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Documenting history: Simpson named Cottage Grove Preservationist of the Year

Ann Simpson spends most of her time behind the camera, but recently she was in the spotlight when she was named Cottage Grove’s 2013 Preservationist of the Year. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

Stepping into the spotlight isn’t an everyday occurrence for South Washington County Telecommunications’ lead producer, Ann Simpson.

The 14-year SWCTC production veteran is normally tucked behind a video camera shooting segments for the various shows on the cable commission’s channels and its website.

However, Simpson was named Cottage Grove’s 2013 Preservationist of the Year, an accolade that both forced her to stand under the glow of the limelight and unearthed a passion for showcasing what she called historical gems in the area.

“I’ve never been anything of the year before,” Simpson admitted. “But it’s nice to be recognized for something that I already love to do.”

Last year, Senior Planner John Burbank was looking for ways to raise awareness of the various city commissions, specifically the Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation, when he approached Simpson. With the committee meeting once every other month, Burbank said their meetings, which are usually packed with information, didn’t track well.

“The idea of doing videos came up and Ann really took it and ran with it,” Burbank said. “She typically takes along one of our local historical preservationists with her. So far it’s been a fun little project.”

Alongside area history buffs Herb Reckinger, Bev Gross and Judy Spooner —all actively involved in local preservation — Simpson has researched, produced and shared untold stories of many south Washington County historical landmarks.

“One story I did that really stood out to me was the one about Old Langdon School,” Simpson explained of the brick building on the west side of Highway 61 in Cottage Grove. “It was cool to look back and see how these kids really went to school. It was basically a two-room school house.”

Simpson also found herself in the belly of the Grey Cloud Island lime kiln, a mid-1800s stone kiln used to burn limestone to make quicklime used in fertilizer, plaster and mortar.

“There were holes in the side of the kiln and I decided to climb in,” she said. “Herb (Reckinger) was with me and so he crawled in too. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, just so you know, this is an old structure and it could come tumbling down anytime.’ I had to laugh but we quickly got out of there.”

Reckinger applauded her sense of adventure and said her unwavering dedication to preserving the history of her community makes her “special.”

“You can tell that she has a genuine interest and isn’t just doing these segments to put on a cable show,” he said. “She’s great at what she does and she’s so special. She’ll walk right through a field of wood ticks with you. She really does an excellent job.”

This past winter, Simpson immersed herself in the long-running history of the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train’s annual stop in Cottage Grove. Soliciting help from “talent,” or on-camera personalities, she chronicled the event’s growing presence in the community.

Recently, Simpson has been walking the grounds of the Atkinson Cemetery, a graveyard home to 27 headstones, including founder John Atkinson, for a new segment. Located in what was once sprawling farm land, the cemetery now sits between the McDonald’s and Tires Plus on East Point Douglas Road.

“A lot of people think it’s really weird that someone would build a cemetery right next to a McDonald’s, but what they don’t realize is that was there first,” Simpson said.

Less than 10 years ago, the city of Cottage Grove took over care of the cemetery, which Simpson said was overrun with weeds. Shortly after, a black fence was erected. To this day, Simpson said many people still don’t realize that a cemetery is there.

“I think the older I get the more interesting history becomes,” she said. “I think it’s probably because in some way you’re part of it. And there are so many interesting facets of south Washington County and it’s really cool to research and really see how people lived hundreds of years ago.”

Simpson’s efforts to research and share local history through various segments shown on the SWCTC-produced show “Cottage Grove Spotlight,” Burbank said, make her a deserving candidate for the award.

Since first starting her career with SWCTC in 2000, Simpson said she has covered hundreds of city events, interviewed many local government officials and produced countless feature stories about the community in which she was born and raised.

“I know so much stuff about Cottage Grove, so many random things,” Simpson said. “And I keep learning more with every segment. I think (the stories) fit well with the ‘Cottage Grove Spotlight’ because one to two minutes is the perfect little nugget of local history.”