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Northland’s museums offer a bounty to history buffs

The Weston Historical Museum preserves the town’s history, including this 1855 scene of downtown Weston depicting its steamboat heritage. The museum at 601 Main St. opens for the season on March 20. It’s just one of a number of museums in the Northland available to history buffs.
The Weston Historical Museum preserves the town’s history, including this 1855 scene of downtown Weston depicting its steamboat heritage. The museum at 601 Main St. opens for the season on March 20. It’s just one of a number of museums in the Northland available to history buffs. deulitt@kcstar.com

It’s no surprise that history museums are a magnet for researchers eager to pore over sepia-toned photos and fragile pages.

And to be sure, a plethora of museums draw those interested in digging deep to the roots of the verdant landscapes that make up the communities of the Northland.

But stop to consider the treasures anyone can discover within the walls of such places. In Weston, a working hand press in a museum could show a teenager with a passion for writing just how laborious early newspaper publication was. In Excelsior Springs, anyone with a romantic soul can find poetic inspiration in a love letter exhibit.

Curators of these museums have built institutions that offer both a reliable home for the historical record and an accessible learning experience for those who want to dive deeper into local lore.

Clay County Archives

Records in the Clay County Archives are so highly sought after that the all-volunteer staff decided to stay open in the evening once a month.

On the first Wednesday of every month, the county information center is open from 6:30 to 9 p.m., operating hours the staff members report are well trafficked by historians, local lecturers and amateur genealogists.

Liberty resident Cheryl McCann was among the group of roughly 20 visiting the archives on a chilly Wednesday night in March.

She and Phoebe Alpern have made a hobby of sifting through the archives’ records.

Alpern works for McCann in her private tax office, but after hours, the two friends like to relax.

“When we get done there, we like to come out (here) and do fun stuff,” McCann said.

McCann is working on compiling a list of notable women in Clay County who were active in 1920 and earlier.

At this phase of the project, McCann has gathered a list of possible candidates from census records and other historical documents. Vetting them will require researching some basic biographical information, which sometimes requires careful investigation.

“The problem is we don’t even know their real names,” she said. “Most are under their husband’s names. We’re trying to figure out if they have a story to tell.”

McCann’s first encounter with the Clay County records center was through an assignment she was given as a volunteer with the Atkins-Johnson Farm & Museum. The Gladstone historic site operators wanted to offer more information about the grave sites at Big Shoal Cemetery.

McCann has been working with the archives for years, but they continue to surprise her. While researching a book she’s writing, she pulled up an obituary on a woman. Where the obituary should have been, instruction was given to the archive user: See the oversized obituary book.

Following those instructions, McCann learned that the Clay County Archives also has a long-form obituary record book.

“It’s about bringing these people and history alive,” she said.

The Clay County Archives at 210 E. Franklin St. are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on the first Wednesday evening of every month. Admission is free. For information, call at 816-781-3611.

Smithville Historical Museum and Inn

In a city filled with historic properties and homes, one stands out. The Patterson House, a plantation-style home built in the late 19th century, today does triple duty as a bed and breakfast, a historical museum, and a private residence.

The home, which was a private residence for Confederate sympathizer William Henry Patterson, was finished around the time the town was first incorporated in 1867.

The Smithville Historical Society was organized in 1966, and Patterson’s descendants donated the home to the group shortly after.

Records show the society’s first members turned refurbishing the house into an important mission throughout 1967, and the group held its first public meeting there shortly after the work was completed.

The Patterson House served as an open museum for two decades, time during which the historical society established a number of traditions at the house, including decorating for Christmas and playing records on the in-house Victrola.

Members socialized in the home dressed in period attire amid the house’s original possessions and surrounded by ornate architectural detailing.

The house was built from locally sourced walnut and cherry trees. The bricks that make up the structure were fired in Patterson’s own kiln.

The house served as a historical museum until a structural engineer deemed it unfit as a public gathering space for large groups. In 1986, the home was sold on the private market and the original possessions from the house were auctioned.

The historical society retains a relationship with the owner of Patterson House, which is still considered the city’s official museum, and welcomes small tour groups with an advance call.

Though the historical society was unable to retain the Patterson House, the group came into possession of the South Gale School House when the school district donated it to them.

The schoolhouse was constructed in 1922 and survived a move to Smithville High School’s grounds, where it was used for shop classes and served the school’s agriculture education program.

The school district donated the school to the historic society in 1972.

The schoolhouse was moved again, this time to the north side of East Church Street just east of its intersection with Commercial Avenue.

Smithville’s profile of historic sites, including the Patterson House and the city’s once-booming horse racing track, continue to be subjects of study for the Smithville Historical Society.

Both the South Gale School House, and the Smithville Historical Museum and Inn, 210 N. Bridge St., are available for scheduled tours. For tour information on the school, visit info@smithvillehistoricalsociety.com. For more information on the Historical Museum, call 816-678-7368.

Weston Historical Museum

In the essay that won a writing contest organized by the Weston Historical Museum, resident Barbara Gatschet extolled the north Platte County city with a story.

The homage touches on a number of Weston’s assets, the rich natural splendor and the physical vessels that carry the rural city’s story like the historic homes and museums, which Gatschet notes are “preserved and celebrated by our citizenry and shared with the public.”

Among them is the Weston Historical Museum.

The museum has been a critical component of the city’s historical record. For example, the town’s rich history with tobacco has been preserved in the museum through a scaled tobacco barn and exhibits showing how tobacco was once harvested. Samples and pictures of hemp, Weston’s reputed original cash crop, are housed inside of the museum.

