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Holding on to history: Afton Historical Museum in the running for federal grant

Newspaper clippings from various publications on Selma's Ice Cream Parlour. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)1 / 5
Linda Quammen points out the Afton Historical Museum's Charles Schulz display on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)2 / 5
Mary Ellen Sax spent Friday afternoon working on the "Selma file," which includes newspaper clippings and other documents related to Selma's. The items will go in a protective sleeve, cataloged and stored for easy retrieval. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad3 / 5
Linda Quammen, left, and Mary Ellen Sax rehouse and organize paper items at the Afton Historical Museum on Feb. 10, 2017. The Minnesota Historical Society recently gifted the Afton museum with a grant to help it help preserve and organize historical documents. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)4 / 5
A book on the history of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley from 1881 at the Afton Historical Museum. The Museum recently received a state grant and is now vying for a large federal grant that would help the museum better protect sensitive items like this. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)5 / 5

On a Friday afternoon, Mary Ellen Sax and Linda Quammen spent hours pouring over old photos, newspaper clippings and other paper documents scattered about tables at the Afton Historical Museum.

"This is the Selma's file," Sax said as she slipped the pieces of cut out newspapers into protective sleeves and later into a box with other documents related to Selma's Ice Cream Parlour.

So far, Sax and Quammen have organized about 200 files, with Selam's being No. 188.

"And we're not done yet," Sax said, adding that she estimates there's still about 150 files left to work on. "I think it might be larger than that."

The work they're doing is paid through a 2016 grant for $35,000 from the Minnesota Historical Society, which is helping the museum organize and better preserve documents that will have greater historical interest as time moves forward.

In 2017, the museum is hoping to get a larger boost after applying for a $165,000 federal grant through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), whose mission is to support various museums and libraries across the country.

"It's what breathes life into these small museums," said Stan Ross, the museum's president. "They support all this preservation work, and the best part is there are no matching funds."

By cataloging its inventory, the museum is able to keep a record of its possessions, so it can be easily retrieved and documented when, for example, someone is doing research on Afton or when the museum wants to dedicate its space to a certain exhibit.

The largest demand is people looking for information about their ancestors or about a certain property, Ross said. Until recently, some documents and photos weren't organized, making it difficult for museum staff to find them when people asked to see additional information.

If selected for the federal grant, the money would go toward renovating the museum's basement, where items not on display are kept. Plans include creating an environmentally controlled room, sealed storage, LED lighting and retractable shelving.

"Ultimately, we want to be able to have displays or exhibits that the public enjoys," Ross said. "We're going to sort of up our game, so to speak."

Ross said he also hopes to create a scanning station, so visitors can search for items on a computer and museum staff can quickly find and retrieve information.

"Everything is going to be state of the art," Ross said, adding that the preservation efforts will help sensitive materials last hundreds of years if they're properly stored.

Items such as books from the late 1800s on the history of St. Croix Valley and Washington County are among the items for which museum staff plan to build cases to better protect them.

The museum may also see more donations in the following years when Afton City Hall scans and digitally stores its documents, some of which span back from the city's founding.

"One of the things we have to do in the museum is look to the future — not always the past — and see what people might be interested in that's happening today," Ross said.

He points to ongoing projects, such as the ongoing sewer project and levy upgrades in the Old Village, as events that might have historical significance 50 years from now.

Afton will know sometime this fall if they're selected to receive the IMLS grant.