Ours is an unintentional museum. What today is known as Heritage Hall Museum & Archives began as a collection. A collection that grew.
The museum’s story begins in the 1920s, when Freeman College Professor Benjamin P. Waltner asked his students to bring interesting rocks and fossils to study. By 1930, the Freeman Junior College Catalog listed the collection as “a museum of geology and mineralogy.” And so it began.
People from the community brought in more rocks and fossils, as well as Native American artifacts and random items used by the pioneers who had settled the area just a generation or two earlier. This eclectic collection outgrew the school halls and was moved to the original college building – today’s “Music Hall” – in the early 1940s.
In the 1950s, the 2nd floor of the Tieszen Industrial Arts Building became the new home for this unintentional museum. It is during these years that we find the first notes of accessions donated to the cause and lists of the artifacts on display: 2 plows, 2 copper kettles, 4 wooden rakes, 1 cabbage cutter, 4 mud bricks, 2 oxen yokes, 1 buffalo head, 1 street lamp, 1 hand grenade, 1 doctor’s chair, 1 surrey… and the list goes on.
By the 1970s, this fledgling museum had once again outgrown its confines and moved to a new building just south of the Freeman Academy campus. A 1998 addition almost doubled the floor space available. Here also, the growing archives collection was given its first formal home.
Over time, several historic buildings were added to the museum complex. The Diamond Valley Country School originally located just south of Freeman served students from 1896-1969. The Johannesthal Reformed Church from west of town held services from 1902-1967. The Bethel Mennonite Church northeast of Freeman was in use from 1920-1992. The Ludwig Deckert pioneer home was built in 1879 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Each historic building has a unique story that adds dimension and depth to understanding the early years of the greater Freeman community.
During each of these “chapters” in the museum story, certain individuals stepped up to play critical roles: Benjamin P. Waltner, Albert Schwartz, Gerhard J. Toews, John D. Unruh, Benjamin J. Waltner, Gary Waltner, Ralph C. Kauffman, Rachel Senner, Cleon Graber, LaNae Waltner, Raymond Becker, Duane Schrag, Russell Waltner, Clark Graber and many others…. All gave untold hours to this story and all had an important part in working to preserve the collective history of this community.
Fast forward to 2018. We now have three part-time paid staff that together equal just one full-time position. We rely heavily on volunteers and we rely solely on admission fees, memberships and donations in order to operate.
We have one of the area’s most unique and diverse collections of items that represent our heritage and the history of this community. You would be hard-pressed to find another museum in the region that has a collection to rival ours. We are both a tourist destination and a resource for students and scholars alike.
We invite you to get involved in the work that is being done at Heritage Hall Museum & Archives. Become a member, stop by and volunteer for a few hours, lend your expertise to develop a new display, or consider a monetary gift that will help the work here continue.
Stop by and visit! Bring your family and your friends. This is YOUR community museum and we look forward to helping you discover the treasures held here.
This unintentional museum has grown up; we are moving intentionally ahead and we look forward to the next chapter of our story. As a community, we have the power to choose what that story will be.
Originally composed April, 2018.