Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Newell Museum: A Jewel in the rough...

by Larry Miller

Good friend Don Matthesen and I had been ruminating for some time about a trip into the Belle Fourche Irrigation District country to visit his old stomping grounds.....and to visit to the Newell Museum.

We finally made the trip yesterday (6/29/12) and it was delightful day.

After driving a back road route to Nisland -- via the old Dane Church -- we enjoyed some burgers and fries at the Nisland Cafe before setting off for Newell.

For a community that claims only about 800 souls, the Newell Museum is a real surprise.  Despite a few newspapers articles about the museum in recent months, we were the only visitors on this sizzling Friday afternoon.  Of course, it was a weekday, and younger folks are at work.  We're a couple of retirees -- but even most of the folks in our age category have enough sense to stay home on hot afternoons!

Nonetheless, we were pleasantly greeted by Museum Curator Linda Velder, who spent much of her afternoon giving us a tour of the museum, co-located with town offices on 3rd Street in Newell.

Linda Velder is the Curator at the Newell Museum.....a "must-see" destination!
We suspected that the museum might have more items than you might expect in such a small community, and we were right!  The museum is spread out in four different buildings -- and there's a newer storage building on the back of the property containing items "not yet ready for prime time."

The ground floor of the main museum is chock full of artifacts and documents that should delight any history buff.  While space is sparse for conducting research, many people have already utilized the variety of school yearbooks, family histories, and other historical publications that are nestled in a front corner of the museum.

Don was able to forage through quite a bit of Matthesen information; of course, since he'd attended school in this vicinity as a youngster, he was familiar with many of the family names and businesses in the area.  I'm still a bit of a newcomer, but I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the variety of displays and memorabilia.

Most of the items relate to the early settlers and businesses of the area, and there's quite a bit about the U.S. Reclamation Service (USRS), which played a key role in helping develop the irrigation district.  Named for the first USRS chief engineer Frederick Haynes Newell, the town was established in 1910.  For more than a century now, irrigation waters have been the lifeblood of this area stretching eastward from Orman Dam on the plains at the northern end of the Black Hills.

We'll not recount all the fascinating things you'll find in the museum, but we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the superb doll collection that's displayed on the second floor of the museum.  We're told that there are more than 800 dolls, antique toys, and numerous other artifacts from  bygone eras.  There're also replicas of a medical clinic, an old bathing room, a judge's chambers, and more.

And that's all just in the main museum.

In separate buildings you'll find an impressively outfitted cabin that was built in 1880 on Horse Creek and served as home for the Johannes Flaigg family.

The One Room Schoolhouse will transport you to another era when education seemed a bit more straightforward -- and some might say better!  If the pot-bellied stove, chalk boards, and old desks don't nudge your nostalgia, the meticulously assembled school census records available in the old Wetz School building will remind you that this was an important part of education -- and life -- for generations past.

And although it was a Congregational Church when it was built in 1911, the Church Museum on the lot behind the Newell Museum is very ecumenical these days -- and very impressive.   While curator Linda Velder laments the laundry list of things yet to done in this and other museum areas, we think there's also good cause for her and the citizens of Newell to rejoice at such a remarkable resource in their community.

Numerous folks have contributed items and funds to help make this museum one of the best -- if yet least known -- museums in the region.

We have a feeling that'll change in the coming months and years -- as it should.

We've started this small gallery of photos from our excursion.  See:  Newell Museum.  We hope to add to it in the near future.

Congratulations to Linda Velder and the Town of Newell for their vision in developing this institution.  With more promotion......and community involvement......current and future generations can gain a better understanding and appreciation for their ancestors and their significant contributions to this region.  

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