Old Independence Regional Museum Presents "A Region on the Move"

In less than a decade, Old Independence Regional Museum has established itself as user-friendly, community-driven, and outreach-oriented. In the capable hands of director Jo Blatti, the museum has gained a considerable statewide reputation for its exhibits, its public programs, and its archive and steadily expanding permanent collections. The museum also anchors and enriches the historical discussions, research, and writing that seem as common in Batesville as talk of the Cubs is in Chicago, or the Steelers in Pittsburgh. In this community where history is both cherished and celebrated, the museum and its busy calendar of programs and activities are never far from the conversation.

The museum preserves and presents the history of the 12 present counties which were at one time all part of Independence County: Baxter, Cleburne, Fulton, Independence, Izard, Jackson, Marion, Poinsett, Sharp, Stone, White, and Woodruff. The building that houses the museum is a former National Guard Armory, built as a WPA project in 1936 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building, in the Ozark stone style with Gothic Revival and Art Deco influences, was constructed of sandstone hauled from the nearby Moorefield Quarry. It was painstakingly restored and opened as a museum in September 1998. A multi-year expansion, completed in early 2006, added significant gallery and workspace.

The most recent addition to the museum is the "A Region on the Move," an exhibit about transportation in north central Arkansas. As one of the interpretive panels explains, "The boggy sloughs and unyielding hills of north Arkansas made travel a true chore until well into the 20th century." The exhibit chronicles the challenges and celebrates the determination of those who actually managed to get from place to place in those rough and tumble times.

The most impressive component of "A Region on the Move" is a precisely scaled down version of a 1930ís Phillips 66 gas station, complete with a "gravity" gas pump and working tire pump. The inside of the station is incredibly detailed and richly evocative of a less frazzled time. The exhibit also includes a Springfield wagon and a recreation of the "Last Train from Batesville" on March 21, 1960, complete with loading platform, scale, and luggage. The companion to the "Last Train" is a display showcasing artifacts from the heyday of rail travel, including a damask linen tablecloth and other dining car pieces, a lantern, a pocket watch, and a perpetual calendar. Like all of the museumís original exhibits, "A Region on the Move" takes full advantage of the institutionís own photo collection with some outstanding enlargements that reinforce the exhibitís principal components. In our own time of easy travel, the exhibit is well worth a day trip to Batesville.

The other major permanent exhibit is "Where the Delta Meets the Ozarks," a delightfully varied look at the history of the Old Independence region, from settlers and steamboats and record companies and dirt tracks. Among the skillfully presented artifacts in this exhibit are an 1846 melodeon, a Civil War Surgeonís Kit, a McGuffeyís Fourth Reader from 1910, and a 45-rpm record from nearby Concordís legendary Rimrock Records. Racing aficionados will delight in seeing a white cotton work short worn by the late Julian Martin, father of driver Mark Martin, in the 1970ís. The shirt also acknowledges the other two pillars of the Batesville racing culture, sporting a Bill Davis logo on the pocket and Larry Shaw Race Cars on the back.

The museum has also become an important destination for an impressive variety of touring exhibits. George Fisher Cartoons: The Clinton Years is currently on display and remains at the museum until February 20. Fisher was the popular editorial cartoonist for the Arkansas Gazette. This selection, of works from the Arkansas Arts Centers extensive collection, depicts the trials and triumphs of Bill Clinton in the years leading up to his presidency. Historic Bridges of Arkansas is scheduled for opening sometime this spring. The exhibit features photographs by Maxine Payne, assistant professor of art at Hendrix College. Payne spent three years photographing all of the stateís historic bridges for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.

Scheduled to run October 21 to November 30, Farm Life: A Century of Change for Farm Families and their Neighbors will mark the museumís most ambitious touring exhibit to date. Farm Life, a National Endowment for the Humanities Traveling Exhibition, tells the story of farm families and rural communities facing change and explores how political, economic, and cultural roots influence families today, both on and off the farm. Farm Life was organized by the Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Expect Old Independence Museum to come up with compelling ways of integrating local history into exhibit programs.

In addition to a steady stream of touring exhibits, the museum hosts a mostly monthly Brown Bag Lunch series. Guests scheduled for 2007 include Joseph Key, Ph.D., assistant professor of history at ASU-Jonesboro, who will discuss Arkansasí Native American groups at noon on March 15, and Steve Striffler, author of Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of Americaís Favorite Food, discussing migrant workers in the poultry industry at noon on April 18. The Brown Bag lunches are free and open to the public. Participants may bring a sack lunch to the museum and eat during the program. Free water and soft drinks are provided.

The museum houses an impressive and comfortable Archival Wing, open to the public during regular museum hours. The wing contains a library of books on relevant topics including the Civil War, Native Americans, Arkansas history, and published family histories; historical society journals from Cleburne, Independence, Izard, Lawrence, Jackson, White, Fulton, and Sharp counties; published city, county, church, and school histories; an extensive collection of maps; and various county records on microfilm.

The museum staff is extremely helpful; director Jo Blatti is quick to acknowledge their role in the institutionís success. A dedicated group of volunteer docents also contributes to the strong sense of the importance of community that one takes away from a visit to Old Independence.

A small but well-stocked gift shop includes works by local artists and artisans, books and recordings connected to exhibits and programs, and books and journals on local history. Two books of special interest are Making Sense of the Civil War in Batesville-Jacksonport and Northeast Arkansas by Batesville historian Freeman K. Mobley and Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and their Image by Lyon college faculty member Brooks Blevins.

Old Independence Regional Museum offers tours for school groups K-12, Scouts, home school students and other young people's groups by reservation. Group rates are .75 per child; one teacher is admitted free for each classroom group. School tours are keyed to the Arkansas Department of Education guidelines, K-12. The museum provides pre- and post- visit handouts for school groups. The tour takes about one hour. The museum can accommodate up to 60 students at one time, starting groups of 20 in different areas of the museum. Specialized tours can be arranged upon request. Call to arrange for tours.

The museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and $1 for children. The museum is located at 308 South Ninth, just a few blocks from the downtown business and historic districts.


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