Coal Powered

Museum exhibits local history

Jessica Sewing | Reporter

Southeast Kansas is known for its mining history, and Phyllis Bitner and the Miners Hall Museum intend on keeping that history alive. 
Before the museum was even established, the Miners Hall Museum Foundation applied to host a Smithsonian exhibit, “The Way We Work,” at the museum in Franklin. 

The Miners Hall Museum was one of six museums in Kansas chosen to host this traveling exhibit. 

“The title of the exhibit was very compelling for us as our permanent exhibit tells the story of the way we worked in Southeast Kansas and how this area was shaped by the coal mining industry,” said Bitner, trustee and co-chair of Smithsonian exhibit. 

Hand crafted toy steam shovel that was build by a 13-year-old in 1943 on display at the Smithsonian Exhibit.

Hand crafted toy steam shovel that was build by a 13-year-old in 1943 on display at the Smithsonian Exhibit.

The Smithsonian exhibit will debut on May 11 alongside the permanent exhibit nearly a year to the day after the museum opened its doors in May 2012. 

Still a work in progress, Bitner says, the miners museum has been constantly adding to its collection of artifacts, so much so that the current building doesn’t have the space to showcase everything. 

“We are overflowing with donations that have not only been from the immediate local community but the whole county as well,” Bitner said. “Along with the donation support, we have a lot of people volunteering and interning.”

Among the interns are two PSU students, Cassie Drake and Jordan Boyd.
“We are always really excited to see young people take an interest in helping the museum,” Bitner said.
Drake says that she started volunteering at the start of the semester to get a more hands-on experience using her major and future goals in mind. Drake says that she eventually wants to be a museum curator. She says that she will be focusing on researching different items in the museum.
“It will be fun to figure out where some of the items come from and tell people its history and why it is there,” said Drake, senior in history and marketing.
Bitner says that the museum is trying set up the exhibits to focus on telling the whole story of the life of the miners and their families through more interactive exhibits.
“Currently we have an iPad set up to where visitors can record their story and get it uploaded to the Smithsonian,” Bitner said. “We also want to set up an area in a basement where people can get the feel for how dark and cramped the mines were.”
Among the artifacts from the mid-20th century is a wooden model steam shovel, which Bitner says is probably her favorite piece in the museum.
The model was built by Jack Verga, a miner’s son. Bitner says that the shovel tells a great story about how the entire family lived.
“Parents didn’t have money to buy toys for their kids, so they had to make their own fun,” Bitner said. “Can’t you just envision a 13-year-old boy sitting for hours watching the steam shovel, then going home and creating it. It’s a very moving story and that’s why I enjoy that piece so much.”
With the Smithsonian arriving at the museum in just over a hundred days, Bitner says they can use a lot of help. She encourages anyone to attend a volunteer informational meeting to learn about the different jobs they need help completing. The meeting will be held at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Feb. 18 at the museum.
“We want to encourage everyone, including technology-savvy students to bring their ideas to the table,” Bitner said. “We want to make the museum appealing to all different types of people.”
Since it opened, the museum has had more than 5,000 visitors. Bitner says that most of them can spend hours just looking at everything.
“We’ve had people come down and not think they had any ties to mining and then they look around and they find an ancestor’s name on a photo or in one of our books,” Bitner said. “It seems like everyone has some sort of connection to mining.”

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