Chesterton Tribune

 

 

A new look at the past: Westchester Township History Museum completes upgrades

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

You can’t change the past but you can tell it in new ways.

A new layout, a fresh coat of paint, installation of overhead lights and carpeting and a declaration from the Indiana Statehouse give new life to the Westchester Township History Museum which reopened its exhibit area Saturday with a reception on the lawn of the Brown Mansion.

Over 60 attended the ceremony where thank yous were exchanged among the Westchester Public Library board members, museum staff and volunteers, and community leaders.

In giving the opening remarks, WPL Director Phil Baugher expounded on the museum’s role in the Duneland community.

“It tells of our history and our ‘herstory.’ It’s our neighbors. It’s our neighborhoods,” Baugher said. “When centralized, it becomes our story.”

Other speakers regaled the highlights of the museum’s history spanning nearly two decades now.

The WPL trustees appointed assistant library director Jane Walsh-Brown as the museum’s first curator and started the museum on the lower level of the WPL Service Center in May 1998. The library had been housing pieces of history even years before that.

“There hadn’t been a real place to have a museum,” said Walsh-Brown in relating her experiences. “We were starting a museum from scratch. It was something I enjoyed about 95 percent of the time. There were a few long, long days.”

The museum faced its greatest difficulty in 2001 with the bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel but “survived because of some very generous volunteers -- Nancy Hokanson, Betty Canright, Fran Meyer and Eva Hopkins,” Walsh-Brown said.

The move to the Brown Mansion came in 2005 when WPL signed a lease with the Duneland School Corporation for the Brown Mansion. DSC had acquired the building in the 1960s and had used it as its administrative center before moving into Chesterton Middle School in 2005. The school to this day is the rightful owner of 129-year-old Brown Mansion.

Taking over for Walsh-Brown when she retired in 2011 was Serena Sutliff, who previously had been a college intern involved in many aspects of the museum.

Sutliff said the WPL board agreed last year the space inside the Brown Mansion “needed some refreshing.” The last major renovation had been quite some time ago in 1985 for the mansion’s 100th anniversary, she said.

“The goal was to come up with a layout that was easier for both our staff and our visitors,” Sutliff said.

Physical construction began in September, led by Anderson Construction of Valparaiso, while The Grossbauer Group of Chesterton headed up the aesthetic aspects and new visual elements that pay homage to the dunes. Work wrapped up at the end of February when the museum staff took the next step, revamping the interpretive content.

Sutliff said the information itself needed updating as the permanent exhibits only covered up to 1981.

Our Story

The name for the new permanent exhibit is “Westchester Township: Our Story.” It chronicles the many benchmarks of the area - the Foundation of Westchester Township, Education, the Indiana Dunes, Railroads and Westchester through the Decades.

In the entryway, a banner welcomes visitors promptly explaining what is Westchester Township and introducing them to “Little Eva,” who gives quick notes of important facts throughout the exhibit. The character is inspired by real-life museum researcher Eva Hopkins.

Different colored squares make it easy to identify the bullet points under each heading along with sections that show original maps and photographs.

There are also many artifacts to ogle such as a mastodon bone on loan from the Porter County Museum which had been found in Porter County and Chesterton Trojans megaphone and beanie from the 1950s.

Touring the museum for the first time, WPL children’s librarian Heather Chaddock said she particular enjoyed the interactive features like the train table and the post office with real letters.

“This would be a great place to take your kids this summer,” she said.

Local historians may notice that one of the partitions in the exhibit area is built of brick and mortar that was originally part of a former garage structure of the Brown Mansion.

The current temporary exhibit is “Needlework Through Ages,” which opened in March and is still featured in the same space as “Our Story” but will be replaced with “Westchester At War in the 19th Century” in the next few weeks, Sutliff said.

Proclamation

During the ceremony Saturday, WPL staff received a surprise honor from local state lawmakers.

Attending with fellow State Rep. Chuck Moseley, D-Portage, State Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, read aloud a resolution lauding the efforts of the museum in preserving the history of the community.

“We are so blessed to have this (museum) to preserve not only our natural history but our cultural history as well,” Pelath said.

Moseley told the crowd he had been “looking forward” to the reopening of the museum because he sees it to be “a living monument to the heritage and legacy of the Duneland community and to Northwest Indiana.”

“I know this will last in perpetuity for years to come,” he said.

The resolution had been officially adopted by the Indiana Assembly on Friday and was signed by Pelath and Moseley along with State Rep. Edmond Soliday, R-Valparaiso, and State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes.

Ralph Ayres, whose many titles include former state representative, retired CHS teacher, Duneland School Board president and history wiz, emphasized that a “great partnership” exists between the museum and the school corporation because of their link to education.

“It is a connection of the community,” Ayres said. “It is a viable, living part of us.”

Ayres invited the crowd back next year for the 130th anniversary of the Brown Mansion and the 10th year the museum has been housed there. For the occasion, he plans to donate his piece of Indiana’s “Constitution Elm.” According to history, Ayres said, the first delegation of Indiana met to write a state constitution in 1816 and worked under the shade of a giant elm tree which eventually died and bits of the wood were sold.

The museum, located at 700 W. Porter Ave., will maintain its same hours, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays. Groups of 10 or more are asked to call for a tour reservation at 983-9715.

 

Posted 5/29/2014