Clinton Museum eyes larger facility

Martha Parker jokes that she's been waiting 20 years to move from the milkshed to the barn.

Since 1983, the Overbrook woman has been working tirelessly to preserve the history of Clinton and the Wakarusa Valley area where she grew up.


Special to the Journal-World

This rendering by HMA Architects, of Lawrence, shows expansion plans for the Clinton Lake Museum. The Clinton Lake Historical Society on Saturday launched a fund drive to help pay for the addition, which would relieve the museum's exhibition and storage space shortage.

She's been doing it all in a 16-by-52 foot milkshed -- the last remnant of Col. James C. Steele's 1865 farmstead -- that's been converted into a rural museum. But the ever-expanding collection has long since outgrown the space, and the Clinton Lake Historical Society is aiming to expand.

It's launching a campaign to raise the approximately $330,000 Lawrence architect Mark Stogsdill estimates it will cost to erect a 4,800-square-foot addition. Plans call for a barn-like building that would continue the same green board and bat siding that gives the existing structure its rustic charm.

"The primary thing I kept hearing was they wanted to maintain the ties with the rural character of what this museum is all about, so a bright, shiny glass-box museum absolutely would not fit into the picture," says Stogsdill, of HMA Architects. "They wanted something that looks like it was part of the scene 100 years ago."

Fund-raising consultant Douglas Burger met with the society Saturday evening at its annual meeting, and details of the capital campaign will be announced in the coming weeks. There's no timeline for breaking ground, though Burger has said 18 months seemed realistic.

The new building couldn't come soon enough for Parker. She's curator at the tiny museum, near the shore of Clinton Lake at Bloomington Park. As it stands, only one of the six exhibitions that have been developed through the years to tell the Clinton area's story can be displayed at a time.

"We have 50 exhibit panels stored at Watkins Museum," Parker laments. "To be able to have all of those up at one time just really interprets the lake area."

Gatherings present, past

The new building would house approximately 2,400 square feet of open gallery space on the ground floor. A large meeting room, storage area and kitchen would occupy the basement, with walk-out access to a lakeside patio.

"The space itself is exciting, but I think the piece that really gets me the most excited is the increased number of people that can have access to the information and the history of that area," says Lanaea Heine, immediate past president of the historical society. "It can become a destination point for education groups as well as just interested community members.

"It holds a lot of potential for creating excitement about the history that shaped our community."

That history dates back to the indigenous people who inhabited the area before New Englanders settled Kansas territory. Remnants of those cultures were unearthed when the Corps of Engineers excavated the Clinton Reservoir site before filling the lake in 1977.

The area also played a rich role in the Bleeding Kansas period, serving as an abolitionist stronghold against pro-slavery forces.

Clinton Lake Historical Society president Charlie Thomas' daughter lives in the Clinton house where he grew up. On that same site in 1855, 300 armed pro-slavers took over the territorial legislature election, stealing ballot boxes and tipping the scales in their favor. Clinton residents appealed, Thomas says, and a revote took place.

During Lawrence sesquicentennial celebrations this summer, a national group will erect a log cabin on the site land and re-enact the 1855 election.

"The more I have been involved with what's gone on out here, the more I have discovered what a prominent role this area -- not just Clinton and Bloomington, but the Wakarusa Valley area -- played in the history of this country," Thomas says.

A complete story

A perhaps lesser-known fact is that a large black population called the area home for many years. Soldiers in the First Kansas Colored Infantry returned to settle there after the Civil War, Parker says, and most of her neighbors when she was young were black farmers who lived, worked, died and were buried with their white friends.

Parker, who has written a book about the Underground Railroad, says many of the 34 documented Underground Railroad sites in Douglas County are in the Wakarusa River Valley. The Clinton Museum has been designated an Underground Railroad Facility by the National Parks System.

Parker's family was one of the first to sell its land when the Corps of Engineers started buying it from Wakarusa Valley inhabitants in the late 1960s. As others began to sell properties that had been in their families for generations, artifacts and accumulated family histories began to be sold or burned.

"This is devastating," Parker remembers thinking. "These people have been there for generations. They would never have left this valley. ... I could just see history going up in smoke."

She urged them to save everything, and the beginnings of the Clinton Museum were born.

Through the years, the collection has grown. Parker's looking forward to the day when she can gather it back from storage areas scattered across Douglas County and finally properly tell the story of the Clinton Lake communities in one place.

"This has been my dream for 20 years," she says.


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