The Hands on History Room will include two mobile units: a large cabinet containing American Indian items and a smaller Discovery Zone cabinet where children may reach though small holes to feel objects.
When the Hands on History Room opens this summer in Watkins Community Museum of History, it will serve as a triumph of the volunteer spirit that exists in the Lawrence community.
The third-floor room is being built by the volunteer labor of carpenter and millwright apprentices of the Kaw Valley and Vicinity District Council of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.
The room contains a small stage where children may model Civil War-era clothing -- Union and Confederate uniforms and period dresses -- made by volunteer seamstresses. The stage also will accommodate storytellers and serve as a setting for special programs. A Victorian playhouse, donated to Watkins Museum by Dr. Phil Godwin and his wife, Phoebe, provides an alternate entrance to the room.
A replica of a smokehouse stands along the south wall, a reminder of the secret hiding places used by slaves as they traveled north to freedom along the Underground Railroad. The Hands on History Room will include two mobile units: a large cabinet containing American Indian items and a smaller Discovery Zone cabinet where children may reach though small holes in doors to feel -- but not see -- objects and then open the doors to learn if they identified them correctly.
Construction materials and many of the "hands on" exhibits for the room are paid for by the Stough Memorial, created by the late Charles Stough to honor the memory of his late wife, Julie. George Catt, who donated arrowheads for the American Indian cabinet and who practiced law with Stough for 13 years, said he is certain that the Stoughs "would be more than pleased by the efforts that have gone into the room."
The apprentices are enthusiastic about the project, and those who are fathers are eager to bring their children to the completed room. Since early March, after working up to 10 hours at their regular jobs, carpenter apprentices have donated their time Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at the museum, while millwright apprentices worked at the union's Kaw Valley Training Center in Topeka to craft the cabinets and iron entrance gate.
The four-year apprentice program is offered free of charge to participants and is funded by a union employee "fringe benefit" paid by their employers into an education fund. The program's coordinator, Curtis Trarbach -- a recently re-elected Baldwin school board member and a former apprentice who won the 1981 State Apprentice Championship -- said the museum project "is a lot of fun and has involved a great deal of creativity on the part of the apprentices. We're appreciative of the opportunity to put something in the community that is going to have such usefulness and longevity."
Union members and apprentices have a long record of involvement in efforts that serve the Lawrence community, including the Valley View renovation for United Way, the Corporate Volunteer Council's annual home rehabilitation program for low income individuals and the upcoming Health Care Access addition.
"We try to do what we can when we can," said Ken Doud, field representative for Kaw Valley and Vicinity District Council of the union. "We certainly can't do everything we'd like to do, but we help nonprofit organizations on worthwhile projects that will benefit the community."
Doud, a Wisconsin Chippewa who came to Lawrence to attend Haskell Indian Nations University, began his career as an apprentice carpenter and eventually advanced into union management positions.
Projects such as the Hands on History Room at the museum serve an important goal, according to Doud.
"It's a community project we can get involved in with our local apprentices, which encourages them to be future volunteers because they get gratification from building something lasting -- not just building something in class which then has to be torn apart. It teaches these young people that helping your community and your fellow neighbor is a good thing."
The apprentices working on the room have varied backgrounds but one important common bond: Each has a passion for creating -- building with their own two hands -- things that last.
Brothers John and Jason Gregory have spent much of their time constructing the stage and Sheetrocking the self-supporting walls behind it.
John Gregory, a third-year apprentice who came to Lawrence seven years ago, says that the city "reminds me of the town -- Palatine, Illinois -- that I grew up in."
A musician who plays a variety of instruments, he played in several "really good bands" before becoming disenchanted with the "self-centeredness that affected band members (not that I didn't have my own share)." John was serious enough about learning his trade that "I sold all my musical instruments but one guitar in order to buy carpenter's tools and keep my family going."
Happily, he is now at a point where he is able to begin replacing those instruments.
Jason Gregory followed his brother to Lawrence and into the apprentice program, which he says "is a good opportunity for young people." In his spare time, Jason enjoys working with his 4-year-old son to restore a 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix.
Jeff Conn is a Northern Arapaho from Wyoming and a veteran of the Job Corps who is working on the KU Memorial Stadium project. He is particularly interested in seeing the final result of the American Indian display at the museum but has spent much of his time working on the smokehouse.
Karl Bredemeier, Perry Lake, is a fourth-year apprentice who works on the Malott Hall addition at KU. He enjoys the proximity of the museum to his day job, noting that "it's nice doing this project in Lawrence because I can come here right after work."
Jeff Miller, a first-year apprentice working on the Murphy Hall addition on the KU campus, says he wasn't greatly pressured by his father and grandfather to follow them into the ministry, but had he been, he was ready with perfect rejoinder, "Jesus was a carpenter."
Miller, who came to Lawrence in 1986 from Oklahoma, worked at E&E Display Group and at fast-food restaurants and studied chemistry at Johnson County Community College before entering the apprentice program. He has spent much of his time working on the smokehouse.
Another smokehouse carpenter is Tonganoxie native Gary Rogers, a first-year apprentice who works for B.A. Green Construction. Rogers is a former Marine who is using his G.I. Bill to learn his trade, while his wife attends KU and plans to become an elementary teacher.
Laird McKay is a Lawrence native who graduated from LHS in 1984. He studied political science at the University of Chicago for three years and served with the Marines in Desert Storm. After his stint in the service, he weighed becoming a carpenter against working for the Postal Service. Carpentry won out and he is proud to be "a shiny-just-off-the-rack journeyman" which, he explains, means that he is qualified to take his skills and travel, knowing that he is "competent in the use of tools germane to the job." He is applying his skills with Jack Hope Design/Build. McKay designed the iron gate that incorporates a wagon wheel and corn stalks.
Kelly Gatzenmeyer, a second -year millwright apprentice from Effingham, has worked on the gate at the Topeka training center along with Jared Stockman and Jason Doty.
"We fabricated the gate from an original wagon wheel, replacing the wooden spokes with metal ones." The gate incorporates Plexiglas as a safety feature so that small fingers don't get caught in the intricate metalwork.
Echoing Doud's comments, Gatzenmeyer says that "the apprentice program has always been good, but it has become so much better under Trarbach's leadership."
Doud attributes the program's improvement to Trarbach's penchant for community projects and the training center's move from its former facility in Perry to its present 12,000-square-foot building in Topeka.
The birch cabinets which will house the Native American and Discovery Zone exhibits are also nearing completion at the center.
Kerry Priddy, of Silver Lake, was a cabinet maker for Custom Woods in St. Mary's before joining the apprentice program. He is now a fourth-year apprentice. Apprentices Dave Cooper and Jon Brown also helped to build the cabinets, and Jerry Lenard and Jason Haskell worked at Watkins Museum.
The carpenter and millwright apprentices have nearly completed construction of the Hands on History Room, but much work remains to be done before the room is available to children and their families. Costumes must be finished, exhibits arranged and volunteers recruited to staff the room, which will be open about three hours daily and by appointment for groups.
The staff of Watkins Museum and board members of the Douglas County Historical Society are confident that the Hands on History Room is a community volunteer investment that will pay big dividends in children's smiles.