A helping hand for history

>Growing up on a Lehigh farm in the early 1930s, David Wiebe was influenced by life in a small community, a father who was a farmer, educator, minister and historian, and a mother who played the piano.

“But I’m not a musician,” Wiebe said. “I’m a lay historian and educator, not a performer.”

For the past 181/2 years, Wiebe served as director of one of the landmarks of his community-the Adobe House Museum in Hillsboro’s Heritage Park.

On Sept. 30, he retired from that position and was honored with a meal and program to salute his contributions on Saturday.

“His greatest accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned, is that he moved us from having an eclectic, homespun collection of artifacts to being a professional living-history museum,” said Peggy Goertzen of the Hillsboro museum board.

Wiebe’s mother originally came from the Durham area, his father hailed from Lehigh, and Wiebe was born at Main Street Hospital in Hillsboro.

The family dynamics included three boys and one girl, and they all now call Hillsboro home.

After attending grade school in Lehigh, Wiebe moved with his family to California, where he earned his high-school diploma.

He returned to Hillsboro to attend Tabor College and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955 as an education major with an emphasis in history. He earned a master’s degree in 1957.

After a period of 19 years, he furthered his educational pursuits by earning an education specialist’s degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1976.

“Here it was graduation day in 1976, and that was the bicentennial,” Wiebe said with a smile. “So I don’t have any trouble remembering when I graduated from Boulder.”

For 26 years, Wiebe taught high school social sciences, such as psychology and history. During that time, he also worked as a high-school counselor and taught at Freeman Junior College in Freeman, S.D.

For three years during the early 1970s, he returned to Hillsboro to work as an admission’s counselor at Tabor.

Toward the end of his career, he accepted a position as a high-school counselor and spent his last years as an educator in Hoisington.

“I took early retirement and came to Hillsboro,” Wiebe said. “I did some renovation on my grandparents’ home, and that’s what got me back to Hillsboro in 1983.”

Sam Thiessen and John Jost were running the museum at that time and when they left, their job became available in 1984.

Wiebe was hired to replace them and was given the position of museum director in association with the Hillsboro Historical Society.

“The job description didn’t give times,” Wiebe said. “It was a full-time job with part-time pay, and that’s basically the way it’s been here ever since.”

It was in those first few years as director that Wiebe had the opportunity to attend professional-museum seminars, such as the Winedale Museum Workshop near San Antonio, Texas.

“It was an excellent program to help small museums to improve their programs,” Wiebe said. “That’s how I really got my feet into the museum business in a serious way.”

In almost two decades, he has seen the museum environment evolve at Heritage Park.

Today, the complex includes the Adobe House Museum, a replica of the 1876 Friesen Dutch Mill and the Kreutziger Schoolhouse.

“It all started when the Adobe House was moved here in 1958 from its original village location two miles south, one mile west and one-half mile south of Hillsboro,” Wiebe said. “And that’s called Hope Valley, or ‘Hoffnungsthal’ is the German word.”

The Adobe house was built by the Peter Paul Loewen family and is a set of three attached structures-a house, barn and shed.

The present Visitor’s Center building was the Scout House when Wiebe first started working, and that building later became available to the complex when the new Scout House was built just to the south.

Reminiscing about those early days as director, Wiebe described the Adobe House decor as eclectic, he said.

“In other words, the originators just collected whatever-if you had books, telephones, silverware, they’d take them,” he said.

“Now my biggest concern was to preserve and conserve Hillsboro artifacts. The next thing is to use them for educational purposes.”

As director, he oversaw a remodeling project in the barn section of the Adobe House building. Sheetrock and insulation were installed in the attic.

“And that’s where we store most of our donated materials that don’t exactly fit,” Wiebe said. “So we reduced the number of items on display in the Adobe House and put them in storage.”

The schoolhouse-a reminder of early education on the Kansas prairie from 1886 to 1960-was originally located north of Canada, Kan., and was moved to the park in 1965.

The building of the Friesen Mill replica was started in 1992, and the dedication was in 1994.

“This project cost over $100,000 and was funded entirely by the family of Jacob Friesen,” Wiebe said. “There are a number of people in Hillsboro who are their direct decedents. That (project) was a tremendous improvement and helped fill in our story, too.”

A “major renovation” of the exterior of the Adobe House was another change that took place in 1992, Wiebe said.

“That was a funded program from Topeka and took quite a bit of time and effort. It wasn’t one man’s job, but I sort of headed the whole concept. And so the Adobe House is in very good shape.”

Wiebe said he has seen other changes in his position as director.

“No. 1 would be the general landscape has been improved,” Wiebe said.

“They had a pump right here where the windmill stands, and that was removed soon after I got the job here. And the city has done a terrific job of taking care of the grounds in recent years.”

When Wiebe first took the job, he was the only tour guide, he said.

“But it slowly built up into the present. The last arrangement was one assistant on Tuesday and another assistant who helped on the four other days.”

Given the chance to reflect about the value of a museum he has given so much of his time to, Wiebe described the present-day complex as significant for those who grew up here and moved away as well as those who now live in Hillsboro.

“I think there’s a very high identity in the community connected with the historic complex,” Wiebe said.

But he doesn’t want to take sole credit for all the major changes he’s seen in Heritage Park, he said.

“I would not want to say this is my deal. The board and the city council have been very supportive in larger considerations.”

And his hope for the future of Heritage Park?

“Our dream is still to have a visitor’s center or else more space for more storage. We’re continually receiving items. And we don’t have adequate storage, which is always a problem for any collectors or museum programs.”

And of the thousands of visitors he’s shown through the complex, he can remember meeting many interesting people, he said.

“There was a family from El Dorado,” Wiebe said. “And this young lady, she was probably a sophomore or junior in high school, you could tell she was very into learning.

“And she said, ‘This museum is so uplifting.’ And I thought, ‘That’s quite impressive. This isn’t exactly a rock-and-roll museum or something like that.'”

Wiebe was honored with a dinner and reception at the Historic Church on the Tabor College campus Nov. 23.

And as for his future plans, he said he doesn’t have any.

“I just want to catch up on things I haven’t been able to do,” Wiebe said.

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