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November 9, 2012

Vigo Historical Society celebrating 90th birthday

Events being planned to commemorate anniversary

TERRE HAUTE — At age 90, the Vigo County Historical Society is looking ahead to a bright future.

To celebrate its birthday, several past presidents of the society, which formed in 1922, gathered at the Vigo County Historical Museum on Wednesday to reminisce and talk about the organization’s future.

Ralph Courtney, who served as president in the 1970s, recalled the discovery of human bones near the site of the former Fort Harrison along the Wabash River. That discovery, believed to be the bones of settlers who had lived at the fort, led two curious women to climb down into a deep hole where the bones had been uncovered by excavating equipment.

Getting into the pit was one thing, getting out was another, Courtney recalled.

“They couldn’t get out,” he said, adding that emergency responders had to be called to free the women.

Visiting the Historical Society’s museum at South Sixth and Washington streets is not nearly so hazardous, and that’s what society members hope the public will do. To celebrate 90 years, the museum is featuring a special exhibit through the end of the year and will host the “Stiffy Green Fur Ball” on New Year’s Eve at the Ohio Building complete with live music and the famous local dog.

There will also be a holiday open house at the museum the first Sunday in December, said Marylee Hagen, the museum director.

Admission to the museum, which is open 1 to 4 p.m. every day but Monday, is free; however, donations are gratefully accepted.

Despite being founded in the 1920s, the society did not acquire the historic, Italianate home on South Sixth Street until the 1950s when it was donated by the Hulman family. Since then, the home, built shortly after the Civil War, has served as a showplace for historic treasures.

“The history [in Vigo County] is just amazing,” said Jan Buffington, a past society president and current volunteer greeter at the museum.

Making visitors aware – and proud – of local history is the primary goal of the museum, said Dorothy Jerse, a former museum director who was also at the museum Wednesday. Her hope was always to impress visiting school children with the rich history of Terre Haute to give them a sense of pride in their home community, she said.

“This is one way to get people excited about their heritage,” Jerse said.

The museum is also a rich resource for people writing histories or doing historical research, said Don Layton, a retired history professor at Indiana State University and former society president.

Not everything about the museum is native to the Terre Haute area. For example, an authentic pre-Revolutionary War military “red coat” as worn by British soldiers in colonial times, is on display in the museum’s popular military room. The rare coat has been borrowed for historic displays in Pittsburgh and at the Smithsonian.

Other items are distinctly linked to Terre Haute, such as the museum’s large Coca-Cola exhibit to commemorate the birthplace of the Coke bottle. Also very popular is “Punch,” a large wooden jester once a fixture in downtown Terre Haute.

And, of course, there is “Stiffy Green,” a pet dog famously stuffed and placed in a mausoleum at Highland Lawn Cemetery and moved to the museum in the 1980s.

“He’s very popular,” Hagen said.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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