News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 22, 2012

Preserving the past, eyeing the future

Museum envisions a place in downtown ‘renaissance’

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — No “wish list” exists.

Still, the glittering sign in a framed photograph lit up the eyes of Marylee Hagan, as she narrated a tour of the Vigo County Historical Museum, where she serves as executive director. The picture, displayed in the upper-floor hallway of the facility, shows the long-gone Fountain Theatre. The small downtown venue showed popular movies from 1911 to 1953.

The building remains, but the marquee — who knows?

“Of course, we’d love to have that,” Hagan said, with a smile.

The museum already brims with artifacts, packed into the three floors of the structure, built in 1868 by a prosperous baker and candy store proprietor, William H. Sage. The Vigo County Historical Society, a nonprofit agency with one full-time staffer (Hagan) and three part-time employees, operates the museum, which drew 14,000 visitors in 2011. This year, the society marks its 90th anniversary, tracing its roots to a “rather eclectic collection” of organizers who first gathered in the Emeline Fairbanks Library in 1922.

The society functioned for 35 years without a formal home, as members stored its growing collection of items in their homes and the library. In 1958, the Hulman family foundation and public contributions allowed them to open a museum in the Sage home.

Fifty-four years later, each floor, closet and attic space overflows.

The site is picturesque and quiet, but sits more than a dozen blocks from downtown Terre Haute at 1411 S. Sixth St. Though dedicated to preserving the county’s heritage and past, the society has the future and the museum’s relevance at the forefront of its plans.

“Because of our location, we are out of the mainstream and out of space,” Hagan said, “and a move will allow us to be a greater contributor” to the community.

The society has a building downtown on Wabash Avenue “in mind” as a new, larger location for the museum, though Hagan said she could not yet disclose the precise spot. The current museum contains 15,000 square feet of space, while the prospective site would nearly triple that footage. Given the popularity of certain exhibits maintained permanently at the Sage museum, the flexibility to craft new displays is limited.

“We have thousands of stories to tell, and [a move] will allow us to tell more of those stories,” Hagan said.

The shift north would also place the museum along the historic National Road and inside the city’s core, “where the renaissance is happening,” Hagan added.

Exciting future, ‘renaissance’

A downtown renaissance took many years to gain momentum, but sped to a brisk pace in the 21st century. Along with new hotels, renovated storefronts, parking garages, Indiana State University ventures, the Terre Haute Children’s Museum, and the Max Ehrmann plaza at the Crossroads, the downtown also added its Arts Corridor along Seventh Street. The idea of the Vigo County Historical Museum exhibiting treasured items of the local culture in the midst of that activity excites Hagan and the museum staff, which includes her and three part-time employees.

“It’s going to be busy, and it’s going to be a challenge,” said Barbara Carney, assistant director, “but I think we can handle it.”

Hagan took on the job of executive director 18 years ago, after serving a decade on the society’s board. Carney became assistant director under Hagan’s predecessor, David Buchanan, in 1988 and has been at it ever since, saying, “I’ve enjoyed every single day.” Both look forward to continuing their roles for several years at a larger facility, an endeavor that will require fundraising. As a nonprofit, the society relies on memberships, an annual fall donor campaign, other contributions and a stipend from county funds.

The future, both near and long-term, guides their plans. Hagan wants new generations to inherit the passion for history and vitality for the museum.

“We’ll certainly need to have younger blood move through, and I’m hoping our move will stir motivation,” Hagan said.

The museum collection reflects many generations of Vigo County people, places and things. Many are donated, and Hagan said, “We always tell people, ‘Don’t throw anything away until you talk with us.’” Some pieces would surprise average Hauteans.

A statue of the mythological god Mercury adorns a hallway. Made of pig-iron, an industrious Indiana State University art student carefully restored the sculpture that once stood atop a bank roof at Sixth Street and Wabash, where Rogers Jewelers now stands. After its unveiling, bank officials nervously studied the naked figure “to make sure he didn’t offend anybody.” This Mercury wears a fig leaf.

A vast collection of antique drug store equipment and devices, donated from the old Bindley Pharmacy on North Fifth Street, fills an entire room. A massive, wooden carving of “Punch” from the famous 19th-century “Punch and Judy” puppet act stood in front of Biel’s Tobacco Store on Wabash from 1867-1957, and now resides in the museum. A nearly life-sized photograph of Terre Haute songwriter Paul Dresser occupies most of one wall. (“He was a big man,” Hagan said of the rotund legend.) The traveling trophies of high school rivalries rest behind glass, the Turkey (from Garfield-Wiley battles) and the Bell (from Gerstmeyer-Wiley duels), as well as the 1955 Babe Ruth World Series championship trophy won by a team of Terre Haute 15-year-olds.

Other items are well-known facets of local folklore, including the vast Coca-Cola display, commemorating the creation of the drink’s distinctive bottle here in this city, and the military room.

Stiffy Green, Madame Brown

The city’s notorious past — linked to its early free-wheeling, early-20th-century days of gambling, prostitution and circumventing Prohibition laws — draws much curiosity. A remnant of those days, a glass canopy that once covered the front door of Madame Edith Brown’s brothel, now shields a doorway inside the museum. Hagan frequently portrays Brown in a presentation along with Sister Ann Casper, who plays St. Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence. Their enactment is called, “The Madame and the Saint.”

The attention paid to that grittier side of Terre Haute sometimes draws irritated callers. “I always say to them, ‘Thank you for calling, and I have to tell you that we don’t make up history, we just report it,’” Hagan said, “and we have a very colorful history.”

Kids who visit on the many Vigo County School Corp. field trips to the museum routinely ask to see “Stiffy Green,” and the dog indeed stands watch inside a replica of the Highland Lawn Cemetery mausoleum he once occupied in the resting place of Terre Haute businessman John Heinl. Legend says the dog’s loyalty for Heinl continued after the man died and was interred, trudging off to the cemetery daily. When the dog died at the site, according to legend, the family had him stuffed and placed inside the mausoleum. For decades teenagers peered into the grave, and shined flashlights into Stiffy’s green eyes, until an armed vandal damaged the dog and it was moved to the museum.

(In reality, Stiffy Green is made of concrete, and sat on Heinl’s porch, but the tale is more fun.)

The dog and his legend endure. Last week, two young men passing through the city on their way to St. Louis found the Stiffy Green story online, called the museum and visited. “A lot of people focus in on Stiffy Green and that legend,” said Kim Smith, recently hired for the museum’s new curator role. “And it’s a good story.”

Another man, traveling from his hometown of Oklahoma City to Canada, stopped in this month to look at old city directories. His great-grandfather got married in Terre Haute, and he hoped to find clues about his life. “It’s pretty fun. You meet really, really interesting people,” Smith said. “For me, the draw is not only the history, but the interesting people you meet and the stories they tell.”

The intended and sometimes random paths that lead visitors to the museum reflect the arrivals of many local residents, including the museum staffers. Hagan and her husband moved their family to Terre Haute in 1962. Carney is a Terre Haute native. The 39-year-old Smith, originally from Danville, Ill., studied history and historic preservation at Illinois State University, and moved here in recent years.

“It’s a big job, to disseminate so many stories,” Hagan said, “and not just the notorious folks, but the common people, too.”

That comment triggered a thought in Hagan of late Terre Haute Mayor Pete Chalos, whose father — a Greek immigrant — got off a train here and wound up staying. As she descended the staircase from the museum’s upper floor, Hagan rattled off the various ethnic groups and nationalities that make up the fabric of the community.

“They each contributed to making this a good place to be,” Hagan said, as she continued down the stairs.

“So much to do, so little time, so little money,” she added.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or