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Happy hour with the Historical Society

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Alexander Ramsey House
The house where Alexander Ramsey lived when he first became a U.S. senator. Ramsey also served terms as governor of Minnesota and mayor of St. Paul. Historical society program director Jayne Becker says Ramsey's wife, Anna, threw lavish parties and concerts, making the home a center of society in the years after the Civil War. Becker hopes to continue in that tradition.
Courtesy of the Minn. Historical Society

The Minnesota Historical Society is looking for more ways to attract visitors to historic sites. The society is drawing crowds to the Alexander Ramsey House in St Paul with a laid-back approach to appeal to a new demographic. 

A bar is now in the kitchen of Minnesota's first territorial governor. An old-fashioned black stove stands against one wall. Shelves on another wall hold antique tea kettles. In the middle of the room bartender Joe Coryea serves drinks from behind a card table.

Lee Bushmaker and his sister, Kinzi, order vodka tonics.

"When you combine alcohol and history it is encouraging to show up," Bushmaker said.

This is History Happy Hour — a new fundraising event that the  Minnesota Historical Society will host each month this summer. Tickets are $20 and come with two drinks. On this evening, about 40 adults of ranging ages fill the house. A historian gives a short speech, people ask questions, and then they wander around to socialize and get closer look at historical artifacts than is usually possible at museums.

That got Judy Ottman in trouble. 

"Well, we accidentally sat on the furniture because there's no sign on it that says don't touch," Ottman said.  

The house is ornate. Most rooms on the first floor have flowery carpets that clash with flowery wallpaper.

This is where Alexander Ramsey lived when he first became a U.S. senator. Ramsey also served terms as governor of Minnesota and mayor of St. Paul. Historical society program director Jayne Becker says Ramsey's wife, Anna, threw lavish parties and concerts, making the home a center of society in the years after the Civil War. Becker hopes to continue in that tradition.

"To walk in the door and hear, already, laughing, or hear talking, or clapping, it's just a way of stepping back in time and maybe actually getting a truer picture of what life was actually like when Alexander Ramsey and his wife lived here," Becker said.

The Ramsey family gave the mansion to the Minnesota Historical Society in the 1960s. Until about two-and-a-half years ago, the society had two full-time staff members working here. Budget cuts forced the Historical society down to one part-time staffer. The Ramsey House reduced its public hours.

The happy hour events could bring in money that would open the house again full-time, Becker said.

"One thing that we are trying to do is certainly become a little more self-sufficient," Becker said. "I think that's really important for any historic site to be able to do. I'd say we are probably one of the first historic sites to try this."

Nearly everything in the Ramsey House is original to the home, Becker said. Artifacts that could become broken are put away during happy hours. Photography of specific objects is discouraged, as it might encourage theft. 

But there is enough left for visitors to imagine themselves at a party given by Alexander and Anna Ramsey, Becker said.

The alcohol might help that process. And Becker says that's fine.   

"If it piques people's curiosity, I'm OK with that. Because when they get here, they realize they do get more out of it than just visiting a historic site and having a cocktail," Becker said. "They also come away with learning a little bit about history so we can always be true to our educational mission."

Becker hopes the experience will entice visitors to come back even when there isn't alcohol.