An Old School Afternoon

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“Sunday at the Museum” lecture series continues to draw history buffs to Eatonton’s Old School History Museum

Story by Susan Larson

What my husband and I love best about being empty nesters is our Sunday afternoon nap. No ballgames to attend. No kids needing help with last minute school projects. Just a nice quiet afternoon all to ourselves. But when my editor asked if I could cover a story for her on the “Sunday at the Museum” lecture series because her daughter had a basketball game that day, well, I understood. And, besides, I’ve never been paid to take a nap.

This lecture series, held at the Old School History Museum at the Plaza Arts Center in downtown Eatonton, began in 2014 when the state of Georgia commemorated Sherman’s March to the Sea. Sandra Rosseter, of Eatonton, suggested offering a series of lectures on Civil War history, but fellow board members wondered how many people would show up. Her husband, Tom, thought 25 people would be fabulous. That first Sunday, 61 history buffs and curiosity seekers took their seats. The Old School History Museum presented nine lectures that year. The program, which has drawn as many as 154 attendees, is entering its eighth year. Topics have ranged from Native Americans in Lake Country by Larry Moore to Georgia’s Musical Heritage by Dot2Dot Inn’s Richard Garrett.

The lecture I attended, delivered by Dr. Stephen Davis, included a slide show of works by Civil War photographer, George N. Bernard, based on Davis’s book, “100 Significant Civil War Photos: Atlanta Campaign.” What an eye opener. Not only was it amazing to see what Bernard was able to photograph back in those days, but it was shocking to see that two pictures taken at different times and different places had the exact same clouds in the background. Can you believe it? Photoshopping in the nineteenth century.

“Sunday at the Museum” lecture series – Upcoming: Wilbur G. Kurtz, a technical advisor for Civil War films including “Gone with the Wind,” “The Great Locomotive Chase,” and “Song of the South,” is guest speaker for The Sunday at the Museum Lecture Series at 2 p.m., May 3 at The Plaza Arts Center in downtown Eatonton.

After the lecture, we enjoyed refreshments, which actually could have been dinner, and a chance to stroll about the entire Old School History Museum, which is another story.

The old Eatonton School, built in 1916, was in such disrepair it was threatened by demolition. In 1998, Tom Rosseter, a relative newcomer, was invited to join the Eatonton-Putnam County Leadership Class. For their required class project, Rosseter suggested renovating the old school and turning it into a community gathering place. From there, a ten-year journey took off.

The first job was to convince people it could be done. Rosseter called it “hanging pictures in people’s minds.” He asked Eatonton landscape architect Marsha Sichveland to draw out a sketch of a park in front of the building to create a gathering place before the building renovation began. Her creation became known as The Plaza, and its first event in 2001 was a huge success.

Sandra and Tom Rosseter

Soon, Dottie McClain came aboard and agreed to chair the auditorium committee which turned the school auditorium into a performing arts theater.

Rosseter, a history buff, also envisioned a museum to display the rich history of Eatonton and Putnam County. He contacted Maude Hicks, a woman he had never met, and asked if she’d take on the task. Within hours, she sketched out a plan and became the artistic director, creating an interactive museum where visitors could take part in history.

Maude Hicks

The museum opened in 2008. It consists of four rooms, providing not mere displays, but experiences of the past.

The first experience, the Drugstore, is the recreation of a 1950s and 1960s Eatonton drugstore with a 1946 Seeburg jukebox and a marble top soda fountain. Pictures of soda jerks and former pharmacists bedeck the walls and if you sit in the ice cream parlor chairs in front of a giant photograph, you can imagine yourself looking out at the street scene you would have seen back then. On your visit to the past, you can browse through the Bicentennial scrapbook and flip through the 1950s Archie comic books on display.

The next room, Windows in Time, is a representation of early downtown Eatonton, offering a stroll through the grocery store filled with memorabilia from the past and bins of dried beans that children love to get their hands into. Wooten’s Barbershop is open and you’re welcome to get a picture of yourself settling in for a haircut or a shoe shine. The 5 & 10 and Dry Goods stores change displays periodically, just like they would if they were real. And the Pex Theater, which hosted regional premieres of “The Song of the South” and “The Color Purple,” sheds light on a cinematic view of the past.

In the History Gallery, you can follow a timeline from the early days of the Native Americans to the 1970s, examine an collection of arrowheads, and speculate about the “Mystery Wedding Dress.” A video of a fictional character named Lucinda, filmed by Stewart Rodeheaver, relates true stories of the Union soldiers’ 1864 occupation of Eatonton.

On the other side of the building, be sure to visit the restored early 1900s classroom with original school desks, slate blackboards, books, and even a paddle, which looks like it was well used.

The biggest focus of the museum, Sandra Rosseter points out, is their interactive children’s history events. OSHM hosts an annual History Scavenger Hunt for fifth graders and a dramatic story reading accompanied with live music by the Kazanetti String Quartet for fourth graders. They also offer a Civil War tour and a Native American artifacts tour for eighth graders. OSHM looks forward to getting even more children involved.

As for the “Sunday at the Museum” lecture series, Jim Marshall, who is serving his 48th year as President of the Eatonton-Putnam County Historical Society, says the program is now so successful that it has become a venue in which up-and-coming speakers can gain recognition. “Sandra and Tom are doing a great job of providing high quality speakers.” he says. 

His wife, Nancy, states, “The speakers know they will have a good-sized audience and people will appreciate what they have to say. What a debt of gratitude we owe Tom, Sandra, and the OSHM board.”

The next lecture will be on Sunday, May 3, at 2 p.m. Wilbur G. Kurtz III of Madison, will bring to life the works of his grandfather, Wilbur G. Kurtz, who worked as Technical Advisor for famous Civil War-era films “Gone with the Wind,” “The Great Locomotive Chase,” and “Song of the South.” Future presentations are scheduled for August and November.

As for me, I’m really looking forward to taking part in more of these lively lectures. I think for just four times a year, I can do without a Sunday afternoon nap. And as I said before, with those post-lecture refreshments, I won’t have to cook dinner. 

For more information, visit plazacenter.org.

Old School History Museum
Plaza Arts Center
305 N. Madison Ave.
Eatonton GA 31024
(706) 485-7701
Hours of Operation: (Closed on Holidays)
Monday – Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (Self-Guided Tours)
Docent-Led Tours:  Friday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Admission: Free, but donations appreciated

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