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Preserving history

Generous gift helps Rolette County Historical Society

Submitted Photo Museum displays are shown at the Rolette County Historical Society museum in St. John.

ST. JOHN — The Rolette County Historical Society has benefited from a generous $150,000 bequest from the estate of the late Georgianna Herman, a descendant of the Martineau family of St. John.

“We had submitted to her a whole list of planned needs and that was where that bequest came from,” said Becky Leonard, president of the historical society.

Leonard had said in a Facebook post that she first met “Georgie” when she was working on a nomination to place the Martineau House on the National Register of Historic Places. Herman had spent time in the St. John area as a child.

Leonard said “Georgie” was a “very, very interesting lady.”

Unfortunately, her bequest came sooner than expected.

“We lost her to COVID,” said Leonard.

Herman, a retired University of Minnesota librarian who had a library at the university named in her honor when she retired in 2001, passed away of complications of COVID-19 in 2020.

The Rolette County Historical Society has put her bequest to use recently in memory of both Herman and her grandparents, the Martineaus, who were a prominent pioneer settler family in St. John and ran the general store and a resort hotel in town and started the state’s first telephone company.

The bequest has been used to put roofs on seven buildings at the museum in St. John and for ongoing renovation at the Martineau House Turtle Mountain Scenic Byway Visitor Center, which was open this past summer with local crafts and gifts for sale.

Leonard said a lot of renovation work has been done on the school house at the museum and the gas station and toy shop display building.

“The cook car got a total restoration,” said Leonard. “That was one that was totally missing a roof. I was amazed that we could restore it and that there was anything left to restore.”

The museum also includes log buildings and the main museum building in addition to the Martineau House, the Cook Car, School House, Toy Shop and Gas Station.

Leonard said the historical society wants to reflect the history of Rolette County and its history before it was a county, including the history of early settlers and members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa with their unique Metis heritage that is mixture of tribal and French-Canadian history.

The historical society has the collection of the late Francis and Rose Cree of Dunseith, who were famous in the area for their willow baskets and beadwork and other art and who operated a shop in Dunseith in the 1960s.

Leonard said the historical society also was greatly appreciative when Dan Jerome, a retired educator who has taught about tribal history and culture in the area, gifted the historical society a hand-crafted flute. She said Jerome is still active at 93.

Other funds, including donations, grants and mill levy funding is being used for ongoing preservation efforts at the Gurr Building in Rolette, which is of historical significance to the county as the only surviving building from McCumber, a nearby ghost town.

Leonard said the Gurr building was relocated to Rolette in 1905 and since then was used as a grocery store, then a funeral home, a youth center and the Masons’ Lodge.

Work on the Gurr Building will continue in the spring. Leonard said it might eventually have museum displays and function as a visitors’ center.

None of this could be accomplished without the help of super volunteers such as Suzanne Turner Weston and Marilyn Weston, who cleaned, painted and placed a display of the history of the San Haven building in the Kuhl-Hutchinson School House on the grounds of the museum in St. John, and Kent Weston. Contractor Randy Charette worked on the roofs at the museum. Tom Rutledge was the restoration contractor, Russell Hoover was the handyman, Sande Electric did electrical work, Tuomala Plumbing did plumbing work, materials came from Munro Ace Hardware, and restoration items came from the This N’ That Thrift Store.

Other current officers of the historical society are Benny Jeannotte, the vice president, and Larry Leonard Jr., the secretary/treasurer. Tucker Bercier is administrator of the historical society’s Facebook page. The group also is affiliated with the Rolla Arts Council.

They are grateful for the bequests and volunteer assistance but could always use more. Leonard said one of the challenges of operating a historical society in a small county is that volunteers age or move away, so some of the work is done in fits and starts. One of the historical society’s goals is to ensure that buildings are well-maintained and safe so that future volunteers will be able to work on future displays.

They are working on future projects, such as expanding a fence around new property in St. John, and have a pending grant for handicapped accessibility in the main museum building. Future roof repairs and painting projects also will continue.

There will always be more work to do to keep history alive in Rolette County.

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