Have you ever stood on Main Street in downtown Hutchinson and wondered what this busy thoroughfare must have looked like 100 years ago?
You won’t have to wonder anymore. The past and present come together in the new exhibit, “Then and Now.” It features 18 historic photographs of the nine towns in McLeod County juxtaposed with their colorful, modern-day counterparts. Accompanying the display is a spiral-bound booklet detailing each town’s history. The show is on display through Friday, July 19, at the Hutchinson Center for the Arts. A public reception is 5-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 17.
The idea for the exhibit is credited to Bayley Schluter, former director of the McLeod County Historic Partnership.
“This project idea was inspired by a need for photographic and written documentation that details the more recent history of our communities,” she said in an earlier Leader interview. “A partnership with a Hutchinson Center for the Arts and McLeod County Historical Society was the best way to achieve this goal, and both directors were enthusiastic about the endeavor.”
Schluter was awarded a grant to pursue the project. To do so, a search was launched this past summer to hire a photographer and researcher.
Brian Leehan, a St. Paul-based freelance journalist and the author of the Minnesota Book Award-winning title “Pale Horse at Plum Run: The First Minnesota at Gettysburg,” and “Roaring Bull: The 34th Infantry Division in the Global War on Terror,” said he learned about the project through a posting at the Minnesota Historical Society.
“I was freelancing and I keep my ear to the rail in terms of what’s going on,” he said. “It sounded intriguing so I nosed around a little bit.”
His nosing around brought him to the 2018 McLeod County Fair in Hutchinson. He had to wait a bit to talk with Schluter because she was doing a stint in the dunk tank.
“It was the first time I had a line in the water for a job,” he quipped.
Photographer Erika Ritzel heard about the project from a friend. Ritzel lives in Minneapolis, and the majority of her work focuses on space, family, memory, nostalgia and loss. She has published two limited-edition books of her photography: “Changing Hands” and “It’s Hard to Find Home Again.” She also serves on the photography faculty at Century College and Inver Grove Hills Community College.
She and Leehan each applied for the positions and were hired. It was the first time either one of them had taken on a then-and-now history assignment such as this.
By September, the project was firmed up and the two met with Schluter in October. From there, the two artists met over coffee to talk about the project. After that, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
In an interesting twist, Schluter left the project last fall when she was named interim director of the Meeker County Historical Society in Litchfield.
“After Bayley left, I assumed responsibility for the grant portion of the project, the financials and the reporting as the project was funded by a Legacy grant,” said Brian Haines, executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society. “Most of the work, however, and most of the praise should go to Lisa (Bergh), director for Hutchinson Center for the Arts, as well as Erika Ritzel and Brian Leehan. They’ve managed the project and have taken most of the steps in organizing the exhibit.
“Personally, I feel that it’s not often we get a chance to see both past and present simultaneously, but when we do, it allows us to think deeply about how time has changed the world in which we live. This project is a great way to illustrate those changes.”
Choosing photos, writing stories
“Brian and I selected the photos (at the McLeod County Historical Society),” Ritzel said. “We asked ourselves, ‘Can you tell a story about this?’ We were looking for action photos rather than stark.”
A photo that spoke to Leehan was taken of a manure spreader in Plato.
“It was an important implement of farming and speaks to an agricultural community,” he said.
Once the 18 original photographs were selected, Ritzel and Leehan worked independently.
Ritzel used early street scene photographs from the collection at the McLeod County Historical Society to create original, present-day location images of these historic scenes.
For her, the challenge came in finding the exact modern-day equivalent of the original photo.
“I’d hold the old picture up as I walked through a lot of intersections,” she said. “Stewart has two downtowns, so it required more detective work to find the buildings. Not all the places were there. In Lester Prairie, everything was gone.”
Ritzel was pregnant when she took on the project, so her goal was to have all the photos taken before the birth of her child at Christmas. Once the photos were taken, it was a matter of selecting the 18 images and retouching them.
Leehan’s essays that accompany the exhibit document the major events or changes that occurred at these locations between the dates of the original photographs and the new, present-day shots.
“I wrote about the history between the pictures,” he said. “What was going on in the towns and buildings. I worked in fits and starts with bits and pieces. I got together with all the town councils. I did face-to-face, email and phone interviews. I wrote a thumbnail of each town’s history. All the town histories were done first. Then I wrote about Martin McLeod. I was writing from the end of October right through into June.”
The writer was surprised by the notion that “everybody got their bank robbed” back then.
“The Brownton Bank robbery (which Brian Haines wrote about earlier this year) was really interesting,” he said.
He was also shocked to learn how much action there was in the Hutchinson area during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Leehan mentioned Fort Skedaddle in Glencoe. He was intrigued by the name. It was one of 62 forts built in Minnesota between August 1862 and the fall of 1864.
Another point Leehan pondered was the brutality of history in terms of how the locals treated the death and body of Chief Little Crow.
“They didn’t let it go,” he said.