“You mean the Gingerbread House?” was the response I received after telling the waitress I planned to visit the local history museum. I guessed “yes” as the answer as I knew that the museum had a Christmas event each year exhibiting Gingerbread houses.
The building indeed, does look like a gingerbread house and it does stand out from those in its neighbourhood. Built in 1893, its style reflects a heavy, ornate method of architecture. The sandstone building housed the city’s courts, mayor’s office, jail and police department until 1971.
As all museums usually are, it was a step back in time as I was led on a tour of the exhibits and behind the scenes collections by Randy Elliott, a member of staff who is responsible for exhibits and reference queries.
The History Center is one of three locations that have played a role in the area’s history and are managed by the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society, here in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The museum, offices and some storage of items is located in the Old City Hall.
Randy began the visit by explaining to me that most counties had a local museum. These museums vary in quality and size. If you become a financial member of the History Center your membership also includes membership to the Time Travelers network of museums across the United States that offers reciprocal benefits to members.
The county has a population of about 360,000 people. It is predominantly a rural community with manufacturing historically being a big employer but the local economy has been effected by the recent recession. He later showed me a map which outlined the twelve townships in the county including Springfield where there is an Amish community.
The museum employs 13 people, of whom 8 people are part time. They sometimes have volunteers help with programs but this remains inconsistent. Regular volunteers help out each Christmas with the Gingerbread festival which is also a source of funding for the Historical Society.
The Historical Society was founded in 1921 and the society took the City Hall over for a museum in 1980. The name sake and founder of the city was Anthony Wayne, a US Army General who set up the fort in 1794 at the confluence of the local three rivers. The area has had early associations with the French and the British.
The permanent display commences with visitors learning about the Ice Age era and local archaeological finds (in the same vein as my recent visit to the London Museum). Information on Anthony Wayne and other local historical figures, followed by a section on the local Miami Indians, the Rivers and Canals Development, the Civil War era and the migrant communities including German and later Vietnamese and Burmese people; transportation, and the contribution of African-Americans and Hispanics as well as local industry.
An Education Officer is employed to manage the frequent visits by school children (more than six thousand children per year) where a special room accommodates them. A short film is usually shown before the kids see the exhibits and fill out an activity sheet related to what they see in the exhibits. The museum also includes hands on activities such as puzzles and kids can touch certain items. Children also enjoy going downstairs to view the local police historical display and see the original (cold and basic) jail space untouched since last used in 1971 when the City Hall closed. Randy pointed out that the museum cannot really maintain or sustain well changes in technology for their displays. For example touch screen technology to watch films, common in some museums, does not have a place here. In the same vein, staff still maintain a card catalogue for part of its collection (not all) and only a small part of its photographic collection has been digitised.
A special gallery opened last year, named Allen County Innovations. It profiles many products conceived and produced in the local area including magnet wire. Randy showed me the film that is often used to introduce the museum to school children. I was interested to learn that the area has introduced the first washing machine, the first hand held calculator and sterophonic sound to the world. The area has an interesting history of crime and that was one factor in the construction of City Hall in the first place to have the architectural statement that the authorities “mean business” to get the crime under control. Fort Wayne was also known for its women’s baseball team, made famous in the early 1990s by the film “A League of their own”. It was also the original home of the National Basketball team, the Detroit Pistons.
Temporary exhibits in the hallways include a variety of subjects. One is an interesting displays of helmuts from World War 1 and another is the story of Silvanus F. Bowser who created the self-measuring gas pump. In Australia we call these petrol bowsers of course – so now you know why!
The Shields Room on the second floor is described as a crowning glory. It had been used as an exhibition space but was recently renovated and returned to its former glory including gold leaf and hand coloured ceiling and architraves. Although it is still used for the Gingerbread Festival it is now a space hired out for daytime events.
Randy was also able to show me some of the collections preserved by the Historical Society. These include about 200 or so paintings. These are sometimes lent out to the local art gallery. A large collection of clothing and the more traditional archive collections including photographs, notable people files, ephemera and special collections such as the Sherriff collection on local law enforcement. A more recently used collection has been World War 1 local alien registrations cards – due to the local German population at the time. They also hold the records of S.F. Bowser including a very unique quality photograph collection taken from original 8 x 10 glass negatives.
Randy answers about 100 research queries a month. Personal visits for research are fairly rare, although the museum can accommodate this if necessary, which needs to be arranged prior to a visit.
The History Center, in partnership with the Helmke Library at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), has created an online Digital Collections. This link provides access to some historic materials owned by the Historical Society, including photos, maps, and manuscripts.