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Winter 2012

Re-Born, Re-Presented History

by Mary Hooper

Jim Crawley couldn't be happier in his new job.

After all, it isn't every workplace that comes with its own soda fountain.

The fact that he has but to walk a few yards to have a banana split or a chocolate malt is definitely a perk, but not the main reason for his job satisfaction.

Crawley is executive director of the new Kiowa County Historical Museum, located in the Kiowa County Commons Building, one of the latest additions to Greensburg's expanding cityscape.

Greensburg, of course, was almost totally destroyed by an EF-5 tornado on May 4, 2007.

Since then, the city has been rebuilding its homes, businesses, churches, municipal buildings and museums.

The Big Well Museum is under construction and scheduled to open in the spring. The historical museum opened in November in tandem with the opening of the Commons Building, which also houses the public library and the Media Center, a business that provides recording, video and production services.

Like most of the new buildings in Greensburg, the county-owned Commons is green, designed to use solar power throughout and recycled rainwater in the restrooms and the decorative pond outside.

The historical museum is far different from the old museum, which was located in the 19th century J.M. Caplinger Building on Main Street just west of Highway 54. The old museum was a fascinating cornucopia of stuff—three floors of coins, books, family Bibles, newspapers, furniture, china, maps, photos, weaponry, tools, barbed wire, clocks, clothing, oddments and curiosities, including a pair of human skeletons.

The old museum was a bit like the county's attic. Things that people had no particular use for but couldn't bear to throw away often ended up there. When old folks passed on, their heirs frequently donated objects of historic interest to the museum. In many cases, people brought historic artifacts and objects to the museum in the belief that it was one place where these treasured items would be safe and preserved for future generations.

And that was true until the big wind blew the building away, along with about 85 percent of its collections.

In a typical historical museum, physical artifacts tell the story. They show what people wore, used, read and decorated with in days gone by. Lacking these objects, the new Kiowa County museum relies on words, images and graphics.

So you won't find many old meerschaum pipes, or barbed wire collections, or Victorian baby clothes, or old farmhouse party-line telephones, and certainly not any human skeletons in the new museum.

"We started from scratch," said Crawley. "We do have some objects from the old museum and we are getting donations from people. But this situation here is very rare for a historical museum. It isn't a typical county museum that has collections. Instead, we are telling an incredible story. A lot of care has been put into it."

Crawley, 32, comes to Greensburg from Hutchinson, where he was assistant curator at the Cosmosphere until the recession forced layoffs, including his. He worked at an assortment of odd jobs, anything that would help pay the rent, including working with the road crew of a construction company.

"I held the stop/slow sign," he says.

When he saw a help wanted ad for a director for the new historical museum in Greensburg, he applied for the job and, to his delight, was hired.

"This is what I love to do, and to think I get paid for it. It's incredible," he exclaimed.

Crawley is a native of Rose Hill, in Butler County, received his BA and MA degrees in history from Wichita State University, and an MBA from Baker University in Baldwin.

The old-time soda fountain, by the way, was salvaged from the wreckage of the Hunter Drug Store on Main Street. The countertop had to be replaced, but everything else—the soda levers, the ice cream bins—are in good condition, if a bit dented. Long-time soda jerk Dick Huckriede is retired, but an almost life-size photo cutout of him stands behind the counter, along with actual soda jerk Randy Rinker, who is also a museum assistant.

Those who buy tickets to the museum—$2 for adults, $1 for students and seniors—can get a fountain treat at half price.

Before touring the exhibits, visitors are directed into a darkened room where they can watch a 12-minute video, narrated by Milton Killen, on the history and attractions of Kiowa County.

The exhibits were designed by EAS Designs, of Abilene, with the help of former museum director Ed Schoenberger and other historical society members. Some are arranged chronologically, starting with the Louisiana Purchase, in which President Thomas Jefferson bought the huge midsection of the country from Napoleon.

Following this was the policy of Manifest Destiny which saw U.S. expansion to the West Coast, the arrival of large numbers of settlers in the Great Plains, with unfortunate consequences to the Indians and the buffalo; and the role that Kiowa County played in the Westward Expansion...

Kansas once was the largest buffalo hunting ground in the U.S. By the mid-1870s, there were no more buffalo herds in Kansas. The Indian tribes, after the Medicine Lodge Treaty, were removed to Oklahoma, and their former lands sold to new settlers

The handsome exhibits, with their dramatic photos and striking calligraphy, are to be read as well as looked at. Much of the text is based on two books of county history. Schoenberger, who absorbed county history in his years as head of the historical society, read the text for accuracy.

It tells of Greensburg's namesake, the flamboyant Donald R. "Cannonball" Green, who owned and operated the Cannonball Stageline along what would become U.S. 54. His stagecoaches were pulled by as many as four teams of horses and could cover up to 100 miles a day.

"Even Father Time himself couldn't keep up with the Cannonball," he boasted.

By 1886, Kiowa County had four main towns—Greensburg, Mullinville, Belvedere and Haviland, and several towns which are only memories.

"Greensburg," informed the Kiowa County Signal in 1888, "is the liveliest town in the state today, for money, marbles or watermelons."

A special section of the museum is devoted to a dozen men and women who made their mark in Kiowa County.

These include Eliza Kimberley, who was the first to realize that the rocks and boulders littering her family farm near Brenham were actually meteorites; Frank Rockefeller, younger brother of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, who, by 1909, owned 14,000 acres of land in Kiowa County; Dr. "Grandma" Mary Bennett, who delivered more than 1,000 babies during her long career; P. W. "Punk" Justice, one of the county's first car dealers; and Sheriff Mabel Chase, the first woman elected sheriff in the U.S.

The museum also features separate exhibits on the county's four towns.

"It's all of Kiowa County, not just Greensburg," says Crawley.

The tour concludes with an exhibit on the '07 tornado and a booth where visitors are invited to record their own stories about Kiowa County.

The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. A website is under construction.


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