The Oak Creek Museum has been closed for two years and it may never reopen
Prior to Oak Creek’s election for mayor in 1925, wives of Ku Klux Klan members regularly attended city council meetings and complained about the Oak Creek City Hall building.
After researching the old building, Oak Creek historian Mike Yurich concluded that the complaints weren’t really about the building, but rather about its Italian-Catholic owner. Finding a new location for government in Oak Creek soon became the main problem for KKK-backed candidates.
In response, the opposition Citizens Party added the construction of a new city hall to its party platform and candidate May Morrow won a landslide victory. Morrow’s first act as mayor was to find an architect to build the new city hall, which was completed in 1927.
Today, the nearly 100-year-old stucco building still stands along Oak Creek’s Main Street, although the city government moved out in the 1990s. Since 2007, it has housed the Tracks and Trails Museum, with exhibits telling the story of as many as 10,000 people who lived in nearby camps when the coal mines were booming.
Hundreds signed the guestbook as they drove through town and stopped at the museum. Some left comments about their visit, some mentioned their connection to the mining town and some left only their name.
But no one has added to the guestbook since February 2020.
In March 2020, the museum closed to the public due to COVID-19. A serious leak in the roof kept it closed for more than two years.
With repairs likely costing more than $100,000 and crucial property tax revenues in steep decline, some fear it may never reopen.
“If we can’t fix the roof, it will close,” said Chuck Keating, board member of the Oak Creek and Phippsburg Historical Society, which operates the museum. “We’re on life support right now.”
“Find Their Roots”
The old City Hall building was “essentially rubble” when a group of volunteers set out to restore it, said part-time museum curator Nita Naugle.
The Historical Society started in 1998, but it still lacked a museum like the surrounding towns when Keating joined the board in 2004.
They had a large archive collection, which Yurich, who died in 2015, had started collecting when he was in seventh grade at Oak Creek.
“I call him the godfather of Oak Creek history,” Keating said of Yurich.
Funded by local and federal grants and a variety of private donations, the museum opened in 2007 and is dedicated to Yurich. Naugle has been a curator since 2011, bringing together exhibitions, bringing together school groups and inviting guest speakers.
Historic board member Betty Sweetland said people will be calling regularly to see if they have any records of a family member who once lived in Oak Creek, who, due to the ups and downs of the coal industry, has experienced strong fluctuations in population. . Coming from as far away as Norway, visitors wanted to know where their family might have lived or where they might be buried.
“I think people’s personal stories are becoming more and more important…to find their roots,” Sweetland said. “That’s one of the things the museum can offer.”
“We’re starting to lose that,” Keating added.
‘Sorry, we are closed’
Just outside the museum is a massive dragline bucket used by area coal mines that serves as a draw to bring visitors into the museum. Two men visiting Steamboat Springs stopped by on Wednesday, August 24, while exploring the area.
After reading about the Miners’ Wall – a tribute to local miners – and looking at other historic mining equipment, they walked to the museum where they were greeted by a sign that read, “Sorry, we’re closed.”
Sweetland said it hurt their income because often when these people stop, they leave a donation. Even $5 here and there could go a long way. But the real financial blow has been looming for decades.
“Because of the coal industry, which it is today, it’s had a big impact on the amount of property taxes we get,” Sweetland said. “When I took over as treasurer, property taxes were between $30,000 and $40,000. Now we’re down to $18,000.
Museum utilities cost around $800 per month. The historical society also maintains the bucket park, a display of 1937 fire trucks, and another exhibit on railroad history in Phippsburg. A few years ago the group purchased a few plots in Phippsburg with the intent of displaying an old caboose.
The museum’s leaking roof has so far derailed that plan. Naugle said they don’t fully know the cost of the repair, and $100,000 is a rough estimate, as there are mold issues as well.
“The city doesn’t even want us to go there,” Naugle said of the museum.
“Long Ways to Go”
Over the past month, museum volunteers have been working to create a mini-museum at The Station, a former gas station the historical society owns across from Old Town Hall.
The museum was usually full of people on Labor Day, which has been ‘like Christmas’ in Oak Creek since local unions were able to get their workers an 8-hour day more than a year ago. century.
Historical society volunteers spent a few hours last week meeting about this year’s celebration, which will include visits to mines and an old schoolhouse that the historical society is working to restore.
They also hope to raise funds for the repair of the roof. Some grants they target require some form of local correspondence. If they could raise $15,000 locally, that could be doubled with the grant. Naugle said she is also pursuing other opportunities, possibly with the city applying for a grant on their behalf.
Keating described the loss of the museum as the loss of a school of importance to the community – but that community that has already come together to support history. Sweetland hoped to be able to raise funds this winter, make repairs next summer, and reopen the museum for the upcoming Labor Day.
While this may seem like a lofty goal, it only took about two weeks to raise the funds to purchase the land in Phippsburg. Members of the historical society’s board of directors are optimistic.
“But the bottom line is this one is much, much bigger,” Keating said, noting that they’ve already received some support. “We still have a long way to go.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email [email protected]