Telling history starts with the folks who lived, new director says

He speaks quietly, purposefully and with a confidence that attests to his past experiences in open-air history-museum management.

“I would describe myself as a student of history and a researcher,” said Stan R. Harder, Hillsboro’s new museum director.

“I like exactness and detail.”

At a city council meeting earlier this month, Harder was appointed to the position vacated by former director David Wiebe.

Harder will officially assume his duties Sept. 15. In the meantime, he met with the museum board Aug. 18 to begin a process of building on the historical foundation established by Wiebe, an old friend and colleague.

Harder will be working for the city of Hillsboro. In that capacity, he will be involved with two local museums-the Schaeffler House Museum and the Heritage Park Complex.

The complex is comprised of the Kreutziger School, the Friesen Mill and the Adobe House, which Harder refers to as the Peter Paul Loewen House, in honor of the family who built it.

When his job officially starts, it will be part-time.

“It’s going to be a full-time job, but I’m going to be working for the city on a half-time basis,” he said. “It will be on their executive payroll. It’s supposed to be a 20-hour-a-week job at this time.”

For 20 years, Harder was the head of the curatorial department for the Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita.

In 1997, he left Cowtown to pursue other opportunities. He was involved in writing a government textbook for Kansas high schools and helped research a Kansas history textbook for grade school students.

“It was an enjoyable experience and helped me to hone my research abilities that I had been doing and will continue to do here,” Harder said.

Attending Wiebe’s retirement banquet the end of last year, Harder realized the position might be open soon, but still had to complete his textbook project.

“I expected this job would be open in January, and we did not finish the last textbook until the beginning of March,” Harder said.

But timing was “perfect” and the position fell into place at the right time in his life.

His local roots go deep. He was born in Hillsboro, grew up in western Nebraska and Southern California, but has found his way back home where his mother, Eleanor, still lives.

At this time, he lives in the heart of midtown Wichita, where he is routinely serenaded by the sounds of emergency-vehicle sirens.

“The quiet of Hillsboro is an attractive thing,” Harder said about the lure to move here.

“I think anybody who grows up outside of the big city always has a feeling they want to get back to a quieter, more sylvan kind of a place rather than the loud, noisy, busy place that Wichita is.”

As museum plans are put in motion, the board has already identified a top priority-the future expansion of the Heritage Park Complex to include an orientation visitor’s center.

“The function will be nearly the same as the current visitor’s center, but it would be larger,” Harder said.

“And, rather than simply having two-and-one-half walls lined with exhibits, it would have a systemic gallery that would be an orientation exhibit. And it might possibly have more than one gallery.”

The Heinrich Bartel stone house built in 1879, and located north of the city, has been identified by the board as a potential complex addition in the future, Harder said.

“It’s the next step in the development of pioneering in Kansas in this area-in the evolution of house building.”

In the formative stages is a plan for Harder to work closely with small committees.

“I will work with maybe two and three individuals at a time-on a whole series of subjects that are going to be of importance in the strategic planning of the place,” he said.

Focusing on a broader spectrum of his new job, Harder said he intends to keep lines of communication open with the local media as well. This will be accomplished with periodic news conferences.

“Watch the paper,” Harder said. “From time to time, we will be announcing new and exciting things.”

At his first meeting with the Historical Society board, Harder presented an extensive proposal for his initial goals as the new director.

He divided his list into general areas:

— Daily operations-establishing an efficient and regimented tour plan for all visitors to the Heritage Complex.

“There doesn’t seem to be a plan for bringing visitors through that is followed each and every time visitors come here, and there isn’t a plan to stage multiple tours when multiple groups of people all show up at the same time,” Harder said.

“The routing plan for visitors needs to start in the visitor’s center. The person giving tours will be notified via electronic communication that the visitors are on their way, which is another thing we’ll be doing very quickly.”

— Assessments-determining the current operations of the museums, establishing security and safety checks, completing an inventory of items in the museum store and evaluating the interpretation of the exhibits in the buildings.

“What I’m telling the board is that the historic house interior starts with the people being interpreted, and we build from people to things-not the other way around,” Harder said.

“All of these assessments will be given to the city administrator and the board. We will use them as a spring board to work out a strategic plan.”

—  Living collections-developing a documented collection of plant materials “that have immigrant pedigrees the same as human beings, who came from descendants of Europe or elsewhere,” Harder said.

His intention is to divide living collections into the following two areas:

(1) “Documented historic plant material-brought by pioneer Mennonites to America from Russia-that would have been typical of the first Mennonite villages in Kansas.

(2) “Documented historic plant material-used by pioneers in general in the landscape and kitchen gardens of the Midwest-that would have been typical of turn-of-the-20th-century Hillsboro.”

As an example, Harder said, “Some of the plants around the Schaeffler House might be as old as the house.”

— Networking-communicating around the world with other institutions that also celebrate immigrants from South Russia.

Harder said he hopes to establish “an informal relationship so all these institutions know all the other ones exist.” The primary purpose would be to trade newsletters and research.

Moving from specific plans to general concerns, Harder spoke of a moral truth underlying his philosophy of running historical museums.

“I think that people in positions of trust-whether it’s people who are teaching history to kids in school, government agents or museum personnel interpreting the history of the area-have an obligation to tell the truth about that history,” Harder said.

“I put a very high emphasis on that. You do not get the truth in history without doing your research first.”

As mid-September nears, Harder talked about working with the city and the board to fine tune their relationship-to benefit the city and future tourists.

“I very much appreciate the reception I’ve been given by the leadership of this city and the board here,” he said.

“I would like to convey my appreciation for their very kind comments in the newspaper recently.”

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