Chesterton Tribune

Town of Porter History exhibit makes brief return to Westchester Township museum

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In case you missed the Town of Porter’s sesquicentennial celebration four years ago, you have the chance to catch it in a returning exhibit at the Westchester Township Brown Mansion History Museum now through Feb. 12.

Museum curator Serena Sutliff said the exhibit serves as a “filler” while she and museum staff ready her first original exhibit “The Fire Departments of Westchester Township,” set to open on Feb. 18.

“You don’t want bare walls. You want people who come here to see and learn things,” Sutliff said.

In the meantime, the “Porter History” exhibit includes many relics and photographs from when the museum first opened the exhibit in 2008, commemorating the 150th anniversary of when the town got its start.

Exclusive Items

The current exhibit does include portions not part of the 2008 edition such as a portrait photograph of revered Porter teacher Emily Peterson, a lifetime resident of the town who taught school for 46 years in the community and also served as librarian at the Porter Public Library from 1914 to 1955.

Other features exclusive to this exhibit include a live slide show “A Walk Through Porter” produced by local historians Nancy Hokanson and Rita Newman for the Duneland Historical Society. As an added feature, museumgoers can read the original script prepared for the walking tour.

Close by are original black-and-white photos of the Good Fellow Club Youth Camp and members of the 1958 Porter Police force. Visitors will also find photos taken around Porter for the museum’s “A Day in the Life of Westchester Township” display in 2007.

Worst Disasters

Making their way through the exhibit, visitors will also see the giant headlines from a 1921 edition of the Chesterton Tribune covering the infamous train wreck that occurred on February 27 of that year when 37 people were killed on impact when a Centennial Instate Express train collided with Michigan Central’s Canadian trains at the diamond intersection west of town.

Yet, “the worst disaster ever to hit town” came in the form of a funnel cloud which touched down April 7, 1948, around supper time. Visitors can catch a glimpse of the knocked-over trees and homes flattened by the tornado by in photograph of the damage.

A third disaster sparked in May 1970 when the Porter Hardware store “burned to the ground” expedited by paint and ammunition. The “worst fire in Porter’s history” brought out 165 men from 13 different fire departments.

Business Is Good

Community and business have always been two uniting factors of Porter and the museum has the artifacts to prove it.

Displayed are a white china cup and saucer from the short-lived “Porter China Factory” owned by Anton Schmidt. The plant, located on Lincoln Street, was in production for only three years when it burned to the ground in 1925.

A glass plate that served as a complimentary gift given out to patrons by storeowner John Busse is also on display. Busse ran the Union Block Development Store downtown from 1891 to 1912.

Sketchings, paintings and original photos of community buildings help detail the foundation of the Porter’s sense of community: a painting done of the Waverly School House (built in 1881) by artist Sears Wait, pictures of the Porter Grade School which was utilized from 1895 to the early 1950s and later became the site of the Hageman Memorial Library.

Visitors can also see how the Porter Town Hall took shape since it was built in 1913. The original building maintained its own library and jail and a one-ton bell hanging in the tower. It was later demolished in 2002 and the town soon rebuilt the building, incorporating a design similar to the 1913 building.

Another familiar sight is the historical Bailey Homestead which reopened as restaurant in 1965 for a short duration only to be later purchased by the National Park Service in 1972.

“Community has always been very important not only to Porter but all of Westchester Township,” said Sutliff, who said most of the community display items are part of the museum’s collection while others come from private donors.

Becoming Porter

Most importantly in the exhibit, museumgoers can read for themselves the various stages of growth of Porter which existed as a small depot area for the Michigan Central railroad fifty years before the town became incorporated in 1908.

Small towns began forming in the area in the mid 1800s after the formation of Baillytown. There was Old Porter surrounding the Porter train station and New Porter that started out as the town of Hageman. Founder Henry Hageman sold or donated much of the land to residents.

Porter Station was renamed Gibertville in honor of Henry Gilbertson in 1882 and residents used the name for the next 17 years. Hageman continued to grow and, because Michigan Central never used the town’s name, it simply referred to Old Porter and New Porter as Porter.

Porter started with about 500 residents when incorporated in 1908 and has grown to 4,858 according to 2010 census figures.

Sutliff said Porter in its early days served as a tourist attraction given its close proximity to the Indiana Dunes and the railroads. Earlier attractions such as the Coronado Lodge, the Mineral Springs Race Track and the Carlson Planetarium gave way to later attractions like Enchanted Forest and Splash Down Dunes.

The town’s biggest growth occurred after the 1960s when the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established along with the nearby Bethlehem Steel plant in Burns Harbor.

Coming Attractions

Sutliff revealed the upcoming “Fire Departments of Westchester Township” exhibit will have a grand opening celebration on Saturday, Feb. 18 and the Chesterton, Porter and Burns Harbor Fire Departments will park their trucks at the museum to be a part of the celebration. Local firefighters are currently donating items for the exhibit.

Sutliff, a past intern and volunteer at the Westchester Township History Museum, took over for the museum’s founding curator Jane Walsh-Brown on Jan. 1.

Exhibits are free to the public. The museum is located at 700 W Porter Ave. in Chesterton and is open from 1 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays through Sundays.



Posted 1/30/2012