Found in a pile of garbage, a priceless piece of Minnesota Capitol history
ST. PAUL — When Lloyd Jackson was dropping off some trash at Pig's Eye Landfill one day in the 1950s, he stumbled across an old photo album in a pile of garbage.
The sepia-toned images inside chronicled the construction of Minnesota's state Capitol between 1896 and 1905 — one of the most comprehensive visual records of the project in existence.
But Jackson, who died in 2007, had no way of knowing this. After showing the curious find to his family he tucked it away in his attic, where it remained buried for several decades.
Acquired in 2015 by the Minnesota Historical Society, the remarkable album's 275 photographs were digitized and uploaded to the Historical Society's website in December. In addition to offering Minnesotans a window into their past, the images also contain priceless information about how the Capitol was built.
"I've been here about 34 years," said Charles Rodgers, a government records archivist for the Historical Society. "And this is the highlight of my career."
Likely commissioned by the state board that oversaw the Capitol's construction, the photos were shot in batches at one-month intervals at the building site to document its progress, says Brian Pease, Capitol site manager for the Historical Society.
One copy of each image remained in St. Paul, while another was mailed to Capitol architect Cass Gilbert's office in New York City. While Gilbert's photos are still in the collection of the New York Historical Society, they are not available online.
But the album from the landfill is still a bit of a mystery, Pease said. For example, no one knows for sure who compiled it and why.
Pease's money is on Frank Hanson, the secretary of the Board of Minnesota State Capitol Commissioners, which oversaw the building's construction. Hanson was one of very few people with access to the photos, and Jackson discovered a postcard addressed to Hanson inside the album when he found it.
Furthermore, handwriting in the album is similar to that of Capitol Commission documents known to have been penned by Hanson, said Anjanette Schussler, another government records archivist for the Historical Society.
But if Hanson did assemble the album, why was it not kept with the rest of the Capitol Commission's records? And how did it end up in a trash heap for Jackson to find?
"That's all part of the mystery," Pease said.
When Jackson rediscovered the album shortly before the Capitol's centennial in 2005, he decided to sell it. He fielded several offers — including one from the Historical Society — before ultimately selling it to a private collector.
The album spent the next decade in private hands, before it was acquired by the Historical Society for an undisclosed amount (it was not purchased with public funds) in spring 2015.
Because the photos are believed to be official state records, the album landed in the State Archives, where Rodgers and Schussler took charge of it.
"The book was in very poor shape. The covers were falling off and there was some water damage," Rodgers said. "I didn't even want to touch it. The pages were crumbling."
Historical Society staffers spent dozens of hours removing each page from the deteriorating album and scanning both sides of them. The pages are now kept in a pair of custom-made archival boxes in a climate-controlled room.
Rodgers and Schussler hope making the scans accessible online will reduce the need to handle the photos when researchers wish to examine them, preventing them from deteriorating further.
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