By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
FRANKLIN, Kan. —
At least a century ago, when Belgian immigrant Frank Leroy headed to No. 16 Mine each day to work as a mule skinner, he wouldn’t have dreamed that his lunch bucket and carbide lamp would one day be on display behind glass.
His descendants, the Cukjati family of the Arma-Franklin area, were among the dozens of families who believed his history was worth preserving.
On May 1, that preservation will go public with the opening of the Miners Hall Museum in tiny Franklin, on the site of the coal mining camp’s former union hall.
“This was where it all began,” Phyllis Bitner said of the museum’s history as she sorted through a pile of black and white photographs Thursday.
Dating from the 1920s, the previous 4,000-square-foot community center was the place where people gathered for meetings, family reunions, wedding receptions, dances, funeral dinners and bingo. It was destroyed in the May 4, 2003, tornado that also leveled one-third of the town’s homes and the post office, and was rebuilt using Federal Emergency Management Agency funding and a federal grant.
Starting in May, a year’s worth of themed monthly exhibits will be featured at the museum. The exhibits will lead up to May 2013, when a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” comes to town for six weeks and, coincidentally, the town’s 10th anniversary of the tornado.
Bitner, a founding member of the Miners Hall Museum Board, worked last week with Kathy Gintner, of Arcadia, and Dorothy Dalton, of Croweburg, to complete displays of historical photographs. Bitner also is co-chairing the Smithsonian exhibit.
“There are street scenes, union halls, schools, churches, tipples and miners from coal camps throughout Southeast Kansas,” Bitner said as she sorted through the piles.
Like Franklin, the dozens of communities featured — among them are Columbus, Scammon, Roseland, Arma and Frontenac — were homes to mining camps and part of the sprawling Cherokee-Crawford Coal Field.
Franklin’s former union hall played a central role in the area’s mining history: The famed Amazon Army march, reported in papers as far away as New York, began there in December 1921.
Miners’ wives, sisters and daughters marched from the site to area mines, demanding fair pay and safer working conditions for their men. A photograph used as the basis for artist Wayne Wildcat’s painting “Solidarity” captured the moment.
By a stroke of fortune, Bitner came across the original photograph, published in the New York Herald Sun, on eBay. Linda Knoll, a Pittsburg teacher who with her students developed a noted project on the Amazon Army, paid the asking price and donated it to the museum.
Her contribution was indicative of the collaborative nature of the massive undertaking, Bitner said.
“Countless individuals and businesses have contributed to making this a reality, from donating funding for display cases to giving us a good deal on a computer to giving us family records,” she said.
Children who visit the museum will be able to “dig” for souvenir wooden nickels.
Monthly exhibits will be installed for the next year by local and regional organizations and businesses.
“It’s great timing, as several of them are celebrating milestone anniversaries in the coming year,” Bitner said.
In May, the Rollin’ Nostalgia Car Club will put on “The Way We Worked in Transportation,” which will include a restored chassis from a 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle and an antique service station. The highlight of the exhibit will be a car show on May 20.
Other exhibits this year will include retail in June; farming/agriculture put on by the FFA in July; finance/legal put on by Edward Jones in August; railroads put on by Watco in September; entertainment put on by KOAM-TV in October; education put on by Depco LLC in November; and food/beverage put on by Marrone’s in December.
Next year’s exhibits will include tools of the trade put on by General Machinery in January; hotel/lodging by Himmel House and Holiday Inn Express in February; medical health and well-being by Via Christi Hospital in March; and first responders in April.
In May and June 2013, the companion exhibit to the Smithsonian exhibit will feature mining and Big Brutus artifacts, documents and photographs.
Details may be found at minershallmuseum.com or on Facebook.
THE MONTHLY EXHIBITS and the Smithsonian traveling exhibit in Franklin will be free. Other Kansas hosts for the Smithsonian exhibit will be the Coronado-Quivira Museum in Lyons, the Stevens County Library in Hugoton, the High Plains Museum in Goodland, the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, and the Lumberyard Arts Center in Baldwin City.