James Eli Shiffer
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Charlie Rodgers’ business card carries his bone-dry title: “Government records specialist.” The reality is more like this: Exploring dank basements and forgotten storage areas; opening boxes crawling with spiders and coated with dust and animal droppings; rescuing Minnesota history, page by yellowing page.

“I’ve had face to face encounters with bats in courthouse attics,” he said. Under those circumstances, the records stay put. “You get rid of the bats,” he tells whoever is in charge, “then I’ll come back.”

Rodgers works in the State Archives at the Minnesota Historical Society. For nearly 36 years, he has traveled across the state to take custody of records with “historical value” and preserve them for the public at the State Archives, which is housed at the society’s headquarters in St. Paul.

On Thursday, he stood amid castoff furniture and piles of plaster in a boarded-up, foul-smelling schoolhouse in Hugo, poking around for neglected records of the rural township-turned-suburban boomtown in Washington County.

Rodgers hadn’t planned to visit that noisome spot. But his field trips often take him places that he doesn’t expect and present him with exotic problems that would intimidate an ordinary paper pusher.

Earlier in July, he fetched old volumes of Wright County township records that were covered with “green fuzz.” Mold, but probably not active, judging from the absence of odor. He knows the smell of living mold, after all these years.

Moldy records go straight into the quarantine room at the State Archives. “You don’t want to bring anything like that into the collections,” he said.

His journeys usually begin the same way. A clerk contacts the State Archives to say there’s no more room on the shelves, so some of the old stuff has to go.

That’s what brought Rodgers to Hugo last week. City Clerk Michele Lindau escorted him down into the basement at City Hall, where he found boxes of elegantly bound City Council proceedings, their pages rarely if ever opened. He transferred them and other records into smaller boxes to protect his back, and carried them up the stairs to his hand truck.

At 63, Rodgers works out to keep himself in shape, but he was still breathing hard after moving 40 years of records up and out of Hugo City Hall. He wasn’t done yet, though.

He looked through a cache of records that had been discovered in the attic of the former Hopkins school, a 1928 landmark that’s been vacant for years. They included a Cold War-era plan for Hugo to survive a nuclear war, complete with an old helmet marked with the Civil Defense logo.

Asking more questions, Rodgers learned that City Hall held more intriguing records. He leafed through a birth and death register with the first entries dating to 1871, a valuable resource for genealogists. Lindau unlocked a cabinet and revealed records of Oneka Township, the precursor to Hugo, dating back to its first meeting in September 1870.

It records the first order of business, setting a $1.50-a-day salary for a town clerk. On the next page, it records the vote results for the 1870 Congressional race: Nine votes for John T. Averill, eight for Ignatius Donnelly.

“This is exciting stuff,” Rodgers told the clerk. “It’s not my job to be a salesman, but these would be eligible for transfer to the State Archives.”

A quick visit to the decrepit schoolhouse confirmed that it held no more treasures. Rodgers steered his state-issued Dodge minivan south onto Interstate 35E, his cargo of Hugo’s paper legacy bound for the loading dock.

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.