An ideal fit for Watertown Historical Society

The first floor of the Hoffman Building, which once housed a harness shop, will soon provide a home for the Watertown Area Historical Society. (Submitted photo)

The first floor of the Hoffman Building, which once housed a harness shop, will soon provide a home for the Watertown Area Historical Society. (Submitted photo)

If you were to ask the average person on the street to play word association with the word “cobbler”, probably eight out of ten would say that “cobbler” is a sweet treat. If you were to ask the same question to a person in 1913, they would say that a cobbler makes shoes.   

Time changes everything. Some are for the good, and others are ones that we neither want nor expect.

In 1971, Russian immigrant Reinie Hoffman was interviewed by the Carver County News about the changes he had seen while working in his Watertown cobbler/harness shop. He moved to Watertown in 1929, where he purchased his harness shop from J.E. Grife. His 42 years of community life offered him a view of community and technological changes few of us will experience. His comments are as pertinent now as they were then, and leave us wondering if moving faster and being more mechanized is a good thing.

Asked, “Have things changed around Watertown?” He replied ’Indeed they have. I could write a book about the changes.”

He notes sadly an apparent change of attitude on the part of many people—from being real neighborly to “not hardly talking to your neighbor”.

And the fast pace of living is in stark contrast to the early years.

“The country side around Watertown hasn’t changed much, “Hoffman said, “except the number of farms has gone down. Farming used to be done mostly by hand work. Now, it’s all mechanized.”

Hoffman notes that years ago store clerks stood behind the counter and picked out the merchandise for a customer.

“Now the customer picks out what he wants,” Hoffman said.

The words of Hoffman could be written today. The number of farms continues to decrease and mechanization increases. Hoffman and his harness shop are now a thing of the past with few people even understanding the work that a harness maker or a cobbler does. Neighbors may not even know who they live next to, despite having lived next door for years. Some things cannot change, but there are some things that can, or that we can attempt to re-learn.  Enter Christine Jones.

Jones purchased the 1859 Hoffman Harness shop with the encouragement of the Watertown Area Historical Society. She is a Watertown area history buff. Her mother delved into genealogical history, and the family is friends with John and Mary Eklund, descendants of pioneer settlers, the Justus family.

When looking to purchase property in Watertown, Jones sought a property with historical significance. The Hoffman Harness shop, built in 1859, caught her attention with its historical background and income producing second-story apartment.

But what to do with the lower level?

A fortuitous conversation with the Watertown Area Historical Society (WAHS) occurred. The organization was homeless, with exhibits in the Carver County News windows, and storage in the local community center and members’ basements. Not ideal for a community organization.

Jones decided to offer the lower level of the Harness Shop as a home to the WAHS, merging her interest in history, “desire to own a quirky piece of Watertown history”, and giving her an apartment in town. According to Jones, “I also find a comforting sense of honoring my mother’s pursuits in paying tribute to the past.”

Substantial renovation will need to be completed before the restored building is opened to the public sometime in 2014. Plans for the commercial space downstairs, future home of the WAHS, include a historical gallery, gift shop, and meeting space. Ideally located on Lewis Avenue, in the heart of downtown Watertown, it is hoped this new space, according to Jones, “will become a welcome addition to the community.”

In homage to the history of Hoffman Harness, the store name will be preserved on one side of the main windows. During renovations, research into the history of the business and structure will be conducted, to be displayed in the new display area. Anyone who may have information of photos relating to the building’s past, please contact the WAHS through their website: http://www.watertownmnhistoricalsociety.org.

The one other thing Hoffman noted in his 1971 interview with the Carver County News was that neighbors don’t know neighbors. Sept. 7 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Arts Consortium of Carver County and the Carver County Historical Society will sponsor its 3rd annual Community Picnic at Rick Johnson Park and along Lewis Avenue, in Watertown. This event is being hosted by the Watertown Area Historical Society and the Watertown Area Fine Arts Council. This event is designed to be an old fashioned county wide community event.

Some things cannot change, but for a little while we can turn back the clock, slow things down and meet our neighbors.

 

– By Wendy Petersen-Biorn. Petersen-Biorn is the Executive Director of the Carver County Historical Society

 
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