Bringing History to Life
Don Westfall said it feels good, starting out as Dodge County Historical Society executive director at age 68.
“This sort of job does that to you,” he said. “Because when you start a new job like that, it rejuvenates your interest in the whole subject.” Westfall, born and raised in Pensacola, Fla., began work in early September. He has been a museum director or historic site manager for more than 30 years, in Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.
He served 12 with the Minnesota Historical Society at the Charles A. Lindbergh House in Little Falls.
He said he wanted to return to Minnesota, where family members live and he spent much of his adult life.
“So seeing this opportunity here was a great opportunity, as far as I was concerned,” Westfall said. “I like this part of the state. I like the location between Owatonna and Rochester. There’s a lot that this area has to offer in the way of amenities – also opportunities for growth with respect to the museum.”
“I’m very impressed with the location of the facilities – the buildings that we own, the historic structures as part of the Dodge County Historical Society,” he said. “That is remarkable, because some of the other places I’ve worked, we had a main museum building for the county, but not really any other structures, particularly of a historic nature, that would go along with that to tell the story. This provides an excellent chance for us to bring living history, if we can get around to doing that in an e ective way. I think some of that has already been done. But that is a popular way to interpret history to the general public.”
Westfall is responsible for public exhibits, programs and administrative duties, and manages the facility.
He is the only paid staffer, but has several volunteer assistants.
He said he hopes to get more help, possibly from subsidized workers through existing programs, to be able to set regular museum hours.
As it is, visitors must return later if staffers are out.
“We want to get established to where people can count on us being open at certain times,” Westfall said. “Then it would be possible to call for an appointment to come through, if want to do some research there or if you want to see something that we have in collections.”
“We haven’t had a director for quite a number of years. It’s been run by volunteers,” Society volunteer and board member Warren Schwenke said. “We’re looking forward to him being on board to give us professional direction. We’re pretty impressed with him. I think what we’re expecting is someone who can sell the Society and help bring in some money.”
Westfall said he also hopes to see revenue increases in donations, grants, admission, sales and attendance, and revamp exhibits on a regular basis in order to get more people involved - who could possibly become volunteers.
Fundraising is critical, he said, and it’s hoped someone can eventually spearhead that effort.
“I’ve seen it work in other places,” he said, “some of the initiatives that we can undertake here.”
The museum’s World War I exhibit, featuring machine guns, uniforms and gear worn by soldiers from Dodge County, will probably run through the end of the year.
There is also a second exhibit, “The Home Front,” featuring posters and items showing how the war affected people back in America.
The World War I exhibit’s grand opening drew large crowds during the annual Stagecoach Days celebration in June in Mantorville.
“That was a great initiative on the part of the museum, to take advantage of this World War I centennial, observing it in the moment, Westfall said. “And the volunteers who’ve worked on that have done an outstanding job.
“People were from Dodge County. And a lot of the research work that has been done by the volunteers over there has centered on that. Which I think is great,” he said. “It really adds a human side to the story, and a local side to the story.”
Westfall said he also hopes to offer more school activities, “as the school districts are an important part of the constituency for a local museum like this.”
And he is seeking more public interest and involvement in order to bring in more visitors wishing to see exhibits and programs, “because the place has a rich history, a rich heritage, going back at least as far as the European settlement.”