Sunday, January 4, 2009

History on a Two-Lane Highway

We love small town museums. They come are as close to being the keepers of the peoples’ history as we have in this country. Countless hours of volunteer work goes into cataloging and maintaining their priceless local collections.

Most of them are open very limited hours. We have made dozens of trips between our home in Springfield, Illinois, to my parents home in Stroud, Oklahoma. We know every little museum along the way. However, no matter what time or day we stopped, many are locked tight. It took a while, but we finally figured out that if you call ahead, someone will open it up for you.

Here are a few of our favorites:

John Brown Museum/Park, Osawatomie Kansas
It took us three days to get home from Oklahoma when we found John Brown’s cabin in “bloody” Kansas. What happened in Osawatomie and Lawrence were the events that forced the beginning of the Civil War. When people think of John Brown, they usually think of the events at Harper’s Ferry. However, Brown, his sons, and other abolitionists moved to Kansas to ensure it would be a free state (You will now know just how nerdy we really are. Visiting there made the Kansas-Nebraska Act come alive for us.)

Free-State Hotel, Lawrence Kansas
Missouri Ruffians (lead by the evil Quantrill and his raiders) burned this hotel to the ground twice. Lawrence was the bloody center of “bloody” Kansas activities before the civil war. The “free state” hotel owners vowed to rebuild it one story higher each time the pro-slavery ruffians was burned down; this would allow more free-state sympathizers to have a place to stay. It now stands at five stories.

We wanted to stay there, but the rooms were too expensive for our travel budget. However, we hung around the lobby/museum for so long and asked so many questions the desk clerk gave us the two-room Langston Hughes suite (he lived in Lawrence for a time), for $65.00; maybe to just get rid of us!

Mining Museum, Mowequa Illinois
Many of the mining museums we visit are dedicated to the miners who died in that town’s mining disaster. There is no mine without a disaster in its history, no matter how short. Such is the case with the Moweaqua Coal Mine Museum; a memorial to the 54 coal miners killed in 1932.

One of the reasons I love this museum so much is because it has a rare picture of the members of the founding convention of the Progressive Miner’s of America, of which my grandfather was a proud member. We have an even rarer picture of the founding members of the Progressive Miner’s of America Women’s Auxiliary. I gotta get me a copy of the men’s picture to have the set!

Pitcher/Baxter Springs Lead/Zinc Mining Museum
We enjoy driving on what remains of U.S. Rte 66. The old route takes you through Pitcher, Oklahoma and two miles to the North, Baxter Springs, Kansas.

It feels weird driving through a Superfund Site; a place considered one of the most toxic places in the country, but that is what Pitcher OK is. It had a Lead/Zinc mining museum that we tried getting into several times, always finding it closed… and finally empty. Pitcher is a virtual ghost town now, with only a few people who refuse to relocate.

With a little research, we found the officials moved the collection upstream to Baxter Springs, Kansas. Recently, we called ahead to get into the museum, only to learn that all the artifacts and papers were at the University of Pittsburg in Kansas being archived and catalogued. That part of the museum will not open for four more years. Nonetheless, they still coal mining artifacts, family histories, and newspapers that documented that they had more bordellos than churches.

A couple of other museums outside our Springfield/Stroud route that we enjoyed include:

Cedarville, Illinois Jane Addams Museum Birthplace and Cemetery
Driving the two-lane from Madison, Wisconsin to Springfield provided us with another unique experience. Just across the Illinois border, we saw a sign alerting us that there was another roadside attraction; “Turn Right” for the Jane Addams museum and cemetery. Jane Addams, we knew was one of the founders of an early center of Social Work, Chicago’s Hull House. She was also one of the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Nobel Prize winner. She was, and remains a very controversial figure. What justice would this tiny town in rural Illinois give to this radical, peace activist? There were displays about her early life in Cedarville and what her parents did. There was information about the one room schoolhouse that now housed the museum. But, the majority of the exhibits displayed Jane Addams radicalism.

Voting Rights Museum, Selma Alabama
It sits at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge; the people who made the march for voting rights run this little storefront museum. It has pictures of the marches; a big pile of shoes worn during the march; plaster casts of marchers feet and more. A moving part of the museum is the wall of remembrance. It consists of little post-it notes written by marchers, in their own hand, of things they remember about the march. The most moving part of the museum was meeting local people who participated in the march.

Orient #2 Mine Museum West Frankfort IL
Southern Illinois has a glorious history of resistance to oppression. When the numerous coal miners in the area felt they were being sold out by the United Mine Workers of America, they formed the own union, the Progressive Miners. West Frankfort was home to the largest coalmines in Illinois and provided the base for the Progressive Miners.

We were meandering along two lane highways in the area and came across a shut down mine. All its buildings were intact. One building held mining artifacts. The miners’ bathhouse still stood. It was in places like that where the miners’ would ask their comrades, “If you wash my back; I’ll wash yourn.” The miners’ elevator still worked; they usually offered a trip to the mine’s face. However, on the day we visited, we could not go down; a number of retired miners were conducting a mine sit-in to get much needed state funding for the miners’ museum.

There are many more museums we visited; many more we could not get into and had to be satisfied with peeking though the windows; and many more yet to find. We love them and they all gave us some knowledge our history.

“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree” ~Michael Crichton

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