Museum highlights Cleburne County history

Carol Rolf Contributing Writer Published September 1, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Carol Rolf / Contributing Photographer

The work of Heber Springs photographer Mike Disfarmer is highlighted in this exhibit at the Cleburne County Historical Society’s museum in Heber Springs. Charles Stuart, president of the historical society, shown, said researchers of Disfarmer’s work often visit the museum.

— Cleburne County is the 75th, and the youngest, county in Arkansas. It was established in 1883 from parts of Independence, Van Buren and White counties and named for Patrick Ronayne Cleburne of Helena, a Confederate major general who was killed in battle in Franklin, Tenn.

Although it may be the youngest county in the state, Cleburne County is rich in history. The Cleburne County Historical Society strives to preserve that history in a museum located in the historic Frauenthal House at 210 N. Broadway St. in Heber Springs, which is the county seat. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The museum, which is operated by volunteers, also houses the historical society’s office and a genealogical research library.

Charles Stuart, president of the society, said Max Frauenthal, a prominent businessman and landowner in the early days of the county, built the Craftsman-style house in 1914.

“He built it for his son, Clarence,” Stuart said.

The society acquired the house in the mid-1990s. Prior to that, the society occupied a room in the Heber Springs City Hall.

A variety of items can be found in the museum, including photographs, typewriters, telephones, railroad memorabilia and farming implements. There’s even a platform scale.

“Everybody had platform scales in the 1940s,” Stuart said with a laugh, adding that many farmers raised chickens and corn, both of which could be weighed on such a scale.

Stuart said one of the most popular exhibits in recent years has been one featuring photographer Mike Disfarmer, who was born Mike Meyers. Disfarmer set up a studio in Heber Springs in the late 1930s and early ’40s and took black-and-white photos of those who came into his studio.

Stuart said many now consider Disfarmer’s portraits as “works of art” and have collected them. The museum has copies of many of these photos, and many of the people in the photos have been identified. Stuart said collectors come to the museum to see if they can find information on the families so they can contact them to buy the photos. Some buy the photos, then resell them for a profit. Others buy them to display in art exhibits. Still others include the photos in books they are writing.

“We’re kinda the must-see place for people who are researching Disfarmer,” Stuart said.

One of the museum’s newest collections contains early aerial photographs of the county, including those of Heber Springs before the Greers Ferry Dam was completed in 1963. The Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, took the photographs.

“The photos were going to be discarded,” Stuart said. “We are glad to have them. It is important to have access to them. It’s important to see how the roads were laid out.

“One man from Pennsylvania came in recently and looked at them,” Stuart said. “His great-grandfather had lived in Heber Springs in 1910, and he had fallen heir to some of his property. By looking at some of these photos, we were able to see exactly where that property was.”

Many of the museum’s visitors come to do genealogical research.

Among the records available at the research library are census records for Cleburne County from 1870-1930, transcribed from microfilm; personal tax records for 1890; marriage records for 1883-1914; cemetery records for all cemeteries in Cleburne County, most of them updated to the late 1990s and later; burial records from Olmstead Funeral Home from 1907-1999; family histories; and copies of obituaries clipped from newspapers. The library also has copies of the Cleburne County Historical Society Journal, published since 1974; Time and the River, a 392-page history of Cleburne County published by Evalena Berry; and Sugar Loaf Springs, a 104-page history of Heber Springs, also published by Berry.

Stuart said the museum recently received 77 years of real estate tax records, which museum volunteers are digitizing.

Stuart said most of the information they have is indexed, making it easier for researchers to find files.

“We are out of space,” Stuart said, “but we don’t turn down any donation. There is a potential that we may be able to get more space,”

He said the Cleburne County Library, now located in the old post office building in Heber Springs, may eventually move to a new library, and if that happens, the historical society may be able to utilize the old post office building.

There is no charge to visit the Cleburne County Historical Society and Museum. Its hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call (501) 362-5225.

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