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Finney County Museum bridges local history

Published 5/2/2012


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Brad Nading/Telegram Laurie Oshel scans an old photograph in to her computer to make a digital copy in the research room on the second floor of the Finney County Historical Museum in March 2012. Oshel, assistant director at the museum, is in charge of the research area.

Brad Nading/Telegram Laurie Oshel scans an old photograph in to her computer to make a digital copy in the research room on the second floor of the Finney County Historical Museum in March 2012. Oshel, assistant director at the museum, is in charge of the research area.

From mammoths to living history, the Finney County Historical Museum blends the present with the past.

Operated by the Finney County Historical Society, the Finney County Historical Museum, 403 S. Fourth St., is a 19,600-square-foot building with space for permanent and temporary displays, a research library and meeting space. The historical society was founded in 1948, with the current museum built in 1963. The museum receives 20,000 to 30,000 visitors per year, a healthy number that museum officials said is likely related to the proximity of the museum to the front entrance of the Lee Richardson Zoo.

Part of the effort to keep the past engaged to the present is the work of Education Retail Coordinator Johnetta Khebrlee. By giving presentations to schools in the community, she said, her job is bringing history to the students. Her presentations include information on Finney County and Kansas history, as well as tours of the museum.

A fourth-generation Finney County resident, Khebrlee said she hopes to spark the ownership of local history in the children by drawing commonalities between herself and the students. She said that she asks students how and why their families came to Kansas and then says her family came from Germany for a lot of the same reasons. She instills excitement in children by telling them facts, such as her grandfather once living across the river from Garden City co-founder Charles "Buffalo" Jones.

"When you're excited, they get all pumped up," Khebrlee said.

Khebrlee said that she has been making excellent progress since beginning her position two years ago. Last year, she said, she had 34 visits to area schools with 38 visits already completed between January and March of this year. The visits are free of charge. For teachers seeking information on history, Khebrlee has a library of research and story books along with DVDs and other videos available to borrow.

In the spring, Khebrlee focuses more on tours that involve both the museum and the nearby Pleasant Valley Schoolhouse, a one-room schoolhouse where some of Khebrlee's family once attended. She said that the tours make the children realize just how different life was in a time where $1 bought a lot of hard candy and horses or your own two feet were the only way to school.

"It becomes more real to them," Khebrlee said.

Though Khebrlee said she sees about 500 children a month in her presentations, she added that she also presents to people of all ages, from pre-school to people living in nursing homes.

Many items at the museum are unable to be displayed due to their size and are kept in a storage room. The large item storage contains artifacts like Garden City's first fire wagon, an old iron lung, and a ceremonial skeleton in a coffin. Assistant Director Laurie Oshel said the museum is an "interpretive museum," meaning that items generally are moved back and forth from displays in order to tell their stories with related contextual items.

Oshel works closely with the Leola Howard Blanchard Research Library, named for the author of the 1931 book "Conquest of Southwest Kansas." She said that Blanchard lived on the second floor of the Windsor Hotel, looking out her window onto developing Garden City as she wrote.

The research library does not have materials for circulation but contains various records of local interest. Old county records are kept in great dusty tomes alongside old probate and rural school records. They include photographs, maps and records from the Clutter killings that were focused on Truman Capote's 1966 book "In Cold Blood."

"We keep other people's memories," Oshel said, adding that one of her favorite stories was helping an orphaned woman find out information on how her mother died.

Researcher and archivist Janet Coulter said that without the research library, people would lose their history. She said that people always are looking for their roots.

Two store rooms for old clothes are next to the research library. The clothing, most too fragile to be worn, are from various periods in history.

Most of the exhibits in the main museum display area are permanent, such as the "Spirit of the Plains" exhibit that details the history of the area from ancient times to modern day. A line of information panels stand in front of a mock Native American camp while mammoth tusks lay in pieces on the ground in the corner.

The current temporary exhibit is "Rangers & Grangers," which focuses on the lives and stories of homesteaders to the region. Set up last fall, the exhibit of old photographs and artifacts eventually will make way for a new exhibit on Garden City resident Skip Mancini's work on community and college theater.

While a private organization, the museum gets a majority of its funding for operations from Finney County. Finney County Historical Society Executive Director Mary Regan said that the approximately $206,000 funding comes in part because the museum is the archive of county records.

Regan said that the museum's main service is preservation, which then flows into other services, such as the education outreach. She said that the museum helps to answer the question of "who are we?" while being a center for what Regan said is the museum's greatest treasures — personal stories.

"This community has a lot to be proud of, and the museum reminds them of that," Regan said.

Memberships to the Finney County Historical Society can be obtained for $25 annually for a family and $15 annually for an individual. For more information, contact the Finney County Historical Museum at 272-3664.

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