By Joe Barker
Missourian Staff Writer
The Washington Historical Society Museum got a big lift in 2013.
Every year, during its two-month downtime, the museum attempts to complete one big project. Prior to the 2013 season opening, the museum successfully installed an elevator at the two-story facility at 113 E. 4th St.
Marc Houseman, director of the Washington Historical Society, said he was unsure just how much use the elevator would get used, but he was pleasantly surprised.
“This year the elevator has probably been used by about 100 people,” Houseman said. “While that doesn’t seem like a huge number, that’s 100 people who wouldn’t have gotten to see the exhibits upstairs without the elevator.”
Houseman said the elevator was a big expense — big enough that he, and others, were worried the museum wouldn’t get its money’s worth.
“Now we’re all really glad that we did it,” he said. “Now that it’s over and done and paid for — that was a huge achievement for us, making the museum accessible for everyone.”
The elevator was just one thing that contributed to what Houseman considered a good 2013.
“The more people we get in here, the more successful we feel we are,” he said. “We were slightly more successful this past year.”
Houseman said the museum didn’t see a big uptick in visitors this year, but the numbers didn’t go down. He said the museum routinely gets about 3,000 visitors annually and this year was no different.
The steady flow of visitors speaks to the museum’s trend of bringing in new people to replace the one-and-done visitors from years past, he noted.
“Some folks come in and never come back,” he said. “They come in on the Amtrak and may come in once a decade. Those people don’t come back, so I think that’s a measure of success — to maintain the status quo. It’s better than fewer people coming.”
One thing Houseman continues to consider a bright spot for the museum is the effort to bring kids into the fold.
As part of the fourth-grade curriculum in the state, students learn about Missouri history. Houseman said the museum works with schools to bring the kids to Washington and into the museum.
“I think we’ve had literally every fourth- grader in the 63090 ZIP code in the museum on one of two history days,” he said. “That’s both public and parochial. We’re really proud of that.”
In addition to attracting visitors, business also was good in the books department. Houseman said the publication committee produced three books in 2013 and all three “sold like wildfire.”
“That was a major step for us,” he said. “To see our little gift shop that just sells books, go from selling five or 10 books a month to, all of the sudden, we’re making thousands of dollars of month in profit in November and December.”
The first book, a yearbook celebrating the 175th anniversary of Washington in 2014 was a major project and it sold well, Houseman said. The other two books were the first two books in the new Washington Historical Series.
The first book in the series is an autobiography of early Washington industrialist Henry Bleckman while the second book is a Civil War history of Franklin County. Bleckman’s book was actually written years ago, but was first published by the historical society.
“He wrote his autobiography in the 1830s as an old man and then died, but it’s never been published,” Houseman said. “With blessing from the Bleckman descendants we published it.”
Houseman hopes the success of the books continues in 2014. The third book, “Ralph,” is about legendary local historian Ralph Gregory.
Another goal for 2014 is to make use of the Kohmueller House. The historical society got the house after Washington Preservation Inc. dissolved and turned its assets over.
“That’s something we hope to take to the next level,” said Houseman, who plans to use the house in ways that don’t work for the museum.
While the museum is focused on Washington, he said the Kohmueller House can go outside that box and deal with what was going on in the rest of the world.
Houseman said the house will be furnished to look like it would in 1879.
“There are still a lot of museum visitors who like to see things set up like the old days,” he said.
The museum is set to reopen on their regular six-day-per-week schedule Saturday, March 1.