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Jack Kennelly is in restless pursuit of local history 2021

October 21, 2021 Burnsville Eagan Sun/Thisweek News

Has posted thousands of photos, documents

Jack Kennelly’s scavenger hunt for local history is restless and relentless.

He’s the chief supplier of photos, newspaper clippings and other documents on the well-stocked website of the Burnsville Historical Society.

Kennelly is a frequent poster on the “You know you’re from Burnsville/Eagan/Savage if ... ” Facebook page, where his found artifacts, such as old Burnsville newspaper ads or pictures of pumpkin patches past, often generate long comment threads.

One of his latest projects is combing, cataloging and scanning highlights from the Del Stelling collection — some 2,000 photo negatives left by the late newspaperman, who started with the Minnesota Valley Review in 1959 and finished his career with the city-sponsored Savage Review paper in 1994.

Kennelly is also doing volunteer grunt work for the Dakota County Historical Society, arranging piles of old newspaper clippings in chronological order (which in some cases starts with the 1850s).

“It sounds like, ‘Oh, God,’ but it was manageable, because I’m doing maybe two folders a week,” said Kennelly, 70. “I’m not doing them all at one time. And I’m finding things like an interview with a Civil War veteran named Lynch, from Burnsville, that we don’t have on our website. I didn’t even know of the Lynch family.”

Kennelly has done most of his historical work in the last six years, after retiring as marketing director for St. Paul-based City & County Credit Union. It accelerated during the pandemic, especially via the internet.

“Some people think it’s an obsession, and actually it isn’t,” Kennelly said. “They’re surprised at how much I can accomplish. Some of these projects I’ve been doing with the internet and finding photos — I found I can uncover 10 things a day, and that takes an hour. And in a month I’ve found 300 items.”

He’s from the self-described “Burnsville side” of the Irish immigrant Kennelly clan, which also has an “Eagan side.” The clan traces its roots to Thomas and Mary Kennelly, who settled in what is now Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan in 1853 or 1854, Kennelly said.

(If you ask, he’ll patiently explain why the surname has had five different spellings in St. Paul, Burnsville and Eagan — a quirk that dates back to County Kilkenny.)

Jack is the son of John and Margaret Kennelly, who lived for his first seven years in the Lawrence Casey farmhouse that still stands at Highway 13 and Cliff Road. The family then built a home on the site of what would become the Sullivan’s Super Valu store on County Road 11 and later moved to South River Hills.

Jack’s late uncle, Joe Kennelly, had a farmhouse on the other side of Cliff Road on land now occupied by a strip mall and townhomes. The house stood for years after Joe stopped farming and became a community landmark, with pumpkin sales every fall.

“What people will remember in the end is just basically the farmhouse, the barn, and the animals and the pumpkins,” Kennelly said. “The fields are along gone by the ’70s.”

Kennelly was fresh from college with a journalism and marketing degree when he was recruited to work on the first of two Burnsville history books — “Burnsville ’76 — A Community History.” At the time he was marketing director for the nonprofit Community Action Council (now 360 Communities) and a freelancer for the weekly Burnsville Current.

The Mendota Heights resident is still captured by Burnsville-area history, though he hasn’t lived here since 1974.

“You just grew up with Burnsville and know it; you’re just interrelated,” he said. “My parents stayed there until they died.”

He knows local history transcends modern municipal boundaries. Until about 1964, he said, Burnsville mail had a Savage mailing address and Burnsville residents bought groceries there.

In the early 1900s, one had to go to Savage or the Nichols Station in Eagan to board a train, he explained.

“That’s why I’m actually good at this project,” Kennelly said of his history work. “When I find an Eagan photo, I understand the relationship between Eagan, Burnsville and Savage.”

His contributions to the Burnsville Historical Society quickly mounted after its defacto leaders at the time, Jeff and Pat Jerde, handed him the keys to the castle.

“One day (Jeff’s) son said, ‘Why don’t we just give Jack the password and let him put the photos on there himself?’ ” Kennelly said. “And that’s when this insanity happened.”

Since then, the site has grown from about 2,500 photos to 23,000, Kennelly said.

His sources are varied. Facebook postings generate potential photo exchanges. Aerial photos of Burnsville were donated by the city, Kennelly said. Burnsville-based Ames Construction has responded to his requests for photos, from an aerial of the Ames property that held the original Town Hall to construction photos of the County Road 5-Highway 13 overpass.

Kennelly also shoots his own photos, such as the “mirror image” shots he’s doing for the Del Stelling project on behalf of the Dan Patch Historical Society and the city of Savage. Kennelly takes photos of the exact locations Stelling shot decades ago, contrasting the streetscapes of today and yesteryear.

Before the pandemic, he visited high points in Burnsville — the Best Western Premier Nicollet Inn, Fairview Ridges Hospital, the Maven Apartments — and shot panoramic images to capture the present landscape.

Lately he’s taken to asking Realtors for their aerials of Burnsville properties.

“I don’t have a drone and I don’t know that I every will,” Kennelly said, “but I’d love to learn how.”

He’s a hunter-gatherer historian who says his finds might provide the foundation for a book, but not one he’s interested in writing.

“I try to look at it from the perspective of things that people have witnessed and be a little less biographical,” Kennelly said. “I just scanned today photos of a circus that the Jaycees did in the 1970s at Burnsville Bowl. These things can now be posted in Facebookworld and somebody’s going to respond, ‘I was at that, or this happened,’ or whatever. It’s more creating images of an event that multiple people will react to.”

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