Telling Franklin County’s rich history has been a priority for a former educator.
Deborah Barker spent the past 28 years sharing the captivating lives of those from years past to the community. Barker is officially retiring Sunday as the Franklin County Historical Society executive director. A reception honoring Barker for her work will be part of Sunday’s Franklin County Historical Society’s 81st annual meeting at Neosho County Community College, 900 E. Logan, Ottawa. The meeting is scheduled to start at 2 p.m., with Barker’s reception slated for about 4 p.m.
Barker said her experience FCHS has been “endlessly fascinating.”
“It has been really fun to create exhibits, to do research for people, to process things that have been given to us,” she said. “It is has been so fun and interesting. I have been very happy with how we’ve developed our collection to make it more accessible to people. Very tickled we created the digital portal that lets people sit at home and watch films and read poems that came from Franklin County.”
Barker, who has lived in Ottawa since 1976, will be moving to the Kansas City area to be closer to family. She will become a full-time grandmother to her 5-year-old grandson.
“It is grandson time,” she said with a big smile. “I am looking forward to that.”
Barker came on board in 1990 as the executive director. She also at the time was the Ottawa Community Arts Council executive director.
“Now days that would have been totally impossible,” Barker said of having those positions at the same time. “Both of [those organizations] were small enough to do that.”
At that time, the historical society had a couple of rooms on the third floor of the Franklin County Courthouse, 315 S. Main St., Ottawa. She said her salary was $3,000 per year.
“It pretty much was a volunteer job,” she joked.
Oftentimes history comes full circle, and so will Barker, who will become a historical society volunteer.
“I am looking forward to the time to finish some of these undone projects,” Barker said.
She said the historical society started with a bang in 1937 then sort of waned until 1960 when Kansans began making plans to celebrate the state’s centennial in January 1961.
One of the first things she set out to do 28 years ago was taking inventory of the donated artifacts.
“There were lots and lots of things in boxes we had been given and had not been processed,” Barker said. “I could not have found anything if I had wanted to. It took awhile because they were all stored in the Depot. There was some in the courthouse. It took us two years.”
Barker said the next step was establishing a new board of directors, which came in the early 1990s.
“We had just had an event that brought some good historically-interested people together and they formed a new board,” she said. “They told me we had to save the depot. The depot at the time had stock tanks in the upstairs rooms to catch the water that came through the roof. You could stand there and see out. It was in horrible shape.”
She said at that time the Old Depot Museum, 135 W. Tecumseh St., Ottawa, was just open on Sundays during the summer because there was no heat or air conditioning.
Barker almost needed a miracle to come up with the funding to save the historic depot, built in 1888 by George P. Washburn. Barker used her perseverance to secure grant money. Barker for three years applied for grants. The third year, she was awarded what was called an ICE-T grant, which was transportation money.
“That was the salvation of the building,” Barker said. “It reimbursed us $600,000. We fixed the roof. We installed an elevator. We put in heating, cooling and restrooms. [The museum] was open year round. That was really the beginning.”
Barker then began upgrading the display cases that held the artifacts and exhibits.
“It was slow going,” she said. “We started one by one, installing new modern equipment.”
One of her disappointments was not figuring out how to make the Old Depot Museum a destination for local people.
“One of the things I was never able to crack was building the audience for each exhibit at the museum,” Barker said. “I wish we could increase our attendance at the museum. Most of the people coming to the museum are coming off I-35. They are not local. This is not part of the world where people think of going to a museum.”
The historical society took a big leap when the calendar turned to the 21st century.
Barker said a local architect suggested to the Board of Franklin County Commissioners an empty building that for many years was a nursing home might serve as a good place for the historical society.
“They had tried several things with this building,” Barker said. “It was the first rest home the county built. It was an alternative school for awhile. It was pretty much a mess.”
So the records center was born in the early 2000s as the historical society moved from the courthouse to 1124 W. Seventh St., Ottawa.
“It was a tremendous effort to get this place where we could have something in here,” Barker said. “Juveniles worked off court-assigned labor. They washed every inch of the ceiling, floor and walls. They rinsed every inch of it. They painted two coats on everything. It has been great. We were able to move things down that were in the courthouse. And actually open the boxes and see what was in there. It was unpacking of what we had.”
At about that time, the public’s interest in history began to grow.
“The trend for genealogy has really awakened the interest in local history,” Barker said.
People began donating items to the historical society.
“It became obvious that we were going to take care of things, take care of the stories and articles to the extent we could,” Barker said. “We have a collections committee that sometimes meets weekly. The collections manager researches before we take anything to see if we already have one. We started to thin out what was accidently over-collected.”
Barker said they have accumulated more than 30,000 photos and archived each one and have more than 60,000 artifacts. Barker said they have biographical files on families and people as well as subject files on everything from wars to depression, floods and fires.
Barker said Franklin County and Ottawa has been an interesting place to live and work through the years.
“Anyone thinks it is boring here, a boring place to live...it is a slower place to live, but there has been wonderful minds here, some really hard-working people here,” Barker said. “All that is interesting.”
She said those Ottawans who stayed here after years of dealing with the floods shows the tough mindset of those people.
“All that has a real impact on Ottawa,” she said.
Barker said the dream when she began this journey three decades ago to make the historical society a relevant organization has been accomplished.
“To me, this place is at a good point right now,” Barker said. “Things are findable and researchable. There is still loads of things [to do]. I got to meet some wonderful people. I am real thrilled with the people that I got to work with.
“It has been really fun.”