Feature: Local Collections

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The Lookout Mountain region’s many small museums display a knack for unique exhibits.

by RANDY GRIDER
Modern museums in large cities usually boast grand, spacious interiors, but often the buildings themselves could be part of an office complex if you removed the exhibits and changed the names on the signs. Smaller regional museums, on the other hand, often are housed in historic buildings that are as interesting as the unusual exhibits you find inside.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]A perfect example of this is Fort Payne Depot Museum, which beckons visitors to stop and take notice. The Richardsonian Romanesque structure with pink sandstone and copper roof almost demands you snap a shot or two and hopefully inquire within about the historic depot that has graced the heart of DeKalb County Alabama’s largest town since 1891.

Inside, visitors are often surprised to find the depot houses much more than train memorabilia. It offers a view of the affluent Victorian era in rural Appalachia that occurred when wealthy New Englanders speculated in the area’s iron and coal deposits. The period is known as the Boom Days (1889-1893) of Fort Payne. (Each fall, Fort Payne holds a festival called the Boom Days Heritage Celebration to spotlight its colorful past.)

“I don’t think people realize how much history we have here in DeKalb County, and it’s not just Appalachia history because we have that influence from wealthy families from the North who came here,” says Ann  Houston, curator of the Depot Museum. “We have a lot of pictures and vintage clothing from that Gay ’90s period. We also have furnishings from that period and are very lucky to have a few things that came out of the old DeKalb Hotel. (The DeKalb Hotel – built during the Boom – was an extravagant, three-story hotel boasting 180 rooms, a billiard lounge, a huge dining room and a ballroom. It burned in 1918.)

The depot, which offered regular passenger train service until 1970, became a museum in 1986 after  Landmarks of DeKalb County and the Local Collections the Fort Payne depot museum is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks; (inset) Displays depicting Fort Payne’s 1890s Boom Period opposite: 89 dioramas grace the Depot Museum annex; The Cherokee County Historical Museum offers many interactive exhibits.
city of Fort Payne worked together to save and restore the building. Today it’s run as a nonprofit organization under the direction of a 12-member board – funded by grants, donations and the city of Fort Payne. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The museum is divided into three broad categories – local history, Native American artifacts and special-interest collections. Fort Payne has deep roots in Native American history. The town’s name comes from an encampment built there in 1838 for the removal of Cherokees to territory west of the Mississippi River. But the artifact collections extend beyond relics from the former Cherokee Nation. The museum features more than 600 Native American artifacts representing tribes from across the country, courtesy of a donation from a local collector who traveled extensively.

“Gussie Killian, who lived at [nearby] Portersville(Ala.), was a school librarian who lived alone,” Houston says. “In the summer during vacation time she would load up her dogs and travel everywhere. She had a fascination with the Native American culture. She would bring back these artifacts from her travels. It’s quite unique for a town of our size to have such an extensive collection of Native American artifacts.”

Houston walks about the museum pointing out various pieces of note – an antique Hebrew typewriter; artifacts from the Civil War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam; examples of Southland Ceramics; and   pre-Depression-era Roseville pottery made from area clay deposits – among many other treasures for visitors to discover.

Of course, a museum housed in a former train depot would be amiss without railroad artifacts, and the Depot Museum doesn’t disappoint. Among the memorabilia from the Great Alabama Southern Railroad’s heyday, one of the most visible reminders of the bygone era is the iconic red caboose adjacent to the museum. The caboose was acquired from the Norfolk-Southern Railway Company in 1987 and is open seasonally for tours.

Across Gault Avenue, in a block that contains the historic Coal and Iron Building and the 1889 Opera House, is the Depot Museum annex. It houses, among other collections, 89 lighted dioramas– intricate, boxed scenes created out of plaster of Paris and wire mesh by Italian artist Steve Fiora between 1915 and 1934. The Fort Payne Depot Museum is located at 105 5th St. N.E., Fort Payne, Ala. Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission: $3 for adults; $1 for students 7-18; free for children under 6. More information: 256-845-5714, www.fortpaynedepotmuseum.com

If you are visiting the annex, two other small museums operated by Landmarks of DeKalb County are located in the same complex. One is the temporary “This Was Their Home” Trail of Tears exhibit (on loan from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina), commemorating the 175th anniversary of the forced removal of the Cherokee from Alabama. Panels display images of the 1838 protest roll containing the names of 15,562 Cherokee who contested the Treaty of New Echota, which sold tribal lands east of the Mississippi River to the U. S. government. Also on display are photographs depicting historic homes, campsites and routes on the Trail of Tears, a timeline of Cherokee population growth in the area, examples of pottery, baskets and projectile points from area Native Americans and a children’s archaeology zone.

