by Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers
As the Hopkins Historical Society looks forward to a bright future at the Albert Pike Lodge, new leadership has emerged to lead the way.
The new executive director, Thomas “TJ” Malaskee, comes to Hopkins from a background with the Minnesota History Center, specializing in 19th century agrarian culture.
Malaskee is a lifelong Minnesotan who grew up in Crystal and graduated from Armstrong High School.
As a youth, Malaskee said he was fascinated by the lifestyle of early American farmers, as depicted by Laura Ingalls Wilder in “Farmer Boy,” part of her Little House on the Prairie series. Malaskee recalled vacationing at his parents’ cabin in Pine City — during every trip, he demanded that they visit a nearby historical site. As soon as he was old enough, Malaskee began volunteering at the site.
“I really wanted to be an old-time farmer when I was a kid,” Malaskee said. “I found out I couldn’t be that, so I became a historian instead.”
Thanks to creative opportunities, however, Malaskee has come close to living his dream in experimental anthropology work, training oxen and using century-old farm equipment to plow a field, among other things.
“I experienced the monotony, the hard work firsthand,” he said. “I loved it.”
The bulk of Malaskee’s work isn’t out in the (literal) field, however, but rather in museums and archives, helping curate exhibits and organize collections.
The Hopkins History Society Board hired Malaskee as new executive director in December, as the first official staff member to serve in the position. Kristin Kaspar previously had the role, as a consultant, for two years.
Malaskee was introduced to members of the board through an exhibit on hockey history he helped create in Edina.
After giving a behind-the-scenes tour to historical society members, Malaskee was encouraged to apply for the job.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“The first time I met him, I was amazed at his wide base of knowledge and his passion. I thought, ‘He’s going to be perfect for us,’” said Board Member Nora Davis. “He has an incredibly rich historical background … he can take us to a new level.”
Society president John Cooley said that Malaskee was an obvious choice among more than a dozen applicants.
“He easily stood out. We were certainly impressed with his work,” Cooley said.
Malaskee said he’s thrilled to get to work in a community with such a rich and unique a narrative.
“I’m first and foremost interested in great stories, and there are a lot of really great stories here,” Malaskee said.
He said Hopkins is unique among the Twin Cities suburbs in how it developed as a community, in large part due to the Minneapolis Moline Threshing Company which was headquartered in the community.
“This is one of the closest things Minnesota has to a company town — it developed a really unique identity, almost a wild west feel in the middle of the suburbs.”
Hopkins has stayed true to its blue collar, industrial roots even as the metro closed in around it, keeping its Mainstreet ambience and lively diversity today, Malaskee said.
Although relatively new to the community, he added that he has jumped into the local history and culture with enthusiasm.
“It’s been a very warm welcome,” Malaskee said. “People pop in every day and tell me their family histories.”
He said part of the excitement of expanding into the Albert Pike Lodge will be more room: for exhibitions, for storage and for archiving the society’s extensive collection.
Family and genealogy records make up a large portion of the collections, and a huge draw for visitors, he added.
“That’s one of our greatest assets,” Malaskee said. “Hopkins is home to families that go back four generations. You don’t find that just anywhere.”
Current projects included organizing the existing collection at the Hopkins Activity Center, curating new exhibits at that location.
Malaskee is also working with a part-time archivist on cataloging items and documents to make the items more accessible to visitors and researchers.
Work is still underway to situate the historical society at the lodge and is likely to take at least two years to complete. However, Malaskee was careful to point out that the society will have a presence at the lodge through the process, with pop-up exhibits and tours even before they’re able to open its doors to the public for good.
“This will be a high-quality museum for Hopkins and a jewel of Mainstreet,” Malaskee said. “We want to do it right, and that takes time.”
Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]