SMC Museum 15 years old

Published 3:53 am Friday, October 24, 2008

By By JOHN EBY / Dowagiac Daily News
Last spring Steve Arseneau, director of The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College, fielded a phone call from a former SMC theater employee.
Dowagiac graduate Aaron Heeter wondered if Harpo Productions in Chicago could borrow a stove.
You know, Oprah Winfrey's show.
"They were recreating the Mary Tyler Moore set for a reunion show" last June "and they couldn't find a good stove that fit with what they were doing," Arseneau recalled for Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889.
"Oprah" actually mentioned the college at the end of the episode, promoting it to "Southwestern Michigan University."
"And they have us featured on the Web site on making the set, so we're getting a little bit of publicity," said Arseneau, who joined the museum staff June 1, 1998, and succeeded Ann Thompson as director in 2006.
The museum's fiscal year runs July 1-June 30.
"Our main focus for the past several years has been renovating our galleries," Arseneau said. "Our biggest gallery is Dalton-Tremble, so that took up the meat of our time this year. We serve about 1,000 school children a year. This year was no exception."
Attendance of 5,500 "is good for a town the size of Dowagiac," he said.
With field trip budgets cut back, the museum is developing programs it can take to classrooms. A new museum educator, Dr. Alisea McLeod, was hired.
The museum also saw "a really stellar year" for artifacts, adding about 500.
A collection which in particular expanded is the 246th Armor of the National Guard established in Dowagiac after World War II. "We had very limited stuff," Arseneau said. "We added some other military things, some good World War II stuff. As always, we were happy to get some more good Round Oak things – stoves, advertising."
One collection that came in was of rifles from retired Marine Corps Cpl. Denton "Denny" Kime. Kime, a Vietnam veteran, gave five rifles, four of which are military, to the museum.
The rifles became part of the museum's "Small Town, Big World" exhibit built around the original worldwide Webb, Miller, the pre-eminent foreign correspondent from World War I until his death in 1940. Miller was a finalist for a 1935 Pulitzer Prize won by the New York Times.
Kime, a member of the Marine Corps during Vietnam, used the M-14 rifle, similar to one donated. The others include: an M-1 Garand rifle, M-1 Carbine rifle, SKS rifle and a C/Z action .22 caliber rifle.
The C/Z action .22 caliber rifle has a Thomas Shelhamer gun stock.
During the period 1945-1970, Shelhamer made custom rifles in Dowagiac for a limited number of people, usually about 10 weapons per year.
Shelhamer's meticulous work and attention to detail made his rifles superior, earning him worldwide recognition as one of the best stock makers of the century.
Kime served in Vietnam on search-and-destroy missions for two months in 1966 before being seriously wounded by a landmine.
He received the Purple Heart for his injuries, including loss of vision in one eye, some loss of hearing and burns to his body.
Kime's interest in military rifles was sparked not only by military service, but also by his hobby of target shooting that began as a young man.
"When the college hosted the Wall in 2001, I had been working with Denny," Arseneau said, "and he finally got to the point of what he calls 'decollecting.' They're a really nice addition to our collection."
"The best donation we got, though," Arseneau said, "was a coupe of tintypes. I hop on eBay every couple of weeks to see if there is any good Dowagiac or Round Oak stuff. I saw a listing for 1860 and thought, 'No way.' The earliest known photograph of Dowagiac has always been Wheat Day" – also from 1860.
Realtor Floyd Jerdon, father of SMC Trustee Tom Jerdon and an avid postcard collector, acquired the tintypes and donated them to the museum.
Arseneau was able to compare the Wheat Day image with the tintype and verify specific trees and buildings.
"It's dead-on Dowagiac, 1860," he said. "The other tintype which came with it is also an incredibly important photograph because it's the only one known of the original Dowagiac depot," which sat between the tracks so trains ran in front of it as well as behind. Judd Lumber's original 1858 planing mill can also be glimpsed in the background.
