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After two years of transformation, a former office building in Stillwater will open its doors Saturday as a new museum.

It is a space the Washington County Historical Society has wanted for 20 years.

"It means the world," said David Lindsey, the group's president.

The new Washington County Heritage Center, a $2.5 million, 14,000-square-foot museum, will allow the historical society to display more of its collection while also providing classroom space for school groups, research space for historians, a museum store and storage for thousands of artifacts.

Located at 1862 S. Greeley St., the new facility will be open free to the public Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors will see the St. Croix Valley through the eyes of 19th century photographer John Runk, and can try their hand at crosscut sawing or listen to a lumberjack recount life in a logging camp. The grand opening will feature performances by local musicians, axe-throwing and log-cutting demonstrations and Native American drumming and dancing.

The museum features three exhibit areas, a lobby, museum store, a classroom and a research area. The classroom can seat 75 to 100 people and will be available for groups to rent. The center will allow visitors to do their own research using the society's collection of documents, photos and artifacts.

The first exhibits include an in-depth look at Runk and his cameras, fashions of the 1860s and 1960s and a hands-on look at the area's lumber history. The exhibits were created by Bluestem Heritage Group of St. Paul and Split Rock Studios. Architect MSR Design of Minneapolis oversaw the building's renovation. Little space is wasted, with hallways displaying local artwork and more displays hung on the bare walls.

The lobby will feature an exhibit on Black baseball players, including John W. "Bud" Fowler, the man some people call the first Black professional baseball player in America. Fowler played 66 games in 1884 for the Stillwater baseball team in the Northwestern league. The exhibit will include jerseys and other memorabilia donated by the Twins organization.

On another wall, the museum will display some of its collection of Native American beadwork. Much of it has been in storage for years because there was no safe way to display it, said the historical society's executive director Brent Peterson.

"We have so many things in storage," Peterson said. Some 70 logging artifacts that have never been on display were included in the logging exhibit.

The building was the home of a light industrial company, UFE Inc., before the owner sold it to the historical society. It came with a great deal: the state Department of Transportation needed a temporary office for its staff overseeing the construction of the new Hwy. 36 St. Croix River Crossing bridge, and had agreed to rent the building for five years. By becoming landlords, the historical society could pay off much of the building's mortgage with the rental income, Lindsey said.

The Historical Society bought the building in 2013 for $795,000. Renovations have pushed the society's costs to about $2.5 million so far, and another $2 million to $3 million will be needed to finish the project's second phase. That includes a new HVAC system on the roof and repairing and renovating a storage area at the back of the building.

The center will be open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults and $3 for children.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329