is to have more family-oriented events, which Heckman said could spur new, young members to join. Currently, the MCHS has just less than 500 members, he added.

But those are not the only roles Heckman is thrust into. Again, because of the small staff and tight budget, he often finds himself with a screwdriver in hand performing routine maintenance. He also deals with payroll and personnel issues, if all the other work isn’t enough.

“I’m kind of a jack of all trades, master of none really,” Heckman said jokingly.

The executive director, however, does still find time for new projects, including the “Through my Eyes” oral history initiative, which he just started. Through local grant funding, Heckman’s goal is to record the history of the county through interviews with residents who have lived it.

The project is just underway — longtime Lansing resident Beulah Luthe, who is nearing 90, was only the second interview for Heckman when she met with him March 3 — but Heckman is planning for many, many more sessions. He said the initiative will be “continuous;” the goal is to line up a new interview every week and keep adding to the database. The result, he said, will eventually be an expansive collection that will be searchable by future generations.

The interview with Luthe, conducted largely by retired Austin Daily Herald reporter Lee Bonorden and filmed by Heckman, was indicative of what future conversations will be like. Luthe told of her upbringing in the small town of Lansing, making note of the oil lamps she used to ignite before electricity came to the area. Luthe ultimately said she enjoyed her many years living in Lansing.

“Lansing is a clean town,” she said. “It’s a good place to raise a family.”

These are the kind of thoughts and memories Heckman is looking to document. During the interview with Luthe, he occasionally asked questions about a certain building or landmark that came up in a previous conversation. This process is likely to continue — tidbits from one interview will spur questions in the next, and by doing this, Heckman could weave quite the Mower County history.

This kind of work is clearly the man’s passion. It is evident when he talks about history, or simply when watching him around the office. Though swamped with work — which often has him tied up well past his allotted and paid 32 hours per week — Heckman still finds time for projects like Through my Eyes, and he said he wants to stick around the MCHS for a while to do more unique work like this.

“It is crazy, and there are days I want to run out the door screaming,” Heckman said. “But I do love it … I’m comfortable with where I’m at.”