As far as managing its collections, the museum "has a great storage facility," said Arseneau. "We are way ahead of the curve for museums large and small – especially small. Our collections are 100-percent catalogued. All of our photographs have been digitized" and are attached to the database.
With a computer keystroke, all images related to a particular business pop up onscreen from the archive.
"We're doing the same thing with all of our documents," he added.
Summers the museum features an air-conditioned brown bag lunch video series. The bipartisan Wednesday offering in 2008 tied in with the presidential campaign with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt.
Historical lecture series are offered twice each year, such as an upcoming Nov. 5 program at 6:30 p.m. on suffrage in the museum's Upton room.
Three programs for 2008-2009 school tours include "Keepers of the Fire" on the Pokagon Band and Potawatomi Indians, "Growing Up Pioneer" and a new look at the Underground Railroad which smuggled slaves through Cass County to freedom.
"All of our programs meet core curriculum standards for Michigan," Arseneau pointed out.
The museum relies on a core group of 25 volunteers, who annually devote about 2,000 hours. There is a recognition luncheon which this year took them to the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Ind., which Arseneau highly recommends.
"Go. Check this place out," he urged. "It's a great museum and has Lincoln's carriage which transported him to his assassination at Ford's Theatre.
Three volunteers have exceeded 3,000 hours in 15 years, paced by Grace Werner at 4,000 plus. Her World War II nurse uniform is on display.
Arseneau said when the museum decided three years ago to chart a new course emphasizing local history instead of a dual mission with hands-on science, he met with President Dr. David M. Mathews to craft a 2006-2009 exhibit plan. It included August 2006's Round Oak Stove room and the June 2007 railroad layout centered on model trains in downtown Dowagiac circa 1870 and 1920.
"This year we made some additions to those two exhibits," Arseneau said, "but the big thing was the Tremble-Dalton gallery. We wanted to do 20th century history. With the collections we had, including the great Webb Miller collection we got last year, we did "Small Town, Big World: Locals Who Made History" – Leigh Wade, James Heddon, Charles Smith, Capt. Iven Carl Kincheloe and Ed Lowe, plus more of its expanding military trove, including Maj. Gen. Irving Phillipson, who "saved the Presidio and got U.S. forces ready for World War II."
Miller, born in Pokagon in 1892 and graduated from Dowagiac High School, went to Chicago, then to the Mexican border to trail Pancho Villa.
"He became the biggest reporter of the 1920s and 1930s," Arseneau said of the author of 1936's "I Found No Peace."
"If an event was happening, Webb Miller was there," he said. "It's an amazing collection. One thing we didn't get was his cigarette case because it was stolen in Tripoli in the 1970s. He had notables sign it – Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Mussolini, Hitler and Gandhi. It's got to be the only thing in the world signed by all those" historical figures.
Miller had a Liberty ship named after him during World War II.
Climbing its rigging, operating a miniature Smith Hoist and playing with Heddon fishing lures, which all react differently in water, are among the facility's interactive features.
SMC has the American flag which the USS Webb Miller flew on D-Day while transporting troops.
Wade, of Cassopolis, was a World War I aviator who went on to be one of the four pilots who made the first around-the-world flight of 175 days in 1924.
"As we look ahead to the next year," he said, "we are going to finish our renovations in June 2009. We'll be all one cohesive local history unit. Then we're going to start mini-exhibits and change out cases here and there to highlight new people. We'll continue to be a community resource," and as SMC embarks on a new era with dormitory housing next fall, "We look to become a student resource as well – sort of an entertainment venue for them."
Arseneau grew up in the Milwaukee area and studied history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, focusing on 20th century U.S. and Native American history.
Arseneau, who collects political memorabilia, has always been fascinated with historical museums and sites.
In 1995, he entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee in the public history and museum studies programs, which allowed him to take classes at his favorite childhood museum, the Milwaukee Public Museum.
The Brewers fan recently savored his first October baseball since he was 12.
For more information, contact the museum at (269) 782-1374 or visit
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Admission is free.