Upcoming Watkins Museum exhibit to showcase daily life in early Douglas County
photo by: Dylan Lysen
Have you ever wondered what it looked and felt like to live in Lawrence in the town’s early days?
Soon, visitors to the Watkins Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St., will be able to do just that. The museum is in the process of developing a third-floor exhibit focused on what daily life was like in Lawrence and rural Douglas County from 1880 to 1950.
Steve Nowak, executive director of the museum, said the museum crafted three phases for the exhibit. The first of the three exhibits opened in July, he said.
In the windows of the third-floor exhibit room, banners hanging in the windows explain different aspects of life in Lawrence, including arts, culture and common causes in the area.
And, of course, basketball.
“You can’t have Lawrence without basketball,” Nowak said.
photo by: Dylan Lysen
The second phase of the project, which is expected to open sometime in 2019, explores the agriculture and businesses of the area in the early days of the community.
Nowak said the museum is currently developing the agriculture and food portion of the exhibit, which could include displays of utensils and technology of the time and how they progressed through the years.
A couple pieces of the exhibit are already on display, including the storefront of the Blondie Corp. Barbershop, which was located on the 1800 block of Massachusetts Street in the early 1900s. Nowak said it was located close to where Dairy Queen currently sits.
“We’ve restored it to look like it did in the early 1900s,” Nowak said of the storefront, noting that the actual barber pole is still intact. “It will set the tone and make people feel a little bit like they’ve stepped back in time on Massachusetts Street.”
Along with the storefront, the museum is displaying an electric car from the same time period that was owned by Eleanor Henley. Henley was the wife of former Lawrence Mayor Albert Henley.
Nowak said there is still evidence of Eleanor’s use of the car in Lawrence on the 700 block of Louisiana Street, which is wider than the rest of the blocks of the street.
“He arranged for the city to widen that part of the street so his wife could make a U-turn,” Nowak said of the former mayor. “So it pays to have friends in high places.”
The museum also has a large archive of Eleanor’s letters, in which she wrote about driving the car around Lawrence. As an interactive feature, Nowak said the museum plans to record a reading of some of the writings for the exhibit.
Another interactive piece the museum plans to include is a map that allows visitors to see what Massachusetts Street was like in the past, what it looks like now and possibly include interviews with former business owners. The display will also feature more signs from former stores in Lawrence.
“That will help people get a taste of what Lawrence used to be like,” Nowak said. “We can go back, if not all the way to 1850s, certainly back to the years right after the Civil War.”
photo by: Dylan Lysen
The display will also work well in conjunction with a project that University of Kansas journalism students are conducting on the history of downtown businesses.
As part of the Block By Block project, KU students researched the history of many of the buildings in downtown Lawrence, providing news clippings and photos marking the history from the 1800s to present. The information is posted on the website of eXplore Lawrence, the Lawrence visitors bureau.
But Nowak hopes to bring that information to the museum and possibly to the Downtown Lawrence Inc. mobile app. Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said the organization is working on it.
“We would like to see all of those pieces work together so no matter where people can encounter something on Mass. Street, they can follow it up in another way,” Nowak said.
The third and final phase of the third-floor upgrades, which is not yet funded, will explore the effect the railroads had on Lawrence, public education in town and the universities of Douglas County, Nowak said.
Nowak said the third exhibit will have an interactive showing what it would be like to travel by train in the area, and the museum has a lot of artifacts related to the schools.
Additionally, the museum plans to interview former university students about their experiences at each of the universities. During homecoming weeks, many alumni return to Douglas County, he said.
“Technology is making that easier and easier now,” he said. “We can employ some new techniques, I think.”
Although the museum may interview some famous alumni for the exhibit, Nowak said the exhibit may focus on anyone who wants to speak to get the full understanding of what it’s like to be a college student in Douglas County.
“I think it would be cool for people to be able to tell a story about what they remember of Lawrence when they were at KU or about Baldwin City when they were at Baker University,” he said.