Preserving and Sharing History at the Kansas Heritage Center
by Lynne Hewes
To learn about housing of the Plains Indians, hear oral histories of the Dust Bowl, see black and white photos of Dodge City during the l940s and '50s, or find out nearly anything in between, count on the Kansas Heritage Center to have the materials you need.
Phillip Schulz, a World War II buff from Stafford, perhaps summed it up best.
"This is real history, and I've hit a gold mine here," Schulz said after spending an afternoon at the Center, looking at a map and photos of Dodge City's World War II airfield.
The Kansas Heritage Center is a nonprofit resource center operated through USD 443, and it's housed in the school's administration building at 1000 North Second Avenue, Dodge City.
Although a major focus of its mission statement is "collecting, creating, and publishing materials for use by students [and] teachers," anyone interested in history, whether it be of Dodge City, Kansas, the Great Plains, or the Old West, is welcome to do research at the Center.
"We have a lot of materials and programs for area schools, but we also get people from all over who are interested in learning about the past," says Barb Vincent, director of the Center. "We have authors who use our resources for their books, and many people come here to work on genealogy. The other day someone found out that we had an old photograph of their great grandfather, a photo they'd never seen before."
A current project for Vincent is archiving a large file box packed full of black and white photos taken by the late Claude Hetzel, a Dodge City photographer who captured street scenes, weddings, churches, floods, and motorcycle races in the area from the l940s until the l970s.
"He had his photography studio on Trail Street," Vincent says. "His daughter contacted the city and asked if they would be interested in having his collection. They agreed, of course, and we have the privilege of storing and sharing his collection."
Assistant Director Dave Webb adds one regret.
"We're a library, not a museum," he says. "Sometimes people call, wanting to donate army uniforms or wedding dresses, but we just aren't equipped to do that. We don't have the room."
What the Kansas Heritage Center does have room for, however, is remarkable:
Library collections include USD 443 and Kansas Heritage Center video collections, featuring over 500 social studies titles as well as other educational programs such as Reading Rainbow, Magic School Bus, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Their library houses over 6,600 books on Kansas, the Old West, and the Great Plains.
Their microfilm collection includes almost all Dodge City newspapers, from l877 to the present. They also have on microfilm older newspapers from several area towns, U.S. and Kansas census records, and historical correspondence and records from Fort Dodge.
They have preserved Dodge City and Ford County directories, telephone directories, census and death records, area obituaries, and Dodge City High School yearbooks dating from l913.
They continually update nearly 1,500 files of research materials about Dodge City and Kansas.
Their bookstore/gift shop offers over 650 different books, as well as DVDs, stuffed animal puppets, coffee mugs, bookmarks, stickers, activity books for children, and posters—all with a Kansas or Great Plains theme.
Teaching kits cover the Santa Fe Trail, Cowboys, Indians, the Thirties, Kansas, Teens, and Decades.
"If you really want to be wowed," Vincent says, "take a look at our Santa Fe Trail Kit. It was put together by the Santa Fe Trail Association, and it's wonderful. It's full of pictures, hats, reproduction trade goods, and information about Native Americans and Mexican and Anglo traders."
Another favorite, the Dust Bowl Kit, contains books, records, 1930s newspaper stories, dust storm photos, a jack rabbit drive film, and recorded interviews with Dust Bowl survivors who lived in Southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle. Several images from the collection have been included in producer/director Ken Burns' new Dust Bowl film that will premier on PBS in November.
In addition to offering a wealth of information, employees at the Center work hard to create educational materials others can use.
Webb, for example, has designed posters and maps, created activity and coloring books, and is currently completing a first volume of a set called 999 Kansas Characters.
"It's an encyclopedia of interesting people (plus a few animals) with Kansas connections," Webb says. "I've gathered research in our library, at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, as well as from interviews and internet sources. Becky Tanner of the Wichita Eagle and Terry Rombeck, formerly of the Lawrence Journal-World, are helping with the writing. We've collected images from various sources as well as hired Wichita photographer Craig Hacker to take photos of some of the living "characters." Artist Phillip Buntin, former art teacher at Garden City High School, has done excellent watercolor illustrations of some of the characters."
Webb hopes to finish and publish the volume by late 2012 or early 2013.
Each year the Center also creates an interactive exhibit for third and fourth graders. Working with Kansas state social studies standards, they develop materials to, as Vincent says, "let kids learn things about Southwest Kansas that they never knew before." This year, the topic was Amelia Earhart. For the spring of 2013, it will be the Dust Bowl.
"We're a small staff," says Vincent. "But we always try to produce quality results. We all love this place and enjoy our work. It's wonderful to see the excitement on people's faces when we can help them find what they've been looking for."
Janice Scott, who serves as librarian at the Center, agrees.
"It gives us a sense of satisfaction, helping people," she says. "You can tell that, just by how long we've all been working together here."
Scott has been a staff member for 17 years; Webb has worked there for 28 years, Vincent for 21 years, and secretary Rhonda Jeffries for 3 years.
"Our former director, Noel Ary, continues to assist us," Vincent says. "He retired in 2000, but he volunteers whenever we need him. He just steps in and instantly becomes a part of the staff, greeting people, giving information, acting as a tour guide. He's a big help, and he knows what he's talking about. He's great with people, and we really appreciate him."
A love of history is the bond between those who work at the Kansas Heritage Center, and that love is contagious. Just walk in the door, take a look around, and stop to visit with anyone on staff. Before you know it, you'll be hooked on history too.