News

The News-Leader's Answer Man: Springfield History Museum's Summer Surprise

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - On short notice Wednesday, I asked John Sellars if I could tour the 18,000 square feet of exhibit space under construction at the History Museum on the Square.

Sellars, executive director of the museum, made it happen — but only with the understanding that photographer Drew Jansen not reveal too much.

Sellars wants to save the drama for the opening this summer.

So you'll have to take it from me — it's going to be spectacular. 

And if I didn't think so, I'd take a page from the playbook of our theater reviewer, Larry T. Collins, and instead tell you in all honesty that it's going to be really, really "OK."

As many of you know, Sellars helps me with my Answer Man column. That's why he's a Deputy Answer Man.

He has two new staff members, whom I met on Wednesday. Katie Schoorl, who is guest experience manager, and Palmer Johnson, the museum's education manager.

They raised their right hands and solemnly swore that they will dutifully carry out their new roles as deputies to the Deputy Answer Man.

The museum currently has 1,800 square feet of space in the former Fox Theater on the square. It will keep that space and add two buildings to the west, on the other side of neighboring Rosenbaum's Jewelry.

The new facility is wonderfully divided into discrete spaces. 

In part, that's because although they are connected internally, the floor levels are not the same. There's a gap of 18 inches between the second floor of one building and the second floor of its neighbor.

The corner building at Boonville is three stories and the one to the east is two stories — yet the inside elevator has five stops because the floors are not level.

The $12 million project started years ago. The two buildings were purchased about nine years ago.

Sellars would not detail the size or the source of donations.

"I am raising money right and left."

I ask Sellars how much the museum has raised thus far, and he deflects the question with the words of Blanche DuBois, a fictional character from  "A Streetcar Named Desire":

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

A streetcar and time machine

Ready for the tour?

Seems appropriate we start with the streetcar.

On the mezzanine level is a replica of a Springfield streetcar that also serves as a time machine. Inside, you can steer to one of 42 iconic Springfield stories, including photos and video.

In homage to fellow News-Leader columnists Hank Billings (deceased) and Mike O'Brien (alive), I suggest you start with the Great Cobra Scare of 1953, covered extensively in this newspaper.

When you first walk into the reception area, you will be greeted by a large, though not full-scale, replica steam engine.

Why a steam engine?

Because of the important role the railroad has played in Springfield history. Especially the Frisco Railway.

On the mezzanine, you can enter a railroad passenger car.

In the car, you can virtually re-create a trip from St. Louis to Springfield via one of three modes: covered wagon, railroad car or automobile.

And do we start the area's history with a date for when a white man first settled here?

Absolutely not.

A large teepee will have information on some of the Native American tribes that once inhabited the area, including the Kickapoo and the Delaware, who stayed briefly in the grand scheme of history, and the Osage, who lived in the Ozarks much longer.

The faux rock in the exhibit was made by the Springfield company Elemoose, which does a lot of work for none other than Mr. Johnny "Bass Pro" Morris.

Nearby is a section on the Trail of Tears, with audio based on the journal of one of the soldiers who helped forcefully remove Native Americans from their homelands to land west of the Mississippi.

"The journal captures what it was like to cross Missouri in the dead of winter," Sellars says.

An exhibit will detail the travels of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who hiked through the Ozarks from Nov. 6, 1818 to Feb. 4, 1819. Colleague Wes Johnson wrote about a man who recently re-enacted that hike.

In a different cranny are small exhibits and photos of august and bygone Springfieldians.

There's Joseph Rountree, Springfield's first teacher, with some of his textbooks.

And next to him is James Slavens, a circuit rider preacher and medical doctor, with his actual medical bag.

Pistols for your boot, sir?

And, yes, the museum has guns!

These were made by Jacob Painter, a renowned Springfield gunsmith from 1830 to 1880.

Sellars says that many a man heading west to the Cali-forn-eye-a Gold Rush stopped in Springfield to hand over $10 for a pair of Jake's Best — two small pistols that fit into a pair of boots.

Also, there's a depiction of the old courthouse on the square, where the Heer's building is today. I could not tell if it was an old photo or a drawing. But the exhibit had the actual handle to the front door.

The Civil War section includes displays on local battles, Civil War medicine and drummer boys.

Also, there's part of the original iron fencing that once surrounded a monument to Union Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, shot and killed at the battle of Wilson's Creek on Aug. 10, 1861.

Originally, the monument — not the body, which was buried in Lyon's home state of Connecticut — was on display on the square. It is now stationed at Springfield National Cemetery at Seminole Street and National Avenue.

An upstairs section is devoted to "Wild Bill Hickok and the American West."

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok is best known locally for when he shot and killed Davis Tutt in a duel on the downtown Springfield Square on July 21, 1865.

I've written about this.

One of the exhibits will test your lethal marksmanship.

With a similarly weighted Navy Colt, the heavy gun used by Hickok, you also can try to hit a target the size of a man at 75 yards, which I'm told is no easy task.

That's a creative idea. So I ask Sellars: Who comes up with ideas for museum exhibits?

Museum staff have worked with fabricators ExPlus since July of 2016 and Gallagher & Associates and Casey Architecture for five years on exhibits.

Staffers suggest events and characters that should be included, and Gallagher & Associates suggests how to do that in an exhibit.

Near to Wild Bill is an exhibit featuring other legendary characters from the era, including Wyatt Earp, who was sheriff in Lamar, and William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, whose Wild West show came through Springfield.

Red's, Rail Haven and Sunset Drive-in

No Springfield museum would be complete without a Route 66 exhibit.

The expansion includes a 66-foot-long wall. On one side will be a map of the legendary Chicago to Los Angeles route; on the other is a timeline of the byway.

Nearby is a display for one of the most important figures in Springfield history: John T. Woodruff.

Woodruff helped wind Route 66 through Springfield.

According to Sellars, Woodruff arrived in Springfield in 1904 as an attorney for the railroad.

He helped bring what was then Southwest Missouri State Teachers' College to Springfield.

He was on a different committee that brought the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners to Springfield.

He helped bring O'Reilly Hospital here in the1940s. The site is now where Evangel University is located.

Woodruff also built the Colonial, Kentwood Arms, Sansone and Downtown hotels, as well as the Woodruff Building and Frisco Office Building.

Later, he converted his farm into the Hickory Hills Country Club.

"He was amazing," Sellars says.

If you want to know more about Woodruff, Thomas A. Peters, dean of library services at Missouri State University, wrote a book about him.

In addition, you'll find neon signs for Rail Haven Inn, Red's Giant Hamburg and Sunset Drive-in, which was on Springfield's west side.

Not only that, the museum has an original Red's menu — as well as a menu from the historic Graham's Rib Station, owned and operated by a black family.

Colleague Jackie Rehwald recently wrote about Graham's.

Believe me, I've only scratched the surface.

Sellars tells me an admission ticket for adults will be under $20. Children's tickets will be less.

These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper seven years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 417-836-1253, spokin@gannett.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65806


More Stories

Latest News

Video Center