Just to the north is the Hosiery Museum, which spotlights the more recent past when Fort Payne laid claim to the title “Sock Capital of the World.” The first mill began operating in Fort Payne in 1907, and until recent years, the hosiery industry provided economic stability for the town. More than 100 plants once operated in DeKalb County, employing approximately 5,800 people who manufactured more than 36 million pairs of socks each week.

The Hosiery Museum is located at 512 Gault Ave. N., Fort Payne, Ala. Also located in the 500 block of Gault Avenue, the “This Was Their Home” Trail of Tears exhibit runs through April. Hours for the museum and exhibit, as well as tours of the historic Opera House, are available Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. More information: 256-845-6888, www.landmarksdekalbal.org

The Cherokee County Historical Museum in downtown Centre, Ala., is another organization  embracing its rich history in a dwelling worthy of its contents. Housed in an early-20th-century, three-story building that was once a store, the nonprofit museum boasts more than 15,000 artifacts organized into collections ranging from the Civil War and other military-related artifacts to exhibits associated with the Trail of Tears, rural agriculture, historical  “This county also has its share of iron-ore furnaces, and we have exhibits that tell you about their impact on this area,” says David Crum, director of the museum.

“We also have the only known [pig iron] ingot from Cornwall Furnace [located in nearby Cedar Bluff, Ala., and listed on the National Register of Historic Places] on display here.”

Transportation is another focus of the museum. This includes exhibits on bridges, riverboats,railroads and the creation of Weiss Lake by Alabama Power Company in the 1960s. The lake changed the area’s waterway transportation system and transformed the county’s primarily agricultural economy into one based in tourism. Weiss Lake is popular with fishers and watersport enthusiasts as well as relocating retirees.

“Many people from outside here are often interested in trains,” Crum says. “This county had five train systems and 100 percent of it is now gone. There isn’t one inch of railroad track left in Cherokee County.” Still, the museum offers a wealth of information and records about the various routes and spurs and even includes a working model train exhibit that is popular with kids and adults alike.

Unlike many small historical collections, the Cherokee County Historical Museum includes contemporary, interactive exhibits for younger visitors. “Kids like things that they can touch and feel,” Crum says. The “discovery” element includes large-screen displays accompanying many exhibits and artifacts. The museum also boasts a small Internet café. An annual $25 family membership includes five free cups of Starbucks coffee.

The Cherokee County Historical Museum is located at 101 E. Main St., Centre, Ala. Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Admission: $3 for adults; $2 for seniors and students; $1 for children 7-12; free for kids under 6. More information: 256-927-7835, museumatcentre.com

Other Lookout Mountain Area Museums

Alabama Fan Club and Museum
The supergroup Alabama’s many awards and achievements, from their early days as a bar band to induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, are displayed here. The “Boys from Fort Payne” are among the most successful country music artists of all time, with more than 40 No. 1 hits and more than 73 million albums sold. 101 Glenn Blvd. S.W., Fort Payne, Ala.; Wednesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.; 256-845-1646; thealabamaband.com/fanclub

Civilian Conservation Corps Museum
This museum tells the story of the Civilian Conservation Corp program enacted by President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression as a way to provide jobs and conserve natural resources. In particular, the museum chronicles the construction of DeSoto State Park near Fort Payne, Ala. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the park in the mid-1930s to early 1940s. DeKalb County Road 618 at the original entrance to DeSoto State Park; Call 256-997-5025 for appointment.

Collinsville History Museum
This museum is devoted to telling the storied history of one of DeKalb County Alabama’s oldest towns. Artifacts of note include a movie marquee (from the building that now houses the Collinsville Public Library), antique beds, high school yearbooks, old newspaper clippings and Coca-Cola bottles stamped with the town’s name, referencing a time when a bottling plant was located in Collinsville. Collinsville Community Center, 3210 Alabama Hwy. 68, Collinsville, Ala.; Thursday, 1-4 p.m.; gemofthevalley.net

Rome (Ga.) Area History Museum
Exhibits create a walk-through timeline starting with the Native Americans and early settlers, continuing through the Civil War and then the development of Rome’s industries. 305 Broad St., Rome, Ga.; Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (EST); Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; 706-235-8051; www.romehistorymuseum.org

The Battles for Chattanooga Museum
This small museum features a three-dimensional, electronic battle map of Chattanooga’s Civil War history, with 5,000 miniature soldiers, 650 lights and sound effects. The map presents details of major battles fought in Chattanooga in November 1863. Learn about Chattanooga’s Battle Above the Clouds and Sherman’s assault on Missionary Ridge before his historic “march to the sea.” 1110 East Brow Rd., Lookout Mountain, Tenn.; Daily, 10 a.m-5 p.m. (EST); Summer hours, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; battlesforchattanooga.com

Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts/Imagination Place Children’s Museum
While it has no permanent collections, the center offers collections from all genres of visual art in three galleries that showcase regional and national traveling  exhibits. The complex also includes Imagination Place Children’s Museum, a hands-on environment in which children learn through experiential play. Its main exhibit is a child-sized town that includes a bank, grocery store, doctor’s office, construction site and veterinary clinic. 501 Broad St, Gadsden, Ala.; Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday 1-5 p.m.; Exhibit halls remain open until 8 p.m. each evening except Wednesday and Sunday; Imagination Place closes at 5 p.m.; 256-543-2787; culturalarts.org

Gadsden Museum of Art
Featuring works of Southern art and artists and housing an extensive permanent collection of paintings, sculptures and prints, the Gadsden Museum of Art also hosts a series of changing exhibits showcasing the works of local and regional artists. The GMA exhibits artifacts, antique properties, furniture, photographs,
decorative arts and items of historical significance to the Gadsden and Etowah County area. 515 Broad St., Gadsden, Ala.; Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays and first Fridays, 10 a.m.-7p.m.; 256-546-7365; www.gadsdenmuseum.com

Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum
In addition to an impressive collection of vintage locomotives, the museum offers a variety of daily steam-engine train excursions. 4119 Cromwell Rd., Chattanooga, Tenn.; Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4p.m. (EST);  423-894-8028; tvrail.com

Chieftains Museum
Also known as the Major Ridge Home, this early 19th century house contains artifacts from one of the Cherokee Nation’s most prominent leaders during the turbulent period that culminated in Cherokees being forced from the Southeast on the Trail of Tears. Ridge was one of the signers of the Treaty of New Echota. 501 Riverside Pkwy. N.E., Rome, Ga.; Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (EST); 706- 291-9494; chieftainsmuseum.org

Paradise Garden
The three-acre creation of self-taught, Southern folk/”sacred” artist Howard Finster has attained international pop-icon status. Finster’s outdoor art environment has been the subject of many documentaries and articles. While the largest collection of his 46,000 works is housed at the Museum of High Art in Atlanta, a true Finster fan must visit his real-life canvas, which can be seen on cover art and is included in music videos by groups including REM, Black Hawk and the Talking Heads. 200 North Lewis St., Summerville, Ga.; Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m-4 p.m. (EST); Sunday, 1-4 p.m.; 706-808-0800; finstersparadisegarden.org

Lookout Mountain area artists exhibiting elsewhere

John Dersham – ‘Changing Moods … 50 Years in Black and White’

Every magazine should be so lucky as to have a “master” among its pool of talented contributors. We have just that with John Dersham, regular columnist (Life on Lookout Mountain, page 8) and master photographer.

Dersham, who earned his Master of Photography while working for Eastman Kodak, has 60 black-and-white prints on exhibit at the Evelyn Burrow Museum on the campus of Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala. The images represent more than a half century of Dersham’s work in photography and print-making. His passion for photography began when his father gifted him with a Kodak Brownie camera in 1960.

Today, as president and CEO of DeKalb County (Ala.) Tourism, Dersham continues to perfect his craft. He holds regional photography workshops and speaks around the country on topics related to the art form.

Donny Wilson, director of the Evelyn Burrow Museum, said in a story published on the Wallace State website that Dersham’s exhibit is one of the finest examples of black-and-white photography he’s ever seen. “The quality of work Dersham shows is amazing,”’ Wilson says. “The details in the photographs, the compositions and the contrasts all evoke some feeling, whether it be nostalgia from a photo of an old country store or a sense of peace from a rural landscape.”

The “Changing Moods” exhibit runs through at least May. 801 Main St. N.W., Hanceville, Ala.; Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; 256-352-8457; burrowmuseum.org, johndersham.com

Cal Breed – ‘Encounters: Cal Breed’
Cal Breed’s impressive creations have made his secluded Orbix Hot Glass studio near Little River Canyon National Preserve (Fort Payne, Ala.) a popular destination for tourists across the country. Oprah Winfrey’s “O List” featured his Roxy Pitcher (calling it her favorite), and Breed’s work was a nominee for Martha Stewart’s “American Made Competition.” Breed’s most daring and innovative glass artistry is now on exhibit at the Huntsville (Ala.) Museum of Art. “Encounters” explores metaphorical connections between the body, spirit and natural world – a sharp contrast between the blown-glass vases, pitchers and ornaments Orbix fans normally associate with Breed.

His “Pelts and Lyrics” series is a collection of specially created pieces that reference a variety of natural forces and forms including the movements of water, the activity of a beehive, porcupine quills and tree bark. “You  could say it is a sculptural study of the skins we wear and the songs we sing,” Breed notes. “A study of our  skins and the winds within, of our shells and the passions encased.”

“Encounters” runs through May 4. 300 Church St. S., Huntsville, Ala.; Tuesday- Wednesday and Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 1-4 p.m.; 256-535-4350; hsvmuseum.org, orbixhotglass.com.

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