Antique sewing machines, kitchen displays, and fancy pump organs from days gone by are just a few of the items inside the small white building that is now home to the Plymouth Historical Society. But years ago, when these trinkets and appliances were still in use (and before the founders of the Historical Society were even born), the walls of old Town Hall were witness to the stories of Plymouth’s earliest days.
Throughout the 1800s, Plymouth was primarily a farming community with open fields, cleared in spots for paths of dirt. Any issues or controversies at the time often revolved around crops, animals or roads, and were sorted out within the homes of neighboring farms. The first official town meeting was held May 11, 1858, at the home of Fancis Day, but as the township grew, meetings moved to churches and schools to accommodate the growing population. Soon talk of increasing property taxes took precedent to help raise money for a permanent town hall building. In 1885 a small, square structure was built on Townhall Road in the center of the township, and at last, there was an official space to conduct business, settle disputes and gather together as a community.
Town Hall was a valuable building for many years, housing meetings and other events until the late 1960s. The raised platform still stands where the mayor and the council would sit, and an early authentic wood-burning stove that kept members warm on chilly Minnesota nights is situated right in the center of the room. Original wainscoting adorns the walls, the lower floor remains intact, and many of the windowpanes are original as well, with that slightly wavy look only hand-blown glass can possess. Although the building has updated plumbing, up until the ’60s there was nothing but an outhouse and a hand pump out back.
Niel Nielson, a retired city patrolman and co-founder (and former president) of the historical society president, remembers when the city moved town hall to other area buildings in the ’60s, and the old structure was used to store signs and cans of oil for the public works department. The building was quickly deteriorating, and Nielson, who spent a lot of time driving around the city in his patrol car, couldn’t just sit and watch it waste away. “I got so fascinated by the history of Plymouth,” he remembers, but was sad to see so many buildings disappearing. “I didn’t want to see town hall disappear, too … so I found people to help save Plymouth’s past,” he says. The first thing Nielson and a group of community volunteers tackled, was moving the building back from the road. When it was built in the 1800s, Townhall Road was not a major artery. But since then, it had become a busy, paved road. “The hall was only about 10 feet from the road,” Nielson recalls. It was also crucial to get the structure onto a permanent foundation, since the old fieldstone foundation had the building looking “pretty catawampus,” according to longtime volunteer Gary Schiebe. But in their quest to move the building, Nielson and the volunteers discovered how much history is sitting around waiting to be discovered. When they lifted up the building, “the stumps of the trees from when that spot was cleared over 100 years ago were still visible and hadn’t rotted. It was almost like they were petrified,” Nielson says. The men saved some of the old bottles and artifacts they found under the building and passed them off to the Historical Society.
In 1975, when the Plymouth Historical Society formed, the restored building of old Town Hall was handed over to the society, now the official keeper of Plymouth’s history. “The goal was to have a place to display Plymouth history and artifacts … for the ongoing history of Plymouth,” says Schiebe. Today the society is fixing up some of the exhibits in its museum, including a one-room schoolhouse display, complete with teacher and student mannequins. And the sign out front continues to pay homage to the building’s roots as the old Town Hall.
The Historical Society Museum is open to the public the third Sunday of the month from 1 to 3 p.m. spring through fall (so hurry; October 21 is the last opportunity for 2012); 3605 Fernbrook Ln.