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Column: Air museum, heritage center additions aid displays

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Bartholomew County history will have a lot more room after this weekend. Two major repositories of the county’s past — the Bartholomew County Historical Society and the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum — will unveil additions to their current facilities with open houses Saturday.

The added spaces are long-awaited developments in the telling of their stories by the two groups. They not only will open up existing spaces but also will allow the public to see hundreds of artifacts that previously were consigned to storage facilities.

The added room will give both groups the opportunity to use their facilities for conferences and classes that can shed additional light on their pasts.

The real beneficiaries of these developments, however, are the people who will be able to get a better sense of where we’ve been.

Haw Creek Heritage Center

The expansion of the Bartholomew County Historical Society does more than add space to the existing museum on Third Street in Columbus. It also takes the society out into the county, in this case the town of Hope, which is now home to the Haw Creek Heritage Center.

An open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the newly renovated building on Aiken Street is seen more as an outreach effort than just an expansion.

“This is not the history center that has been discussed many times over the past few years,” said Julie Hughes, executive director of the historical society. “We see it is an opportunity to make the society more accessible to people in areas outside Columbus, in this case the Hope community. We are still exploring possibilities of developing a true history center in Columbus, preferably in the downtown area.”

The inability to find space in the downtown Columbus area has not been for lack of trying. Over the years a number of sites have been explored, including the old ice house, which was once next door to the museum but was abandoned because of environmental concerns over the soil. Other sites have fallen by the wayside because of cost concerns. Let’s face it, downtown property does not come cheaply.

The decision to move into the Hope area came about through an offer to lease a building to the society, which was also given an option to purchase at a later date.

The numbers tell a story in themselves. “We’re gaining an additional 17,000 square feet of space,” Hughes said. “It’s offered so many possibilities in meeting our needs.”

Perhaps of greatest importance is that the new facility will provide safe storage for more than 100,000 historical items, most of which had been sheltered in a local warehouse that had little in the way of environmental controls. Some of the materials that had been on display at the downtown museum and the society’s Breeding Farm north of Columbus will be moved to the Haw Creek Center.

“Actually, thinning out our collections downtown and the Breeding Farm will make both of these facilities more user-friendly,” Hughes said. “We can better organize our displays and certainly make them more accessible than they are at present.”

The Haw Creek Center is going to be much more than a storage facility. Some of its items are extremely rare and touched with celebrity. One particular item of historical interest is a pair of earrings that were once given as a present by George Washington in the 18th century. The earrings and a matching pendant were donated to the historical society by the late Beulah Brown Fletcher.

The center is about more than exhibits. The facility also has several cubicles that will be rented to local artisans for the practice of their crafts. Four already have been spoken for. There are also spacious conference rooms and work centers and a large meeting area. There’s even a kitchen that will be used in the near future for cooking classes conducted by renowned local chef Jim Gregory.

In addition to the open house, the center will be the scene for a historical fashion show beginning at 6 p.m. Saturday. Outfits dating as far back as the 18th century will be worn by male and female models, including a flapper dress from the 1920s and a football uniform (with leather helmet) from the 1940s.

There will be a fee for the fashion show ($15 for members of the society, $20 for nonmembers and $5 for children) that also will include appetizers that were popular in the 19th century.

Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum

The air museum has the same digs it’s had since its opening in 1992. It’ll just be a lot bigger after Saturday. It says something that the guest speaker for a 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony at the facility on the grounds of Columbus Municipal Airport will be Gov. Mike Pence.

He will be officially opening an addition to the museum, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the former military air base. It more than doubles the exhibit space and provides organizers the opportunity to not only better showcase existing materials but add new ones.

For many veterans the museum is a journey in nostalgia, and not just for those who served in the Air Force. One of the new additions is a re-created barracks, complete with a red butt can for smokers.

The annex was made possible through the raising of more than $300,000. While most of the technical work was done by professional contractors, a small army of volunteers has been at work for several months on projects relating mostly to the exhibit spaces.

“I would think that if you figured it on an hourly basis we have more than $500,000 in volunteer labor on this project,” museum President Jim Sellars said.

There are many personal elements in the museum’s expansion, such as a library named for the late Ernie Schorr, a longtime museum volunteer, and a conference room named for former bomber pilot John Walter.

Walter, a retired Cummins Inc. engineer in his 90s, was directly involved in several museum elements. He constructed a display area for a brightly colored World War II era beacon that is programmed to periodically go into operation. He also worked on a reproduction of the cockpit of a CG-4A glider plane that was used to train glider pilots at the base during World War II.

The expansion has given a new order to the museum, taking visitors through a timeline of the base’s military history, beginning with its hasty construction in 1942 to its deactivation during the Vietnam War.

There’s also more room to move around and appreciate the artifacts, many of which are tied to the community that played host to the base. There’s a new display of wartime equipment that was manufactured by local companies, such as casings for incendiary bombs made by Noblitt-Sparks (predecessor of Arvin Industries).

Both of these museum additions should help bring more visitors to their communities. More important, they offer the opportunity for those who already live here to learn about and enjoy the history of Bartholomew County.

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