Murray Bishoff: Parting the clouds of history

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Last weekend, I went to the Kansas City area to make a purchase for the Pierce City Museum.

There, I met with two sisters whose mother, Lois Rae Kennedy, died in 2006, and whose father, Bob Kennedy, now 91, has just gone to a nursing home. They were selling his stuff to help pay for his final years of care.

The sisters, Kae and Karen, had generations of family memorabilia, much more than they knew what to do with, including mountains of family photos that had come from their great grandparents, John Wesley and Ray County Taylor, who lived in Pierce City from the 1890s into the 1930s.

I went through a fraction of the older family photos to get a feeling for the life of this family and the people the sisters only knew from these photos and stories passed down by their mother. Tucked within their stuff was a card invitation to the first annual ball of Cherish Lodge No. 440, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, at Wilsonís Grand Opera House in Monett, on March 17, 1893.

The opera house was located on the northeast corner of Third Street and Broadway. The building standing today on that spot, built in 1898 according to Helen Dixon, on the site of the original building, still has the opera house auditorium on the second floor, more or less intact except for extra walls.

I presented the invitation to the Monett Historical Society board Thursday night.

I have been a collector of assorted things most of my life. I understand the thrill of the hunt, the disappointment of a day with no discoveries, and coming face to face with a gold mine containing items I know I may never see again. Iíve had more than a few of those golden moments.

This was one of them.

I brought back much more from my trip than I expected, and will likely pick up more in time.

Many of those startling discoveries have come in recent years. Thatís happened with the passage of generational wealth, artifacts from earlier generations that have lost meaning to the current owners, but are still inherently precious to those who recognize their historic value. Many amazing things are still out there.

Lifelong Mt. Vernon resident and history buff Doug Seneker years ago told a story of going to a yard sale and spotting a container that sort of looked like a canteen. He recognized it as a Civil War artillery supply piece and picked it up for a song. Stories like that were long a rarity, especially for something that old. Now, as the children of the Depression era are passing on the stuff of their parents, who were inclined to hang onto everything, more treasures are coming to light, and will for the next couple decades.

Thatís just what happened to Kae and Karen. They were thoughtful enough to seek out those who might value what they had. Items that may have had value to no one else have come home, where they will be loved.

If you have repositories of local artifacts ó photos, play things, special clothes or art ó let the museum know, whether itís the city or the county museum. Scrapbooks, thanks to digital copying techniques, can be treasure troves. If youíve got old audio tapes of school concerts with your kids or grandkids, you may have the only surviving copy. Street photos are precious, but not for the obvious reasons. Family photos are less valuable for research purposes but better to have them archived than to let them be scattered to the wind, or sent to the dump.

In the next seven weeks, we will likely see the buildings in the FEMA buyout at Fifth and Front and Sixth and Front disappear. It will be more than a little frustrating to watch the collapsing building that had been the Frisco Hotel go away without having a chance to salvage anything out of it. The collapse took away the opportunity. Donít be surprise seeing several history buffs watching the demolition. Studying the construction from its skeletal structure and marveling at how the walls and sections are still intact has provided plenty to ponder.

Who knows what may escape in the ground? A key fob from the old Harvey House was found when the Jumping-Jacks building was removed. Maybe a piece of the original Railroad YMCA will surface once the cityís public works buildings disappear as well.

We face a special challenge as we emerge from isolation due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) shutdown. How do we document this moment for posterity? There is little in The Monett Times about the Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919. In many places, the most substantial markers are a cluster of tombstones in the local cemetery.

Should we save carry-out menus? Graduation programs? The program from the last school game played? Tuck those specialties away.

Museums can only do so much. They can share a memory and interpret conditions. They cannot change history or atone for it. That takes personal involvement.

The legacy of racial inequity and violence stained Monettís past too. It is not a pretty legacy, and one that the community has largely put behind it in the last 50 years.

Grace Whitlock-Vega, a Monett native, has begun an effort to put closure on Monettís darkest hour. She has started a GoFundMe effort to cover the cost of placing marker on the grave of Ulysses Hayden, the African American lynched in Monett in 1894 who is buried in the Oakdale Cemetery.

Vega has spent much of her life speaking out for racial justice. Her Facebook posts this week now include my 1994 articles when The Monett Times tore the cover off the silence by providing the only complete account of what had happened a century earlier, an incident that had been completely obliterated from memory.

In light of the national calls for racial justice, Vega decided it was time for Monett to acknowledge its past and at least mark Haydenís grave. It would make a worthy gesture.

History should not be selective. By focusing our attention on the positive, we can still celebrate the affirming actions, the triumphs of good will, the family spirit of the community. Thatís what those of us committed to our local museums and historical societies are doing.

Be part of the effort. Saving your history and helping others to do the same provides a better story, helping us to see where weíve come from and giving us a better vision of where weíre going together.

Murray Bishoff has served readers of The Monett Times since 1988. He can be reached at times-news@monett-times.com, or 417-235-3135.

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