Dunn County Historical Society director Frank Smoot has moved a few miles down the road.
Smoot, who came from Oregon in 2016 to lead Dunn County’s museum, had been consulting with the Chippewa County Historical Society (CCHS) as they plan a new museum at the Bridgewater Avenue entrance to Irvine Park in Chippewa Falls. As that effort has gained steam, CCHS saw the need for a person dedicated to managing the current museum’s transition, and Smoot turned his attentions to CCHS as a museum developer on August 1.
“The people in Chippewa knew that I had led a multi-year project building a brand-new museum from the ground up out in Oregon,” Smoot explained. “And having a good transition is so important to them that they’ve committed society money – not money from the capital campaign – to making sure the Allen Street collection is organized and ready to reboot in its new location. And that exhibits are ready to go as soon as possible once the new building is complete.”
“Being in Menomonie has been an absolute joy for me,” said Smoot. “And we’ve gotten a tremendous amount done: we’ve opened a new wing, revamped more than half the exhibits, created a new education program, and developed a great relationship with the Downsville Community Museum.”
DCHS board president Dustyn Dubuque said, “Among other things over the past three years, Frank, staff and volunteers worked tirelessly to open Fulton’s Workshop to the public. It has transformed and evolved into a hands-on learning experience, fun for the entire family. This was a huge milestone in regards to growth of the Rassbach Museum.”
This doesn’t mean there will be a leadership gap in Menomonie, however. DCHS assistant director Melissa Kneeland agreed to take the DCHS director’s chair.
“For the society’s next phase,” Smoot said, “and I’m not being modest – Melissa will be a better leader than I would be. Next the historical society needs to concentrate on its education program, its public programming — and its community partnerships. And those are things Melissa will be exceptional at.”
“I’m really looking forward to growing the relationships with many of the fantastic community organizations that we have here in Dunn County,” said Kneeland. “We are truly stronger together.”
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Kneeland, who has a graduate degree in education, has been at DCHS since January of 2017. Before that most recently she served as director of education and programming at Menomonie’s Wilson Place Mansion. She came to Menomonie from St. Paul, where she was a lead interpreter at the Minnesota Historical Society. Kneeland currently serves on the board of the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts.
Said Dubuque, “Since she’s been here, Melissa has become invested, professionally and personally, in this great museum. Over time, she has worked with Frank to understand the inner workings of what it takes to run a non-profit of this magnitude. Her transition into the Executive Director role was a positive move for the Board of Directors to make. Not only will Melissa continue the amazing work Frank has done, but will bring her own knowledge, too.”
While Smoot came to Menomonie most recently from Oregon, he has deep Chippewa Valley museum roots. He worked at the Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau Claire for 14 years, from 1999 until he went west to lead the charge of opening the $5.3 million Coos History Museum in Coos Bay, which is on Oregon’s South Coast.
The planned Chippewa Falls museum doesn’t have a set time-frame for opening but rather a set of fundraising goals. “That’s quite smart,” said Smoot. “It’s best to build when you have the commitments in hand from the community. And I’m quite, quite impressed with the community in Chippewa. They’ve really stepped up and given from the heart.”
As for the Rassbach Museum in Menomonie, there will be new challenges, but, Smoot said, “The DCHS board has been very game in supporting all of us staff as we met some darned big challenges over the past three years.”
Dubuque said the board will be standing just as firmly behind Melissa. “As President of DCHS, it is my duty to ensure the Board of Directors supports Melissa’s work, education and commitment. The Board of Directors is not an authoritative group — we are team members in a machine, a machine set to guide and support the Executive Director to the fullest extent. I’m looking forward to what we can do next.”
Kneeland concurs. “I know that with this fantastic staff and board we can plan for and develop our ability to grow and thrive long into the future. This is everyone’s museum. The stories, big and small, of those who have lived here for generations and those who have arrived more recently all have a place here.”