New museum exhibit explores Hillsboro?s ethnic mix


Sheryl Lehr, Abigail Calam and Joni Calam (from left) study the new ?Joining the American Mosaic? exhibit at the Visitors Center for the Hillsboro Museums during its grand opening June 28. The exhibit, which merges the immigrant stories of Hillsboro, was funded by a $12,000 humanities grant from the Kansas Humanities Council and in-kind gifts from the city of Hillsboro and Hillsboro Museums.


Marilyn Ensz peruses the book explaining the photos and items in the display area. A similar book is available for each section of the exhibit.

Two cultural groups played a vital role in the story of Hillsboro?s beginnings.

?German Lutherans brought the culture of central Germany to this part of the county, and Mennonites brought the Prussian Mennonite culture from South Russia,? said Stan Harder, director of museums for the city of Hillsboro.

?And in each case, they pretty much maintained their communities, and in doing so joined many, many other ethnic groups from the beginning of the country until now who have immigrated and become part of the cultural mosaic of the United States.?

That notion, Harder said, underlies the interpretive exhibit ?Joining the American Mosaic,? installed at the Visitors Center for the Hillsboro Museums on Memorial Drive.

The exhibit, which merges the immigrant stories of Hillsboro, was funded by a $12,000 humanities grant from the Kansas Humanities Council and in-kind gifts from the city of Hillsboro and the Hillsboro Museums.

?This exhibit has been needed for a long time here,? Harder said.

Hillsboro?s two museums, the Peter Paul Loewen House and the Willim F. Schaeffler House, are representative of two immigrant groups as depicted by the Loewen and Schaeffler families. The historical buildings with artifacts, Harder said, are arranged in period rooms.

?What we didn?t see in the houses and what we can?t see in period rooms is the background, especially as portrayed by archival holdings such as photographs and documents,? Harder said. ?What we wanted to do with this exhibit was the background of the history of both houses?the families who lived in both houses and the primary resources that go into the development of our history of those two houses and those two families.?

The exhibit?s title also reflects the mosaic-like pattern in the Santa Fe Railroad land grant from Congress that was subsequently sold to the two immigrant groups, Harder added.

?The 1875 chart showing the sold and unsold sections of land that the Santa Fe company was offering to the immigrants became the basis for the largest section of the exhibit,? Harder said.

?Joining the American Mosaic? uses photographs, maps and documents for archival holdings at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College, the Mennonite Library and Archives of Bethel College in North Newton and several other institutions, Harder said.

Preparation of the exhibit has been underway for more than a year and a half, Harder said, starting with writing the grant proposal, and then researching and determining artifacts and documents to exhibit, writing the narrative and building the exhibit itself.

Harder worked with a committee of consultants that included Jay Price of Wichita State University, Chuck Regier of Kauffman Museum in North Newton, local historian Ray Wiebe, Aleen Ratzlaff and Grant Overstake of Tabor College and Christy Wulf as Convention and Visitors Bureau and Hillsboro Chamber representative.

Others who made significant contributions in their areas of expertise were City Clerk Jan Meisinger, Tim Unruh as exhibit preparator, Mary Lancaster of Mary?s Mats & More, Ric Wolford of Douglas Photographic Imagery in Wichita, Gregory Inc. in Buhler, and John D. Thiessen and James Lynch of MLA in North Newton.

?One of the things that made this exhibit possible was that I realized there was a certain kind of chronology that we could also follow,? Harder said.

?The Mennonites were very early? 1874 to about 1900?and about 1887, when the Schaefflers got here, to 1925 or 1930, when we?ve started closing the interpretation. There?s both an overlapping there, but it?s also chronological. We?re not trying to be exactly chronological here; that isn?t the focus of this, but it works.?

Hired as museum director in 2003, Harder has worked to put the Hillsboro Museums? focus on people and the lifestyles they represent.

?We try to portray both of the houses as if they?re actually lived in,? said Harder, who worked at Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita for more than 20 years. ?We don?t have an artificial layer signs, plaques and labels in the houses. When we train our guides or our docents here, we go through a narrative that we?ve researched about the families.

?For instance, when I give a tour of the Schaeffler House, I always start with a portrait of the family. So the portrait of the family in the front hall may be a little bit odd in the house, but that is the starting point.?

One of the challenges with the exhibit is the small space of the Visitors Center.

?It?s a large subject for small area,? Harder said. ?We tried to be innovative and make the small space work. We don?t have any labels on the walls. All the labels are in what we call ?Books on the Rail.? These books are made to look like antique books, and they have both all the credits and information about the pictures and will be used in the educational activities for children.?

To help accommodate for the limited space, two panels on moveable ?islands? are part of the exhibit. When larger groups are in attendance, the islands can be relocated to allow for more seating room.

?We have a number of artifacts in the exhibit,? Harder said. ?The exhibit was not intended to be an artifact case exhibit. There are only a few artifacts to illustrate various aspects of the exhibit.?

Feedback from visitors to the exhibit is required by the grant and is being compiled.

?We?ll be collecting that for the foreseeable future,? Harder said.

Hours for the Hillsboro Museums are 10 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Harder said plans for the exhibit include developing educational activities that will incorporate aspects of the exhibit.

?Additional work will be done to highlight the work of Richard Wall in building the Friesen Mill,? he added.

More from Hillsboro Free Press
Poster winner helps plant tree
Callie Arnold was pretty confident about her chances of winning this year?s...
Read More