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Historic Comstock house set to close

Robert Loeffler turns the crank and carefully drops the needle, and 1940s opera star Eleanor Steber sings out in a scratchy but soaring soprano from the old Victrola.

Robert Loeffler turns the crank and carefully drops the needle, and 1940s opera star Eleanor Steber sings out in a scratchy but soaring soprano from the old Victrola.

"We show the school kids -- they couldn't run down the street and get a hamburger, they didn't have TV. They had to find ways to entertain themselves," says Loeffler, site manager of the Comstock House, a state historic site in Moorhead.

But the days of school tours and tea parties at the 121-year-old historic house at 506 8th St. S. are numbered.

The Comstock House, built in 1882 by Moorhead pioneer Solomon Comstock, and six other sites operated by the Minnesota Historical Society likely will be closed beginning July 1.

Sites will remain shuttered indefinitely, until funding is found to reopen them.

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It's part of the Historical Society's plan to cope with a $4.3 million state cut in its $35 million budget for each of the next two years, according to a press release.

The Comstock House was chosen for its low attendance -- slightly more than 1,000 people visited last year.

But closing the only state historical site in the Red River Valley is ridiculous, especially because it would save the society little money, said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead.

The house's current budget is $27,000, Loeffler said. Continuing to maintain the house will cost about $10,000, so the society will save only $17,000 by closing Comstock to visitors, he said.

The Historical Society's other plans for dealing with the cuts include laying off 225 full- and part-time employees -- 30 percent of its work force -- and reducing hours and programs at other sites.

Likely, no one will lose their jobs in Moorhead, Loeffler said. Because the house will still need maintenance, he hopes the caretaker and the housekeeper will retain their part-time positions.

Loeffler and the house's tour guides are volunteers.

For now, closings are listed as tentative, because the Legislature directed the Historical Society to try to find volunteer and financial assistance from communities before closing sites.

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Lanning hopes that can happen with the Comstock House. The Historical Society already has received a sheaf of letters from organizations supporting the house, he said.

"I think the state's got to chip in some, and I think we're going to have to try to raise it locally," he said. For example, the site could be used as a Moorhead visitors center in the summer months, if it were kept open, he said.

Other sites to be closed include the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, the Oliver H. Kelley Farm in Elk River, Historic Forestville near Preston, Fort Ridgely near Fairfax, Lower Sioux Agency near Redwood Falls and Grand Mound near International Falls.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Joy Anderson at (701) 241-5556

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