MOUNT VERNON — The Knox County Historical Society presented its 2018 Annual Report to the Knox County Commissioners Thursday inside the museum on 875 Harcourt Road, its director making a case for the historical value of the services it provides. Included was a requested small increase in funding followed by a tour of the facility, which is on winter hiatus now and set to reopen March 6.
Museum Director James Gibson laid out a bevy of historical opportunities made available by the Historical Society. They range from preserving and restoring printed collections to school visits that help fulfill grade-level history unit requirements — to monthly program presentations that are open to all. Gibson discussed in detail the eight monthly programs offered last year, including topics such as “The Great Blizzard of ’78.” The programs typically bring between 40 and 75 visitors.
“The folks who come to those meetings typically have their own stories to tell,” he said.
The county Historical Society is also an education-focused organization, he said. From March to mid-December, the museum hosts large groups of students from each of the county’s public school districts as well as St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School. The museum has also seen a continued increase in visits from college students, teachers on their own time, and researchers who make use of collections including different newspapers that formerly existed in the county. At one time, two competing papers were The Democratic Banner and the Republican News. The museum began sharing its large collection of newspapers with the Kenyon College Library in a digitization project last year involving more than 40 bound newspaper volumes spanning from 1850 through 1910.
Still one more collection the museum is involved in preserving is the digitization of Mount Vernon city directories, which date back to the 1858. He noted that students often enjoy taking photos of museum artifacts to fulfill their Social Studies requirements.
“We consider our annual school visits one of our most important activities each year,” he said.
While students represent the future of America’s workforce, the museum is sometimes attentive to nostalgia involving past remembrances of all kinds — and various groups connected to them. This past August, Gibson said the museum hosted the Cooper-Bessemer Old Timers gathering, “sadly billed as the last such reunion,” he noted. More than 120 “old timers” attended from states as far away as Oklahoma, Texas and California. Cooper-Bessemer, part of Mount Vernon’s heyday of an industrial past, made steam engines and other stationary, as well as compressors and other mechanical devices. Examples of Cooper engines are housed in the museum, which spans 15,000 square feet.
Another group, which continues to meet at the museum each year, is the Knox County Chamber of Commerce with its Leadership Knox activity. The day begins with a grounding of the area’s past so that area leaders are educated on “200 years of Knox History” as part of a PowerPoint presentation.
Other group visits included several people from Danville, Kansas, which was settled in the late 1800s by people from Danville in Knox County. They were greeted by two of the museum’s board members from Danville, Robert Crise and David Greer. Two groups of Red Hat Ladies visited the museum from Apple Valley and Mansfield.
When it comes to discussing why people visit the Knox County Historical Society Museum, however, it is nearly impossible, museum board members say, to do so without mentioning Paul Lynde, a Mount Vernon native and highly popular comedian and actor from yesteryear. Many of them remember Lynde from his years on the “Hollywood Squares” or his recurring role as “Uncle Arthur” on the popular television show, “Bewitched.”
“We always get Paul Lynde fans here every year, especially because they loved him and want to see the collection,” Gibson said. He added that last year, Paul Lynde fan groups visited the museum from Chicago and Cleveland. Lynde attended Northwestern University, in Chicago. Like all visitors, they marveled at the comedian’s yellow Thunderbird on display, which still operates very well during parade time, Gibson said, with its large 390 cc engine. Paul Lynde photos, posters and memorabilia of all kinds abound, including from the animated movie “Charlotte’s Web,” in which Lynde offered the pessimistic, yet highly comedic voice of Templeton the rat. Lynde movie memorabilia included items from the 1963 movie “Bye Bye Birdie,” in which Lynde propelled his acting career by playing the father of Ohio teen Kim McAfee (actress Ann-Margret).
Before commissioners went on their museum tour with Gibson, they heard a request from Janet Jacobs, historical society treasurer, who said the organization has not received a budget increase in several years. She requested an increase from $12,500 per year to $20,000.
The historical society and museum make due with an annual budget of about $60,000, she said, from which Gibson is the only employee, and a part-time one. The organization pays about $15,000 in utilities including gas, electricity and telephone; has insurance costs; incurs printing costs for items including a seasonal newsletter, The Knox Historian; has lawn and maintenance costs; and other expenses. The budget is partially balanced through membership dues and donations. Much of what makes the Knox County Historical Society a success involves tireless hours of volunteerism, members said.
“We are a thrifty group, and we do our best to stretch our funds in creative ways,” Gibson offered. Commissioners took no action on the requested increase.