History of the Franklin County Historical Society

The FCHS was founded in 1937, after a group of locals attended a screening of Gary Cooper’s movie, “The Plainsman” at the Plaza Theater. Enthusiastic about preserving our local “Western History,” they incorporated and became the recipient of the museum collections and papers of the George H. Thomas Post #18 of the Grand Army of the Republic, the local Union Civil War veterans’ organization. The Society had sporadic activity by the 1950s, and was inactive for a few years prior to the Kansas Centennial in 1961. Through efforts of the Kansas State Historical Society, all the communities in Kansas became involved in collecting their history, and many historical societies were formed at that time, and ours was revived. During our celebration and parade, historical artifacts were used to decorate store windows up and down Main Street, and many of these were given to the FCHS. The comparative lack of interest in antiques in the 1960s and 70s is the best explanation for the large amount of materials collected by the society. Many large pieces of furniture were obtained then.

Old Depot Museum

The Old Depot is just that—a railroad passenger depot built in 1888. It once stood at the south end of a huge complex of railroad buildings—a car shops where box cars were built, a round house where engines were serviced and repaired, yards where trains were switched and made up, even a railroad hospital. From 1888 to the late 1950s, passengers purchased tickets, bought newspapers and snacks, checked baggage and waited on benches for the trains. The large timetable in the south waiting room shows how busy this depot was in 1903. In the 1930s a woman called Santa Fe Annie (Elizabeth Setter) met every train in the vain hope of being reunited with her long-gone traveling man. Upstairs, the railroad maintained offices for the baggage agents, conductors, and the management of local section crews.

The museum building was obtained from the Santa Fe Railroad in 1962. It was converted into a museum open only on summer weekends. In 1995, the FCHS learned that it had received an ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act) grant that would pay for 80% of a desperately needed renovation. Over $850,000 went into Phase One of the project, which reroofed the building, added an elevator, storm windows, and re-tuckpointed the limestone walls. The Kansas Preservation Alliance presented the FCHS with a 1999 Award of Excellence for this sensitive restoration, overseen by Craig Patterson and Associates Architects, Kansas City. The City of Ottawa obtained a similar grant in 2004 which enabled the construction of a large parking lot directly west of the museum.

The Dietrich Cabin

The Dietrich Cabin, built in 1859, was donated to the Society in 1960 and reconstructed in City Park to serve as Franklin County’s memorial to its pioneer past. Open on summer Sundays these days, the cabin in furnished with period antiques, and is quite a gem. Lack of heat and a functioning chimney have deterred us in using it during the fall, winter, and spring. The cabin’s sesquicentennial was celebrated in 2009.

The Downtown Kiosks

The Old Depot Museum and the Dietrich Cabin are tied together by seven, soon to be eight, interactive kiosks mounted on frames on street corners. They tell the history of each block, the river and the Santa Fe depot. These were produced as a joint project with Franklin Co. Convention and Tourism.

The Franklin County Records & Research Center
& The Franklin Co. Historical Society Archives

The archives at the Records Center contain the records of the Grand Army of the Republic. We hold many City of Ottawa, Franklin County, school and legal records, and the KSHS recently gave us the hard copies of all of their collection of Franklin County newspapers. We hold every sort of original 19th and 20th century greeting card, trade card, certificate, diploma, stock certificate, and business paper. We recently obtained copies of the magazine “The Chautauquan” from the era of our Chautauqua, and the papers of A.L. Cook Construction, which we passed on to the Kansas State Historical Society for its statewide interest. Databases of the Early Settlers file from Ottawa Library and many indexes of vital
records, census, and books make our collection well-rounded. We have over 12,000 historic photographs stored in archivally-appropriate Mylar covers.

The Etta Blanche Smith Dahlgren Storage Barn & Artifact Collection

The FCHS inherited the Grand Army of the Republic collection around 1940, which, for lack of a permanent site to display it, was housed in the library second floor for many years. In 2006 we finished building a new storage building adjacent to the Records Center. We previously had a storage building at W. Wilson and N. Locust, but it fell down in the Jan. ’02 ice storm. We built the new one with funds from a bequest of Etta Blanche Smith Dahlgren, who lived in the Richmond area. It has been heated, cooled and drywalled in the last year, and currently only needs guttering to be finished. The artifact collection is currently the focus of a $60,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

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