By JANET TABER | Photos courtesy of Janet Taber
If you’ve driven through Gainesville, Missouri, recently, you might have noticed a sign at the intersection of Highways 5 and 160 directing you to the Ozark County Historium on the town’s square. But unless you’ve taken the time to stop and check it out, you’re probably wondering: just what is a historium?
Simply answered, it is part emporium, part museum, and all history! Housed in a 1920s-era storefront on the west side of the town’s quaint square, the Ozark County Historium is the home of the local genealogical and historical society and its library. But what sets the historium apart from other society headquarters is the fact that it has become the cultural hub of the county. By hosting an ever-changing array of exhibits, displays, programs, and other events inside the cheerfully renovated space, the historium fulfills its mission to collect, preserve, and celebrate the area’s unique history, traditions, and culture.
In the four short years of its existence, Historium volunteers have amassed an impressive number of hours creating and hosting events such as quilt shows, a readers theater production, book signings, genealogy workshops, old-time craft demonstrations, veterans’ programs, heritage music events, and art exhibits. The overwhelmingly positive response by local residents as well as visitors to the county indicates that the historium is fulfilling a need in this small town.
“Our first event was a quilt show, just three months after our doors opened,” recalls volunteer coordinator Susan Ault. “We invited people to loan us their vintage friendship quilts, hoping we might get 15 or 20. We wound up with about 50 friendship quilts, hanging them on the walls, draping them over the banister of our balcony, and displaying them in our old store cabinets. Although it was February, more than 300 people came to see the quilts in a three-week period. The success of that first venture let us know we were on the right track!”
Though it has not been purposeful, because the majority of the historium volunteers are women, it has been an easy task to conceive of and implement programs that particularly appeal to women. Besides three more quilt exhibits, an antique dish/kitchenware display and an apron exhibit featuring more than 100 vintage aprons have been two of the most popular events, all drawing large crowds of visitors. The apron exhibit, held in July 2013, was launched with a seated tea party that sold out almost immediately. Because of its popularity, a second tea party—with the theme Grandma’s Trunk—is planned for July 31, 2014.
To step inside the historium on any given day is to take a step back in time. As the sign on the old brick above the original tin awning still proclaims, the building was a general merchandise store belonging to A.D. McDonald from 1922 until 1956. In subsequent years, it housed an auto parts business, a clothing store, and finally a pawn shop. When historical society members began looking for a new home for their growing collection of genealogical and historical materials, the For Sale sign in the old store’s window went into place at just the right time.
“It was quite a mess when we bought it, but we could see the potential, especially with some original things like the old tin ceiling and balcony still in place,” said John Ault, who headed up the complete renovation of the old building. “In six short months, we went from crumbling plaster and unsafe wiring to a beautiful, comfortable building that fits our needs perfectly.”
Adding to the old-fashioned ambience of the spacious room with its 16-foot ceilings has been the addition of some fixtures that harken back to the store’s origins. A 10-foot oak store counter, replete with a multitude of drawers and cubbyholes, was donated to the historium by the original owner’s granddaughter, Faunlee Harle, of Springfield, Missouri, who enjoys visiting and remembering what it was like growing up around the store. Her brother, Mike Breeding, allowed the original chopping block to return home. Other historical society members donated a variety of other old store fixtures that provide retail and display space.
The double front doors of the historium display the historical society’s logo, etched onto the glass. An oak tree with its roots exposed proclaims to all who enter that this is a place to search for their own roots. In the back portion of the room, a large expanse of well-organized bookshelves filled with resource materials, work tables, computers, a microfilm reader, and a collection of family histories awaits anyone whose families once called Ozark County home. And there is usually a volunteer on hand who is ready and willing to help.
“It is so satisfying to have someone come in from, say, California or Texas, and mention a name and hear that we know just where their great-grandparents are buried and can give them concise directions to the grave,” said resident genealogist Rhonda Herndon. “People always leave here very happy to have found out more about their ancestors, and that is our goal.”
While many visitors to the historium do come to search for their family history, a large number of patrons of the facility have no blood ties to the county. Still, there are plenty of reasons for these “newcomers” to visit, given the variety of offerings. In 2013 alone, there were more than a dozen events scheduled, from basket-making, stained-glass, and spinning and weaving demonstrations to gourd painting, flint knapping, and memoir-writing workshops.
“We try to choose events that will appeal to a wide range of folks,” continued Susan Ault. “This year we’ve focused more on young people, trying to let children see that the old way of doing things is fun. Our Dairy Day celebration in June, a throwback to the original 1950s celebration, was a great success! Kids brought terrapins for the terrapin race, sampled homemade cheese, butter and ice cream, and scrambled in the straw for coins that they could keep. They had their photo taken with Lily, a miniature Jersey cow and were amazed to hear that the cheese they had just sampled was made from her milk!”
Mens’ interests aren’t left out, either; three Veterans’ Day celebrations honored mostly male veterans, from the Civil War through the present-day Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts. And the current display featuring Agriculture in the Ozarks reminds male visitors how hard it was to make a living from rough Ozarks land in the 19th and early-20th centuries.
Following the Grandma’s Trunk exhibit and tea party in late July, historium volunteers will begin preparations for a major event in the fall called Making Music. Coinciding with the county’s fall festival, Hootin an Hollarin, a three-day affair that draws thousands to the small town every year on the third weekend of September, this music event, focusing on musicians and songwriters from Ozark County, will have a special attraction. Dr. Howard Marshall, well-known old-time fiddle music authority, will present a program on September 20, sharing the inspiration for and evolution of traditional fiddle music. Dr. Marshall, a talented musician himself, will perform on the stage at Hootin and Hollarin later that afternoon.
Tucked in among these bigger events will be another quilt show, more heritage craft demonstrations, and another art exhibit. The historium calendar is ever evolving and can be accessed at ozarkcountyhistory.org or on the Ozark County Historium group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/#!/groups/115211201844959. Or call the historium during its regular hours of operation at 417-679-2400. The facility is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as well as extended hours during special events. Questions can be emailed to email@example.com.
A visit to the Ozark County Historium could be the inspiration for a delightful Girls’ Day Out! Combine it with some shopping at the Old Ford Market, an eclectic, colorful, and inspiring gift shop just two doors down from the historium, and complete the day with a late lunch or early dinner at Rainbow Trout Ranch, located in the historic village of Rockbridge, a scenic 20-mile drive north of Gainesville. Call the Old Ford Market at 417-679-4000 to check for hours of operation, and call the Rainbow Trout Ranch at 417-679-3619; reservations are preferred, though not always necessary. M! August/September 2014