The museum is closed from the middle of December to the middle of March annually. This year, the museum opens on March 20.

The museum’s trustees, which act as volunteer coordinators and curators, have organized a cadre of new displays for the upcoming 2016 season. New exhibits will explore the dolls, women’s clothes and other personal effects woven into the area’s history.

The museum boasts “several lifetimes” of household wares and remnants of family life. Toys, tools and clothes are housed within the museum that date back to Weston’s earliest settlers.

The museum has a set of permanent displays including artifacts from the Native American population that preceded the white settlers that claimed the land that eventually became Platte County. There are also early paintings from the area and records intimating the history of the McCormick Distilling Co. at the south edge of town.

For genealogists, the museum claims more than 1,700 obituaries, many of them as old as the Civil War. There are grave records and census counts, too.

For those interested in press history, the museum also has a working hand press.

The museum also has telephone books and old high school yearbooks.

Carl Felling, president of the museum’s trustees board, said he measures the success of the museum’s 30-plus all-volunteer staff by having the museum’s offerings used by the public.

Felling has been involved with the museum for 20 years. His father was part of the original group that opened the museum in the ’60s.

Reflecting on both his decision to retire to Weston after relocating for work in the ’80s as well as his decision to lead the trustees five years ago, “I just love Weston,” Felling said.

Weston’s museum is within minutes of a number of other historical offerings in the north Platte County city including the Bonnell Museum at 20755 Lamar Road, a walkable exhibit depicting agricultural life as it would have been in 1874, and the Lewis and Clark exhibit inside the train depot at 300 Main St. The famed explorers passed through Weston in 1804.

The museum staff also offer private tours of surrounding attractions and historic homes around the home.

The Weston Historical Museum, 601 Main St., is open from Tuesday through Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and on Sunday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Call 816-640-2909 to arrange a private tour or get more information about the museum. Admission is free.

Excelsior Springs Museum

The site of Excelsior Springs Museum, the southeast corner of Broadway and Main Street, was formerly known as the “Excelsior Hotel grounds,” according to historical records, a name that had been retained since the land held the city’s first hotel.

The bedford stone building that today serves as the city’s museum originally housed the Clay County State Bank when the doors at 101 E. Broadway St. opened in 1906.

The museum began through a need to safely house and display artifacts left by the Native Americans. In 1967, local collector Judd Palmer appeared before the Excelsior Springs city council suggesting a museum be created. The city board appointed a committee to create what would eventually become the Excelsior Springs Museum.

It began as just a display site at the south end of the city’s administrative quarters.

At the same time, the bank at 101 E. Broadway had outgrown its building. Clay County State Bank had continued to operate in the building, adding on to the architecture to meet growing volume. In the late ’60s, the banking group moved out to a new building.

The building came under ownership of the banking-enriched Kemper family and was sold to Excelsior Springs for $1 under the condition that it be used as a museum.

The build is today independently owned by the museum.

Today, the city museum serves as a central point of contact for not only history, but also exchange of ongoing cultural work. The museum currently offers an exhibit exploring the work of visual artist Linda David. The collection at the museum features works in a range of mediums to capture the the sights of Excelsior Springs including the revered Hall of Waters and The Elms Hotel, lodging built in 1912.

Aside from the standard offers of historical fare, the museum’s curators also have an idiosyncratic taste expressed in exhibits like a current one which features the personal effects of romance. Letters from romantic couples and wedding photos are on display at the museum.

Aside from the rotating exhibits, the museum acts as a permanent archive for a range of historical records including old government and military records, music and video recording, documents pertaining to religion and even Christmas cards from antiquity.

To assist with genealogical research, the museum also has records of obituaries, family photographs, telephone books, high school yearbooks and other records of the people whose lives have touched Excelsior Springs.

The museum is run by a staff of volunteers and funded entirely by donations, membership dues and research fees.

The Excelsior Springs Museum shares a city block with the famed Hall of Waters, a former site of a large mineral water bottling operation and once a source for consumers around the globe. The art deco building at 201 E. Broadway today houses the city’s administrative headquarters.

Both the museum and the city’s offices are contained within the Hall of Waters Historic District, an area which has a large share of Excelsior Springs’ commercial areas and historical architecture. Most of the buildings in the district were constructed from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.

The Excelsior Springs Museum, 101 E. Broadway St., is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A visit outside those hours can be arranged by contacting the museum at 816-630-0101. Visitors who are not museum members can access the museum for $2.

Visiting history

▪ Atkins-Johnson Farm & Museum

6607 North Antioch Road

Gladstone

816-453-3276

▪ Clay County Museum & Historical Society  

14 N. Main St.

Liberty

816-792-1849

▪ Jesse James Farm & Museum

21216 Jesse James Farm Road

Kearney

816-736-8500

▪ Shoal Creek Living History Museum

7000 N.E. Barry Road

Kansas City.

816-792-2655

▪ Jesse James Bank Museum

103 N. Water St.

Liberty

816-736-8510

▪ Chappell’s Restaurant & Sports Museum

323 Armour Road

North Kansas City

816-421-0002

▪ American Truck Historical Society

10380 N. Ambassador Drive, Suite 101

Kansas City

816-891-9900

▪ United Federation of Doll Clubs Museum

10900 N. Pomona Ave.

Kansas City

816-891-7040

▪ The National Silk Art Museum

423 Main St.

Weston

816-536-5955

▪ National Airline History Museum

201 N.W. Lou Holland Drive

Kansas City

816-421-3401

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