Longtime Winona County Historical Society Executive Director Mark Peterson will retire on Friday.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Mark Peterson put on a good face, but behind the scenes, he was frantic. In 1990, as part of its annual Victorian Fair, the Winona County Historical Society (WCHS) sold thousands of tickets for people to ride the WCHS’ Victorian Express. Billed as the first steam-powered passenger train to run from St. Paul to Winona in 50 years, train lovers paid as much as $240 for a seat on the Express. Then everything fell apart.
The WCHS had hired a company to bring the steam-powered star of the show to Winona, Peterson explained. Then, just two days before the event, it broke down en route somewhere in Illinois. The company fixed it, but the next day, one day before the Express’ maiden trip, the locomotive broke down again. The railroad said enough was enough. It couldn’t afford busted steam engines clogging its tracks. Winona’s steam engine was done, and the WCHS’s grand plans were in ruins.
With less than 24 hours to go, Peterson said he and the WCHS managed to line up a diesel engine to replace the steamer and he flew an Amtrak-certified engineer overnight to Winona to operate it. The Victorian Express was saved, though without its marquee steam engine. Peterson said the engineer told the only unhappy customer what he could do with his complaints, and against all odds, the Victorian Express turned out well — so well WCHS leaders decided to do it again.
The next year, the Victorian Express was scheduled to make short runs from Winona to Lewiston and back. This time, major flooding near Stockton had recently wiped out entire portions of the tracks and the railroad imposed strict speed limits on the newly repaired sections. The speed limits were so strict that the Victorian Express could not gather enough momentum to climb the hills west of Stockton. It had to back down and retreat to Winona. This time, Peterson was beset with customers demanding refunds, he recalled. Peterson said the historical society could not afford the refunds, and he had to try to mollify angry customers with free T-shirts and gift shop items. In the end, Winonans still celebrated the Victorian Express as an impressive feat, but Peterson said of the experience, “It was gut wrenching at times.”
Soon, Peterson won’t have to solve last-minute problems or answer museum alarms in the middle of the night. After 36 years of leading the historical society, Peterson will retire this week. Asked why he dedicated his career to history, Peterson responded, “[History] gives me a sense of knowing why we are doing what we’re doing now and how we got to this point. I think you need to understand your history to understand your present.”
For years in the 1940s, the WCHS fell dormant and virtually ceased to exist. Dr. Lewis Younger and a group of history buffs worked hard to raise money and revive the organization, rebuilding it to earn statewide recognition. Younger volunteered his time as director for decades, but after he retired, there was a difficult transition and some turnover in directors, Peterson reported, adding that before the WCHS hired him in 1983, the WCHS was without a director for six months.
“When he came, it was a huge step forward,” former WCHS Board member Fran Edstrom said of Peterson’s hiring. “He was young and had a lot of energy. [The history center] was really a low-key kind of place up till then, and he was the one who started doing big events … He’s really taken it from just a hometown kind of place to a statewide example of what a historical society can be.”
“I think he’s visionary,” former WCHS Board member Peter Flick said of Peterson. “But the thing about him is, he’s able to take that vision and make it happen. Not everybody can do that.”
Before Peterson, the WCHS was not anywhere near what it is today, longtime board member Jonelle Moore said. “When Mark took over, he turned it into a real viable organization, which requires being able to reach out and organize volunteers and get donations,” she stated. Peterson was ambitious about launching new programs and his likable personality made people want to say yes to helping out, Moore stated, herself included. When Peterson asked her to serve on the WCHS Board 20 years ago, Moore said he described it as a minimal commitment. “Silly me,” she said. Instead, Moore wound up helping to organize the WCHS’ first Cemetery Walk and every annual Cemetery Walk after that. Her favorite Cemetery Walk retold stories of “scoundrels, scandal, and skulduggery” from Winona’s past. Event organizers had to cut a bit about Winona’s red light district whenever buses full of school children showed up, Moore recalled.
Long before his election as mayor in 2012, Peterson and the WCHS played an important role in Winona politics, championing historic preservation. Peterson unsuccessfully tried to resist the city’s demolition of the Winona Opera House, successfully lobbied Winona County to save the historic courthouse building, and was a key player in the creation of the city’s historic preservation ordinance that protects historic buildings today. “The historical preservation that the city is responsible for comes through Mark and his efforts,” former Winona City Manager and current WCHS Board Chair Judy Bodway said. “He was always there supporting history and how important it was to everybody,” she added.
In the 2000s, Peterson presided over the Winona County History Center’s (WCHC) big expansion project that added a spacious addition onto the historic armory building. The Laird Norton Company donated $1.5 million to what was supposed to be a $3-million project, and the WCHS raised the other $1.5 million in less than a year, Peterson said. Then, the organization found out the project would take another $1.5 million. Just as the WCHS was preparing to launch that fundraising campaign, the financial crisis of 2008 struck and the economy started crashing. “We thought, ‘Well, the market will correct itself in a couple weeks,’” Peterson recalled. They were very wrong about that, but Peterson, Laurie Lucas, Pete Woodworth, and many more volunteers managed to raise another $1.5 million during the worst recession in modern U.S. history. “People were very generous, and we had over 11,000 gifts to this project, which is pretty phenomenal,” Peterson said. The expansion opened in 2010 and won awards for its architecture, which blended a modern design into historic surroundings.
Born and raised in Mankato, Minn., Peterson said, “I think there’s an extra gene that’s a history gene, and I got it. I’ve been fascinated with history since I was a little kid … I collected everything. My bedroom was a museum.” After college, Peterson’s wife, Kathie, got a job at a hospital in Fergus Falls, Minn., and Peterson took a job at what he described as a “sweat shop” cutting out fabric for polyester suits. Then one day, Kathie brought home a book titled “Careers in Museums.” “It changed my life,” Peterson said.
Most of those careers required a graduate degree, so Peterson shipped off to Portland State University and got a job right out of grad school at a small historical society outside Portland, Ore. Eventually, he and Kathie decided they wanted to move back to the Midwest. The WCHS was hiring, and the Petersons moved their two-year-old child to Winona in February just in time for a 30-inch snowfall, Peterson said.
Peterson has been the face of the WCHS ever since, and he has not been above acting a little silly. At one annual meeting, Peterson dressed up in a fuzzy boa and danced in a troupe dubbed “MP and the History Hotties.” Another year, he covered himself in green and attached little antennae to his forehead as part of an alien costume. He walked around the meeting quipping, “Our volunteers are out of this world.” Peterson explained, “We try to have fun with our volunteers … It’s the one time a year I humiliate myself to help the society.”
“I have mixed feelings,” Peterson said of retiring. “Even today, I couldn’t wait to get to work. I love my job, and I love the people here. So why would you retire when you like what you’re doing so much?” However, there are less-fun aspects of the job, as well. Peterson’s mayoral role consumes plenty of time, he has granddaughters and a wife with whom to spend time, and Peterson’s son just got an airline job that comes with free plane tickets for Mom and Dad. “I’m not worried about not being busy in retirement,” he stated.
Although he officially retires on Friday, Peterson said he will stay on part-time until Genia Hesser, the the WCHS’ new executive director and recently the curator of exhibits for the Historical Society of North Dakota, takes over on June 3.
The WCHS will hold a retirement party for Peterson on Saturday, May 18, from 3-5 p.m. at the history center, 160 Johnson Street in Winona.