Leader Blues

Monday, June 11, 2007

TOP STORY >>Documenting Lonoke County

Story and photos by Heather Hartsell

The history of Lonoke County, its past activities and the lives of its citizens is a constantly changing and challenging scene. Much has been discarded, hidden away in attics and forgotten or lost by fires and other disasters. But Sherryl Miller and a handful of volunteers are working to preserve as much of the county’s history as possible through the Lonoke County Museum.

The museum was organized in 1998 by a group of volunteers in an effort to preserve records and artifacts of the entire county’s rich history.

“Our mission is to save the history of Lonoke County as quickly as we can,” Miller said, “There’s been a lot of history lost.”
The museum is located in Lonoke’s Historical Preservation District at 215 S. E. Front St.

The J.O. and Gertrude Bennett family of Lonoke County donated the 10,000-square-foot building to the museum in 2005. Many might know the building as the old Joe Royal Chevrolet dealership or the Scott Building.

The building provides a large, secure, permanent place to preserve artifacts and historical records of Lonoke County, gives the museum a place to promote the preservation of Lonoke historical records and artifacts, and a place to educate the public and help people with their family genealogical research. Some don’t even know the museum exists, but once they come across it, they learn what an educational resource both the museum and Miller can be.

A history lover, Miller strives to find the stories behind the museum’s displays to better personalize patrons’ visits.

On exhibit

There are several displays on exhibit with more to come as time and money permit.

The Lonoke County Museum has exhibits relative to the history of the county, from the Native Americans who settled there, to the Civil War and both World Wars. The museum has hopes to reconstruct a town in its back room. The museum’s diorama of the Civil War battle at Brownsville can tell its own story – literally.

It has got sound and lights to tell visitors about the clash between the northern and southern Missouri troops that took place just outside Lonoke on Hwy. 31.

Miller can add to the tale with what she learned while researching to build the diorama. “A northern Missouri troop all rode white horses into the battle, which made good targets. There were also only eight headstones at the Brownsville Cemetery at that time,” she said.

Elizabeth Gray stood on the stairs of the museum defending herself with a pistol in hand, just as she did against Jayhawkers, guerrilla fighters during the Civil War, during the Battle of Brownsville.

Miller tells the story of Gray, the widow of Confederate Capt. Thomas Gray, who, home alone with her small child, defends her home against the Jayhawkers when they entered to raid her home.

“They came in to rob her and left their guns on the foot of the stairs when they went upstairs. Knowing if she were robbed she and her child would starve, she took one of the pistols from the stairs and told them to leave her home. It was said they were more than glad to leave with their lives,” the executive director said.

There is also a diorama of the city of Lonoke in 1897 and one of Eberts Field in 1918. Eberts Field was a World War I aviation-training center located where the Lonoke golf course now stands. The center trained pilots for the war, but the war ended before the first class graduated.

The diorama of Lonoke took a year to research and build.

It depicts the city, with a population of 1,200, in 85 miniature buildings – a three-story opera house, three hotels, Mason’s Livery Stable, Pearce Gunsmith Shop, Reech’s Boot Store, McCrary’s Mercantile Store, complete with a game of checkers going on outside; Rubles Store, and the courthouse, when there was a street running between it and the jail.

Saving history

To preserve county history before any more is lost, the museum will gladly take any records or other artifacts from defunct companies, churches, cemeteries, schools or other organizations for preservation.

“The volunteers have a real urgency about what they are doing – we’re losing history so fast,” Miller said. “We lose someone daily that could have something great for the museum,” she said.

Miller and her crew will gladly come to a person’s house to collect items of history. “We’ll come and help you with it, just don’t throw it out,” she said.

According to Walls McCrary, museum board member and life-long Lonoke resident, the hope is the museum will always stay open.

“We hope the museum is here forever, that the county and people support it and it will be here from now on,” McCrary said.
Miller added that she would like to have help in each township within the county. “I want to have a person representing each area of the county to help people when they want to know something,” Miller said.

A fountain of stories, Miller hopes to find people in the northern part of the county that can help save Lonoke’s history.
“There are good stories in the Ward and Austin area I would like to hear, but I haven’t found the person to tell them to me yet,” she said.