MENDOTA, Minn. — Jessica Davis and Henry H. Sibley have a few things in common.
“He came from Michigan to Mendota. I came from Michigan and now I’m in Mendota. He was 23 when he came. I’m 23,” she says.
And even though Sibley was born over 200 years ago, Davis feels an emotional connection, since she doesn’t have to imagine what it must have felt like to be a 23-year-old working in a new place.
Davis was recently promoted to site supervisor at the Sibley Historic Site in Mendota.
Davis tells the story of the young fur trader who became Minnesota’s first elected governor to the 5,000 visitors that tour the site’s four buildings each year during the summer months.
“It’s those basic human emotions,” she said, explaining why history attracted her attention at the young age of 10. “They felt the same emotions that we feel today. A lot of people, when they think of history, they just think of names and dates. But there’s a very human element to it.”
As site supervisor, it’s her job to bring to life not just Henry Sibley’s experiences but those of the five or so others that have owned the property over the years.
In October she featured the 1890s, when the property was owned by artist Burt Harwood and the Sibley House was used as an art studio and school.
Guests traveled the grounds after dark by flashlight, listening to actors, illumined by candlelight, portray art teachers who gave them clues to answer a question.
On Dec. 29, she’ll transform part of the Sibley House into a tea room, just as it was in 1928 when it opened and for the next 42 years. And since the ticketed event celebrates New Year’s Eve and will follow the tradition of a “royal” tea party, the 35 guests will end the evening with a glass of champagne.
May is mental health awareness month, so Davis feels it might be the perfect time to tell the story of a woman who taught at the art studio and died by suicide.
“I want it to be that this was a real person and this was a real tragedy,” she said. “It’s a very serious topic.”
A lot of her 20-hour-a-week job involves scheduling tours and coordinating with guides and period actors. She splits her time between the Sibley House, the LeDuc Historic Estate in Hastings and Barnes and Noble, which helps fill in the paycheck.
Davis commutes in from Hudson, Wis., where her family moved when she was 14. She thinks it was the museum curator in the movie “National Treasure” who first inspired her to be a guardian of history. She graduated from the College of St. Benedict with a degree in public history and museum studies. Eventually, she’d like to get her master’s degree and become a museum curator.
In her own family tree, she can trace her roots back to Abraham Clark, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. And even her jewelry tells a story, such as a ring made from a Michigan quarter and two rings from trips to London and Ireland.
She encourages folks to visit their local historical sites.
“There are so many things to discover in history,” she said. “You’ll learn something different every time.”
If you go
What: New Year’s Tea
When: 3:30 to 6 p.m. Dec. 29
Where: Sibley Historic Site, 1357 Sibley Memorial Highway, Mendota
Cost: $35 and $40