The people of St. Louis County have always had an abiding interest in the history of their region. For more than a century, county residents have banded together to study the rich past of Minnesota’s largest county. Today, the residents of St. Louis County accomplish the worthy goal of understanding the local past through the St. Louis County Historical Society, a county-funded, member-supported nonprofit corporation. It collects, presents, and preserves knowledge of the history and prehistory of both the county and region. The Society operates a museum and materially participates in the operations of the research archives facility, as well as providing operational support to six operating affiliates.
Although not formed officially until 1922, the Society has its origins in earlier groups, beginning with the Old Settlers Association of the Head of Lake Superior, formed in 1884. In 1897, the Historical and Scientific Association of Duluth, Inc. formed with an emphasis on the natural history (through zoology, botany, anthropology, geology and mineralogy) of the region. They were soon incorporated into the earlier Old Settlers Association.
The Society’s primary predecessor, however, was the Minnesota War Records Commission, authorized in 1918 by the Minnesota Commission on Public Safety “to insure a proper historical compilation of activities and units” of the Great War.
William E. Culkin was elected as the Society’s first president in 1922, after the Minnesota General Assembly authorized support of a county historical society with an appropriation of up to $2,500 a year. Culkin presided over the affairs of the Society for fifteen years, as both elected president and paid staff director. The St. Louis County Commission made an office available for the Society in the County Courthouse at Room 410.
In 1943, during World War II, the Society moved its offices to two rooms in Tweed Hall (the former J. B. Cotton residence on East First Street) on the campus of the Duluth State Teachers College, where it stayed until 1947, when a boom in membership necessitated a move to the former George and Marian Stone mansion, 2228 East Superior Street. The Society occupied the Stone mansion for the next thirty years.
By 1976, the Society, operating largely as an organization dependent upon volunteers, had collected historical papers for more than a half-century. Few were organized or catalogued; most were stored in window boxes, attics, and closets of the mansion. The Minnesota Historical Society strongly urged a partnership with them and the University of Minnesota Duluth to provide for the archival collections’ care and accessibility to researchers. In 1976, MHS and UMD did establish a regional research facility called the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center located within the UMD Library building. The Society joined the partnership the next year when it deposited its research collection at the Center.
Another major event for the Society occurred in 1976, when it sold its longtime home and moved into its current home in the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center, the renovated 1892 Union Depot, at 506 West Michigan Street.
In 1978, Larry Sommer became Director of the Society. Sommer and the Society’s board joined the Lake Superior Museum of Transportation and the Duluth Children’s Museum in 1982 to open Depot Square, a permanent exhibit of 1910 replica, half-size Duluth business storefronts on the train museum level of the Depot. In that year total paid attendance at the Depot rose to almost 137,000.
In 1982, due to a change in state law, allowing for receipt of state funding by more than one historical society in a county, marked the beginning of the current network of six affiliated Iron Range Societies: Hibbing Historical Society, Minnesota Museum of Mining, Virginia Area Historical Society, Tower-Soudan Historical Society, Ely-Winton Historical Society, and Sisu Heritage, Inc.
Current Executive Director JoAnne Coombe began her administration of the Society in 1992, after a three-year co-administration with Maryanne Norton in the interim after Larry Sommer departed to accept a post as head of the Montana State Historical Society in Helena. Coombe presided over several major developments during the 1990s: the opening of the Forest History Gallery, the Fesler Gallery, with its Herman Melheim Collection of intricately carved furniture, and the formation of an American Indian Advisory Committee.
For much of the late 1990s and early 21st century, the Society helped develop the World War II Living History Project and the Veterans’ Memorial Hall at the Center. The Veterans’ Memorial Hall website went online in 2001 to chronicle the lives of northeastern Minnesota veterans of conflicts from the Civil War to the Gulf War. Dignity Thru Unity, a Vietnam War exhibit, opened in April 2004 and was recognized for excellence in 2005. The Society opened its second major Veterans’ Memorial Hall exhibit, Generations of Service, in August of 2009. The exhibit is a comprehensive tribute to veterans of all conflicts in which northeastern Minnesotans participated.
William Culkin would undoubtedly be proud of what he set in motion in 1922.
We are proud to partner with the Historical Society on educating our guests about the Duluth Boat Club for generations to come. We thank them for all their efforts in working to preserve the history of this great region.