Past preserved

Published 10:00 am Monday, March 5, 2012

Dustin Heckman, executive director of the Mower County Historical Society, has been on a steady march to keep the MCHS moving forward with more projects geared toward documenting Mower County's history.- Eric Johnson/

Young historian brings new ideas

Mower County’s history lies in the hands of a 27-year-old man.

Though that may seem strange to some, the youth and ingenuity that man brings to the Mower County Historical Society is a benefit.

On any given day, Dustin Heckman, executive director of the Mower County Historical Society, can be found near his desk, behind a stack of papers and documents, or helping someone dig for his or her family history. While Heckman does plenty of looking back on history, he’s been doing even more looking forward.

 The old meets the new

Elise Fitzgerald combs through old Waltham Township records, showing some to Mower County Historical Society executive director Dustin Heckman Wednesday morning. Fitzgerald is the township records microfilming coordinator, getting documents ready for transferring to microfilm.- Eric Johnson/

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Heckman is constantly planning, adding events to the historical society’s calendar, setting meetings or compiling applications that may draw future funding. His most recent venture: using technology to advance the historical society’s status in the community.

“He has really impressed me with his level of professionalism, and he is really moving the whole organization,” said Laura Helle, executive director of the Hormel Historic Home.

Helle and Heckman have partnered on several history projects and presentations. Helle has noticed how a new blog and e-newsletter, which both came to fruition this year, have kept the historical society’s name out there for people to see.

“They’re being smart about what they are doing,” Helle said. … “Because I wouldn’t have known about the blog other than through Facebook.”

Though historical society has traditionally been a place for people to approach when they need something, it is now reaching out to the people.

“It’s just another way to connect with people,” Heckman said about technology.

The Mower County History Blog ( offers a way for history buffs to connect. If the folks at the historical society don’t have the answers, putting the question online, like one person recently did, could help.

“That’s one small thing, but it’s one small thing that impresses me, and I think it’s doing good for the organization,” Helle said.

Furthermore, the historical society received $7,000 from state funding, $1,000 from the Austin Area Foundation, $1,400 from the Hormel Foundation and $500 from Freeborn-Mower Operation Roundup to put all of its documents on microfilm, so visitors won’t have to dig through scattered documents. Heckman hopes to complete that project by June 1.

“Right now, it’s going a lot faster than expected,” he said.

Records from Waltham Township are stacked and organized Thursday as Elise Fitzgerald prepares them to be converted to microfilm. - Eric Johnson/

Keeping it interesting

Heckman has always been interested in history. While growing up, he knew all but one of his great-grandparents. He heard their stories, like one about his great-grandfather, who covered one eye while playing catcher during baseball games because he couldn’t focus on the pitches.

“When he talked about that stuff, it just really got me intrigued,” Heckman said.

Yet Heckman knows piles of artifacts at the historical society can only hold people’s interests for so long. That’s why in the four years he has been with the historical society, he has tried to install new exhibits and gather new artifacts. One of the most recent ventures is a ghost town exhibit, for which the historical society also received $7,000 in state Legacy funds. Heckman also hopes to complete that project by June 1.

And Heckman already found success with a program called Lunchbox History Series. Of the three presentations held in 2011, each progressively drew more interest. Helle partnered with Heckman to do a presentation on Cy Thomson, who embezzled more than $1 million from Hormel in the early 1900s.

“The Cy Thomson program was great,” Helle said. “I was expecting a crowd, and to me that would be like 30 to 35 people. I think we had over 100 people that came. I just think that is wonderful and awesome.”

Now another Lunchbox presentation is being planned for this summer and will feature the history of East Side Lake.

Big dreams

A major part of Heckman’s success can be attributed to Minnesota’s Legacy amendment funds, which voters passed in 2008. Those state dollars have gone toward the four projects the historical society is currently undertaking: the ghost town project, microfilm, an education curriculum and partnership with the Hormel Historic Home, and an interpretive plan for the future of the historical society’s buildings and artifacts. Furthermore, Legacy funding gave the Mower County Historical Society $43,000 in 2010 to complete a comprehensive inventory of all of its items, which is still an ongoing process. The historical society just received $10,000 in February, so it can develop an interpretive plan for all of its buildings and artifacts, as well.

Heckman said the Legacy funds, “a game changer,” are going a long way toward preserving the state’s history and doing it more efficiently.

“I think it’s going to make Minnesota history a lot more accessible than it has ever been,” he said.

Because the historical society operates from county funds, area sponsors and membership dues, the Legacy funds allow the historical society more opportunities. Heckman devises plans and applies for Legacy funding when he thinks of a new project.

“I give him a lot of credit for initiating that,” Helle said.

And if one of the historical society’s future visions is ever to materialize, it will likely rely on a lot of those funds. Heckman hopes the historical society will have a preservation building, which it can use to store some its larger artifacts, like the train cars and antique tractor equipment currently sitting underneath open sky. Heckman said that project may be years away, however. Still, the historical society has the increasing support of its members. The organization is nearing its 65th anniversary, and it has a short way to go to land its 650th member — a goal Heckman is shooting for by the end of the year. He hopes the current work he and his staff are doing will get some recognition and land those members.

“We’re trying to be that museum that meets the standards of our people, and it’s not cheap; it’s not easy,” Heckman said. “But as we’re trying to make it happen, if the community takes hold of it and notices that we’re trying to improve and trying to make things better, I think the support will come from that, and they’ll come to appreciate it more than they do now.”