Valley Falls museum: preserving the past
Story and photos by Holly Davis
The Valley Falls Historical Society Museum has been fairly quiet these past winter months, but president Betty Jane Wilson hopes that as the weather warms up, the museum will once again be full of people with a hankering for history.
With many unexpected visitors whose curiosity brings them to the museum, Betty Jane says “you just never know who will come and when.”
The museum recently had a late-night visitor who was the daughter-in-law of a former Valley Falls barber. Whether by luck or happenstance, his old barber tools were just around the corner in a display.
Another time, a woman by the name of Mildren Gilleece Olden had mentioned wanting to visit the museum with interest in looking at a bed. Not particularly sure what she was looking for, Betty Jane showed her around. Shortly into the search, Olden showed a wide-eyed gaze at a baby crib displayed upstairs.
“This is it,” Olden said. “This is the crib my uncle built for me when I was a baby.”
Robert Nesbitt, Olden’s uncle, built the crib for his baby niece in 1918.
Betty Jane says she enjoys learning more about the history of the items in the museum and has Frank Shrimplin, Valley Falls, to thank for all he has taught her when it comes to genealogy and all things history.
When different people varying in age and interest come to visit, Wilson said, “I try to find what interests people and strikes a chord with them.”
For example, when nearby schools come for a field trip, the children are usually most interested in a set of school desks that were used at a former country one-room schoolhouse. They are fascinated when told that as students get older, they move up to bigger-sized desks. The kids, of course, have to try out each one, she said.
The desks came from a country school that Betty Jane attended as well as her father, uncle, and aunt.
With such a generation gap, she said it can be a challenge knowing what kids these days will be interested in.
One young boy came in and seemed very uninterested in many of the displays, but was so intrigued by a modern oscillating fan that was cooling down the room.
Betty Jane was also surprised to know that many young kids today have never seen a dial phone with the exception of in movies.
On the other spectrum, she remembers a young girl several years ago who came in for a visit with her school. The girl had politely asked if she could look at a photo album sitting on a side table.
She picked up the book as if it was a precious item and gingerly turned each page to look at the pictures inside. She and another young boy sat together looking through the entire photo album while giggling at all the funny outfits the people were wearing.
This priceless moment, Wilson says, is what makes all of her hard work worthwhile.
For many adults who come in, their main goal is to find ancestors’ high school pictures in the old Valley Falls High School composites displayed upstairs.
Another display that often strikes them is pictures of the old Rio Theater that ran in downtown Valley Falls.
Betty Jane says that many recall going to watch a film there or even selling tickets and popcorn as an after-school job.
She has also been given a heads-up that there are original theater seats in the apartment above what is now Flamingo Too, and hopes to have help getting them into the museum soon.
The newest addition to the museum’s collection is a salt and pepper shaker display in a lit cabinet. This collection was given by Nora Heugel’s family. Nora collected the salt and pepper shakers and was the mother of Edith Harden, who donated many hours to the museum.
Aside from the many historic antiques displayed at the museum, one in particular is once again thriving.
The Santa Fe Depot fern that sits near a window in the lobby of the museum is now prospering again after getting top heavy and falling over. Betty Jane, who cares for the landmark fern, had much help getting it restored and is happy to have it back in keen condition.
The fern dates back to 1915 when it was purchased by Hiram Miller, who worked at a grocery store in Valley Falls when he was a teenager.
After being re-potted several times and being passed from owner to owner, it now belongs to the historical society and is doing well.
With Kansas Day coming just around the corner, those passing by can enjoy the festive window display coming soon to celebrate the holiday.
Members of the Valley Falls Historical Society are still anxiously awaiting news on when the Historic Shrine Church will be moved next door. Until then, bricks will be collected.
As a fundraiser, the historical society has been selling engraved bricks for $50 and has sold over 400 thus far.
Members of the society hope that bringing the church downtown will add greatly to the rich history of the museum which tells the story of the people, places, and events that have made Valley Falls the town it is.
“We are so fortunate to have the things that we do,” Wilson said. “People have been so generous and good to us. This really is the town’s museum.”
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