SHERIDAN - County museums can be musty places filled with grab bags of odds and ends from bygone times that might better have wound up at a garage sale.
A stellar exception to that scenario is the Grant County Museum, located on the southern edge of Sheridan 35 miles south of Little Rock. Its seven galleries are filled with a bevy of displays that bring history alive, as do a dozen relocated outdoor buildings with a past, including a delightfully evocative good-old days diner. A boardwalk nature trail loops through three wooded acres.
There’s plenty of military memorabilia, extending from Civil War fighting at nearby Jenkins Ferry through the two world wars to recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vintage automobiles and other vehicles also have a place of pride. So do such novelties as the county’s first television set, a 1947 Westinghouse model owned by a local radio shop. It could show only electronic “snow” because the state’s first TV station lay several years in the future.
A high-school history teacher, Elwin Goolsby, started the museum in 1963 as a project for his students and served as director until retiring in 2003. Since 1994, it has occupied the W.R. “Witt”Stephens Building, named for the late financier whose monetary gift along with grant money from the City of Sheridan enabled its construction on donated land.
Among the structures moved from elsewhere to the site’s outdoor Heritage Square, Mill Town Cafe looks ready to serve the lunches it dished out from 1927 until the 1960s. The circular counter stools are topped with red plastic, while wall signs advertise Mr. Goodbar candy, Nehi soda and Chesterfield cigarettes. A posted menu lists colas for a nickel, hamburgers for a dime, plate lunches for 45 cents.
Other old buildings of note include Toler Chapel, a Methodist church built in the 1930s, containing original pews and piano; the Fire House, which showcases the Sheridan Police Department’s last black and-white patrol car, a 1979 Ford; a working Blacksmith Shop; the McCool House, a dog-trot design from the 1870s in which that family’s 12 children were born; and a Hutment, a two-man barracks erected at Camp Robinson at the outset of World War II.
As Arkansas continues to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the county-owned museum’s gallery focusing on the Battle of Jenkins Ferry is getting extra attention. Exhibits include a poignant tableau of a soldier with a bloody chest wound waiting for help in the parlor of a home near the battle site.
The fighting took place April 30, 1864, a dozen miles southwest of Sheridan, as the final engagement of the Red River campaign. Historians tend to view Jenkins Ferry as a Union tactical victory, although Yankee troops continued retreating to their base at Little Rock. (The battle site itself is a state park, although there’s little to see besides three informational panels.)
A museum room focused on World War II contains remnants of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber that crashed north of Sheridan in 1943, killing all nine of the crew. Also on view are the blackened remains of a U.S. flag flown on a transport ship that took part in the Normandy D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. A detached building displays 18 World War II vehicles.
The county’s pioneer era is covered by exhibits on the likes of sod farming, early mills and handmade quilts. One cabinet contains information about the value of household dumps to archaeologists via a display of broken-tooth saw blades, rusted homemade nails and other domestic debris. There are farm wagons, a wooden bicycle, barber chairs and early gasoline station pumps.
Natural history is represented by stuffed native animals, including a few species no longer found around here.Set among the taxidermy is a fishing boat ingeniously crafted in 1895 by a tinsmith as three separate, attachable parts that could be stacked, carried and then bolted together to float. It’s not something you’ll see every day - a virtue of so much to be found in the Grant County Museum.
Grant County Museum, 521 Shackleford Road, Sheridan, is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. From U.S. 270 West, turn south on Arkansas 46. Go for a mile, turn west on Shackleford Road, then continue a block to the museum. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for students. Grant County residents are admitted free of charge. For details, call (870) 942-4496 or visit grantcountymuseumar.com.
Weekend, Pages 35 on 08/22/2013
Print Headline: History packs Grant County Museum inside, out