Chesterton Tribune

County history museum: New vision and new exhibits

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Housed within the 140-year-old jail building in downtown Valparaiso, the reestablished Porter County Museum of History is “breaking out” of its former traditions and broadening its focus to include cultures outside of county boundaries that have still made an impact on Porter County in some fashion.

The museum, formally known as the “Old Jail Museum” went through some changes a year ago and reopened in September with extended hours, new exhibits and themed rooms. The upstairs floor now pays tribute to important points in America’s history beginning with the days of Native American settlers, on to the Civil War, and World War II. These “themed rooms,” which were not exhibited during the Chesterton Tribune’s last visit to the museum in 2007, allow museum goers to see how these events have enriched the heritage of citizens in Porter County.

“There are lots of stories behind the artifacts,” said executive director Kevin Pazour, who is currently the only full-time employee at the museum. Many of the artifacts have either been donated or loaned by Porter County residents, while others are borrowed from other collections like the “Humanoid” figure discovered in a limestone cave in Indonesia.

Adorning one of the walls near the main entrance is a small collection of WWI Liberty Loan posters that museum staff “accidentally discovered” in a box while looking through storage. Nearby in the hall is an original photograph of Commodore David Porter who Porter County was named after in 1836. Displayed at the end of the stairs is a detailed 1856 map of the county which was found in the attic of a Hebron farmhouse.

Displayed in the Civil War room is a pair of plaster life masks of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Pazour believes one of the plaster masks must have been made shortly after Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1861 and the other from a few weeks before he was assassinated in 1865. Valparaiso resident Paul Bartholomew loaned the masks from his family.

New Leadership

Bartholomew is also the chairman of the Porter County Heritage Corporation, which is essentially a board of trustees for the museum comprised of citizens from around Porter County, including Chesterton town manager Bernie Doyle who had a hand in renovating the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii.

Formed in May 2010, the 501C3 non-profit Heritage Corporation took the reins from the Historical Society of Porter County who had overseen the Old Jail Museum since it opened its doors in 1975. Bartholomew explained the mission of the new overseers is to “preserve and protect the artifacts with the best care” and applauded the “outstanding” efforts by all those involved. The number of volunteers and local historians keeps increasing with no limit to how many can belong.

“We certainly can always have more volunteers and (monetary) donations,” said Bartholomew, who also emphasized education as an integral part of the museum’s new vision.

The building and its maintenance are overseen primarily by the county commissioners, Pazour said, but he hopes in a few short years the museum will be able to maintain itself. With that said however, Pazour believes it is still important for the Heritage Corporation to work together with county and municipal governments.

“There has been the impression that we are only focusing on Valparaiso,” said Pazour who sees a need to convince folks otherwise. “We recognize that Porter County is a very unique place. There is the Dunes area in the north, the rolling plains in the center, and the marshes along the Kankakee River in the South. What we want is to retell the (history), this time taking into consideration other cultures that have touched it.”

Pazour said he is planning a cultural mask exhibit for the upcoming fall season that will showcase masks from around the globe. Many of them are being gathered from collectors in Porter County.

Fundraising/Possible Expansion

The Heritage Corporation is seeking funds/donations to making the museum a more independent body with a goal of raising up to $4 million.

Recent buzz purports that museum heads are eyeing an expansion that would lead to the purchase of the recently vacated Valparaiso Police Station located just two blocks over. Although he admits the museum is looking to expand, Pazour insists that nothing is yet set in stone and feels that no serious discussion will take place until the museum meets its current goals of firmly establishing a vision.

“It’s something that is in the pipeline,” he said.

Whatever venue they end up choosing, the Heritage Corporation would set it up as a first-class museum that would continue to house and protect artifacts and relics so they can be education tools for future generations.

Renderings of the proposed exterior of the future museum can be viewed on the museum’s Web site.

Life as a War Prisoner

Starting today, the museum will display the journal of WWII Solider Vic Wehrman of St. Joseph, Mo., who spent two years held captive by German forces. The journal serves as a companion piece to the personal effects of fellow war prisoner Frank Sagle of Valparaiso. Both men were liberated on April 13, 1945.

The captives endured multiple hardships such as marching over 1,000 miles without a change of clothing for two years. They were allowed, however, to write letters to family from time-to-time and some of those letters are on display along with Sagle’s army jacket, awards, and his Bronze Star medal donated by Frank’s wife Eunice.

WWII fanatics can marvel at other items in the display such as a “Wild Bill Garner” helmet, United States and German hand grenades, a Nazi Party arm band, a German 9 MM Lugar PO-8, U.S. Army and Navy uniforms, and the Lowenstine Honor Wall commemorating the efforts of soldiers from the Valparaiso area.

The Speedy Thrills of Dave Whitcomb

On temporary exhibit, racing enthusiasts can relive the days of the United States Auto Club racing during the 1960’s -- before NASCAR made it big -- and read up on local racing legend Dave Whitcomb.

Whitcomb, a Porter County resident, started racing in 1950 and after winning two track championships at the Rensselaer, Ind. competition, he was politely asked not to race in the 1965 competition. He began racing exclusively in the USAC circuit in 1966 where he won the Sportsman of the Year award the same year A. J. Foyt was named USAC Rookie of the Year.

Included in the exhibit are a number of trophies Whitcomb won throughout his career as a racecar driver until he retired in 1977. Whitcomb also serviced and maintained the Valparaiso Police’s squad car fleet during the time he raced.

Pazour said the exhibit will be on display for the remainder of the summer.

More to Explore in Eastern Headquarters

If you haven’t yet seen the Broncho John’s Wild West Show, step right up!

The character Broncho John, whose real name was John Sullivan, was part of the original Buffalo Bill Wild West Show with Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley.

Sullivan later started his own show in Valparaiso, which he always referred to as his “Eastern Headquarters”, and museum goers can gawk at his Stetson hat and six-shooters or at other parts of the exhibit like Calamity Jane’s derringer pistol.

Sullivan settled in Valparaiso in 1884 and gave many belongings to the museum before his death in 1951. He is buried in the Maplewood Cemetery west of the Valparaiso Wal-Mart.

“A lot of people who visit the museum still remember his shows,” Pazour said.

As you enter the Broncho John exhibit, it is hard not to notice the large drop cloth that looms over the doorway designed to look just like a show tent for the Wild West shows. The drop cloth is not actually a relic from those days but was created by Chesterton artist and theater performer Zach Gipson shortly after the museum reopened in September.

Gipson, a 2006 Chesterton High School graduate, explained he used wood stain and a mixture of brown paint to give it a “stressed” look.

Gipson also constructed the “Humanoid Cave” on the lower level of the museum using gray foam. He has also worked on productions at the Memorial Opera House, which neighbors the museum.

New Hours

The Porter County Museum of History is now open Wednesday through Sunday, with evening hours on Wednesday and Thursday. The building is located at 153 Franklin St. in Valparaiso in the courthouse square.

Pazour also encourages interested citizens to visit the museum’s Facebook page for pictures and news items. He has also started a blog Web site that includes news articles almost daily from 1921.

To access the blog and other information, go to the Web page


Posted 6/8/2011