You can’t change
the past but you can tell it in new ways.
A new layout, a
fresh coat of paint, installation of overhead lights and carpeting and a
declaration from the Indiana Statehouse give new life to the Westchester
Township History Museum which reopened its exhibit area Saturday with a
reception on the lawn of the Brown Mansion.
Over 60 attended
the ceremony where thank yous were exchanged among the Westchester Public
Library board members, museum staff and volunteers, and community leaders.
In giving the
opening remarks, WPL Director Phil Baugher expounded on the museum’s role in
the Duneland community.
“It tells of our
history and our ‘herstory.’ It’s our neighbors. It’s our neighborhoods,”
Baugher said. “When centralized, it becomes our story.”
regaled the highlights of the museum’s history spanning nearly two decades
The WPL trustees
appointed assistant library director Jane Walsh-Brown as the museum’s first
curator and started the museum on the lower level of the WPL Service Center
in May 1998. The library had been housing pieces of history even years
“There hadn’t been
a real place to have a museum,” said Walsh-Brown in relating her
experiences. “We were starting a museum from scratch. It was something I
enjoyed about 95 percent of the time. There were a few long, long days.”
The museum faced
its greatest difficulty in 2001 with the bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel but
“survived because of some very generous volunteers -- Nancy Hokanson, Betty
Canright, Fran Meyer and Eva Hopkins,” Walsh-Brown said.
The move to the
Brown Mansion came in 2005 when WPL signed a lease with the Duneland School
Corporation for the Brown Mansion. DSC had acquired the building in the
1960s and had used it as its administrative center before moving into
Chesterton Middle School in 2005. The school to this day is the rightful
owner of 129-year-old Brown Mansion.
Taking over for
Walsh-Brown when she retired in 2011 was Serena Sutliff, who previously had
been a college intern involved in many aspects of the museum.
Sutliff said the
WPL board agreed last year the space inside the Brown Mansion “needed some
refreshing.” The last major renovation had been quite some time ago in 1985
for the mansion’s 100th anniversary, she said.
“The goal was to
come up with a layout that was easier for both our staff and our visitors,”
construction began in September, led by Anderson Construction of Valparaiso,
while The Grossbauer Group of Chesterton headed up the aesthetic aspects and
new visual elements that pay homage to the dunes. Work wrapped up at the end
of February when the museum staff took the next step, revamping the
Sutliff said the
information itself needed updating as the permanent exhibits only covered up
The name for the
new permanent exhibit is “Westchester Township: Our Story.” It chronicles
the many benchmarks of the area - the Foundation of Westchester Township,
Education, the Indiana Dunes, Railroads and Westchester through the Decades.
In the entryway, a
banner welcomes visitors promptly explaining what is Westchester Township
and introducing them to “Little Eva,” who gives quick notes of important
facts throughout the exhibit. The character is inspired by real-life museum
researcher Eva Hopkins.
squares make it easy to identify the bullet points under each heading along
with sections that show original maps and photographs.
There are also many
artifacts to ogle such as a mastodon bone on loan from the Porter County
Museum which had been found in Porter County and Chesterton Trojans
megaphone and beanie from the 1950s.
Touring the museum
for the first time, WPL children’s librarian Heather Chaddock said she
particular enjoyed the interactive features like the train table and the
post office with real letters.
“This would be a
great place to take your kids this summer,” she said.
may notice that one of the partitions in the exhibit area is built of brick
and mortar that was originally part of a former garage structure of the
temporary exhibit is “Needlework Through Ages,” which opened in March and is
still featured in the same space as “Our Story” but will be replaced with
“Westchester At War in the 19th Century” in the next few weeks, Sutliff
During the ceremony
Saturday, WPL staff received a surprise honor from local state lawmakers.
fellow State Rep. Chuck Moseley, D-Portage, State Rep. Scott Pelath,
D-Michigan City, read aloud a resolution lauding the efforts of the museum
in preserving the history of the community.
“We are so blessed
to have this (museum) to preserve not only our natural history but our
cultural history as well,” Pelath said.
Moseley told the
crowd he had been “looking forward” to the reopening of the museum because
he sees it to be “a living monument to the heritage and legacy of the
Duneland community and to Northwest Indiana.”
“I know this will
last in perpetuity for years to come,” he said.
The resolution had
been officially adopted by the Indiana Assembly on Friday and was signed by
Pelath and Moseley along with State Rep. Edmond Soliday, R-Valparaiso, and
State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes.
Ralph Ayres, whose
many titles include former state representative, retired CHS teacher,
Duneland School Board president and history wiz, emphasized that a “great
partnership” exists between the museum and the school corporation because of
their link to education.
“It is a connection
of the community,” Ayres said. “It is a viable, living part of us.”
Ayres invited the
crowd back next year for the 130th anniversary of the Brown Mansion and the
10th year the museum has been housed there. For the occasion, he plans to
donate his piece of Indiana’s “Constitution Elm.” According to history,
Ayres said, the first delegation of Indiana met to write a state
constitution in 1816 and worked under the shade of a giant elm tree which
eventually died and bits of the wood were sold.
The museum, located
at 700 W. Porter Ave., will maintain its same hours, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.,
Wednesdays through Sundays. Groups of 10 or more are asked to call for a
tour reservation at 983-9715.