Jun 09, 2020

Ellis Co. Historical Society seeks fresh start under new director

Posted Jun 09, 2020 4:16 PM
Former brick Presbyterian church and historic stone church owned by the Ellis County Historical Society. Cristina Janney/Hays Post
Former brick Presbyterian church and historic stone church owned by the Ellis County Historical Society. Cristina Janney/Hays Post

Hays Post

The Ellis County Historical Society is hoping for a fresh start.

The society has been plagued with financial woes, mold and a controversy over the fate of the former brick Presbyterian Church, which the society owns.

Lee Dobratz, former director of the historical society, resigned in mid-April.

The board appointed Katie Annett as the interim director.

Former Presbyterian Church

Brad Boyer, historical society president, said the board has not decided what to do with the former brick Presbyterian Church.

The museum moved its offices, some of their archives and part of the collection that was stored in the former church to different locations in August after water and mold became a problem in the building.

Drier weather conditions have meant some of moisture in the building has dried. The society has also dealt with a leak in the roof.

Kris Muncsh, who with his wife, Larissa, run a building inspection business and have experience restoring historic homes, are doing a survey and will issue a report on the condition of the building.

Kris Munsch was appointed to the board in January.

Boyer said the board members will discuss the fate of the church further after they review that report.

Nabholz Construction developed a design for a new museum complex that included demolition of the former church. The estimated cost for the project was $14.5 million.

That plan was met with opposition from members of the community, including then-City Commissioner Henry Schwaller, who has since been appointed to the historical society board.

Boyer said he did not believe the former Presbyterian Church was conducive to continue to be used as a museum.

"It's served its purpose," he said. "We've been there longer than the Presbyterians were. Basically, it's a structurally sound building. It just doesn't work as a museum.

"The amount of work that would have to go into it now in order to allow ADA compliance and in order to allow restroom access would pretty much be cost-prohibitive at this point."

He said he would still like to see a new home for the museum collection on the city block owned by the society. That could be building a new building, buying an existing building or leasing a building.

What happens next, Boyer said, has a lot to do with funding. The historical society does not have the funds to repurpose the brick church.

The stone church, which is a historical landmark, is in good condition. It is being used to store artifacts that have been moved from brick church because of moisture and mold issues.

The stone church is not open to tours at this time because of the amount of materials being stored in the building.

Boyer said the society would like to have a campus museum, which would include the Volga German house, Fire Station Museum, the Stone Gallery and the Stone Church. 

The condition of the harness shop, an 1880s wood building, continues to be evaluated, Boyer said.

Mold on an item owned by the Ellis County Historical Society. File photo
Mold on an item owned by the Ellis County Historical Society. File photo

Hays Daily News building storage

The historical society has items stored in the Hays Daily News building. That building has experienced leakage, Dobratz reported to the city commission at a past meeting.

Kris Munsch is set to do a survey of those materials as a part of his report for the historical society. Boyer said Munsch has not visited that building and reviewed that part of the collection yet.

The historical society is not currently paying for that space and the society is engaged in ongoing negotiations with the newer owners of the Hays Daily News, Gannett.

The historical society is looking for a new home for the materials that are being stored in the Hays Daily News building. Boyer said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed that process.

If items in the brick church or the Hays Daily News building are contaminated with mold, the historical society will need to develop a decontamination plan.  This will require space to store contaminated items, space for cleaning and space to store items once they are clean.

Financial woes

Both the city and county elected officials have been critical of the historical society in the last year for its lack of fundraising.

Boyer said state statue requires county governments to fund historical societies for operations.

"Ellis County has been spectacular since 1971 in supporting us and growing," he said.

Ellis County has faced its own budget cuts, cutting the historical society funding last year. The county told the historical society to request the same amount or less funding for the coming year. 

The county commission was set to consider outside agency funding Monday night.

In 2000, the historical society had seven employees and about 35 volunteers. Today it has one full-time director and an hourly employee.

"During that time period, we have had a very well-funded budget," Boyer said. "We've had modestly funded budget. Currently, we are on the down slope budget-wise.

"It is no fault of the city commissioners or county commissioners. It is just a result of the times right now that essential services should probably be addressed before museums."

Boyer said the historical society has also taken a financial hit because it has not been able to be open to the public and not able to charge admissions because of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has also affected the society's ability to conduct fundraisers. The society postponed two events and is not sure when further fundraisers can be scheduled.

The historical society hopes to receive some assistance in applying for grants, but does not have a grant writer on staff.

"There are a lot of potential resources for us," Boyer said. "At this point, we are still very optimistic that we can recover from where we are as the community recovers and goes forward."

Reopening after COVID-19

The museum reopened to the public as of Monday.

The archives and offices are open normal hours at 1111 E. 30th. Tours of the main campus are by appointment only and can be scheduled by calling 785-628-2624 or by emailing [email protected]

Visitors are encouraged to wash their hands before visiting the museum and masks are strongly encouraged.

You can follow the historical society's Facebook page for more updates.

Vision for the future

"This is an unbelievable opportunity — an organization has a chance to do a complete restart," Boyer said. "We can do a complete restart with the assistance of the city and the county and the public."

John Walz, board member, said Annett will also be a key part of that restart.

"We have a young, energetic, smart young lady that has a lot of expertise at her young age," Walz said. "She can definitely move us forward. She is very personable. We just need  to communicate well to people our needs.

"Our direction is to keep history alive from Ellis County. We have such a wealth of history for this small of a community. It's unbelievable."

Annett said she hopes to put more emphasis on the community's Wild West history while continuing to preserve the community's Volga German history.

However, Boyer said he continues to be frustrated that after almost 20 years on the board, the historical society has not been able to secure a new building.

The society needs funds and volunteers to keep going, Walz said. 

Anyone interested in donating or becoming a volunteer, can contact Annett at 785-628-2624 or [email protected].

The society's website is currently being rebuilt, but you can follow the society on Facebook or Instagram at ECHSHays.