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If you go
What: History Center, 302 E. Berry St.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. the first Sunday of each month
Admission: $5 adults; $3 seniors and students; free for ages 2 and younger
A bicycle from the late 1800s is on display in one of the main hallways at the museum.

Museum of Fort Wayne history hides in plain sight

Downtown museum holds city treasures, hides in plain sight

A copper eagle on display once greeted people at a well at the original courthouse.
Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
An exhibit at the History Center downtown depicts the importance of trains and railroads in the growth of Fort Wayne.
An old Tokheim gasoline pump sits outside the entrance to the museum’s “Allen County Innovation” exhibit.

– Curiosity, which in this instance is the offspring of that sinister couple Shame and Guilt, at last got the best of me.

For decades I have strolled past or casually driven by the History Center – that stately sandstone building which used to be City Hall – but never took the time to step inside. But before I am judged, consider that I’m hardly the first to neglect a local attraction. Countless New Yorkers have not experienced the panoramic majesty from atop the Empire State Building, and surely there are tens of thousands of Chicago natives who have never appreciated Georges Seurat’s pointillism masterpiece inside the Art Institute.

Me? Until recently, I had not seen the inside of the basement’s dark, dank jail cells that are among the History Center’s 38 permanent displays.

Constructed in 1893 for $69,000, with its Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, it is the downtown landmark edifice that, 120 years later, continues to lord over the southeast corner of Berry and Barr streets.

“The city has come through heroically with their support of the structure, since the History Center is still, technically, a city property,” says Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, the facility’s executive director.

He says this from inside the Shields Room, which is not only the museum’s largest room, but also its most ornate and versatile.

The 2,700-square-foot chamber – named in honor of Jim and Margaret Shields, who were major contributors in the room’s recent restoration – is at the top right of the polished light oak twin staircases.

Once the home of City Council, evidenced by the stenciled glass above the doorway, the room with the decorated 22-foot ceiling, bay windows and glistening oak-panel walls can transform into a ballroom to host big events like weddings and class reunions. Currently, it houses the temporary display on local automotive history.

Visitors enter through the east side of the building and are greeted in the tinted glass foyer by a 5-foot-long cannon that was removed from a British ship. It was fired ceremoniously to open the Wabash and Erie canals in 1843, which explains its local significance.

Since the building was not originally intended to serve as a museum, many of the displays are separated by smaller rooms and crowded hallways.

On each side of the first-floor stairway are tributes to local baseball history. On one side of the staircase is featured the Fort Wayne Daisies, who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1945 to 1954.

The other side gives a nod to Charles “Chick” Stahl, an Avilla-born baseball player who helped the Boston Americans (precursors to the Red Sox) win the first World Series in 1903. The display also tells of his March 28, 1907, suicide at the age of 34 and features the black cleats he wore the day before he died.

There are displays on the city’s early industrial years and the railroads that came through, and a timeline of the Miami Indians’ presence in the territory.

Visitors will see a bright red, 8-foot-tall Fort Wayne-made Tokheim fuel pump and an old 16-ounce Seyfert’s Potato Chips tin. There is the plastic-encased tribute to former resident Philo Taylor Farnsworth, who was a major contributor to the invention of television. Included in the display is a late 1940s, 13-channel TV with a screen 8 inches wide and 6 inches high.

Of course there is a room devoted to the city’s namesake, Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne. Included are portraits, weapons and a folding camp bed on which 18th century officers slept.

The History Center isn’t all about generals and inventors, however. From the first floor are 12 steps that descend into “The Calaboose,” as the sign attached to the open basement door explains.

While the building used to be the home of Fort Wayne’s lawmakers and peacekeepers, its eight lower-level jail cells also temporarily housed the city’s scoundrels.

Illuminated by bare bulbs that hang from the low ceiling, the basement is cool and dim. At the right corner of the block of eight cells – four in the front, four more to the rear – is the “drunk tank” cell. The difference between that cell and the others is that the wooden benches are only a foot off the cement floor. It was designed as such to prevent injury in case the overnight guest would fall from the bench.

Lurking in the shadows of another cell with crumbling pea-green walls is a standing mannequin that never fails to surprise the unsuspecting tour group.

“Two floors up, in the administrative offices, we can hear when the students arrive,” Pelfrey says with a sense of evil delight.

Almost on a daily basis, school buses from surrounding counties are parked outside the museum.

“A huge part of our organization’s mission is engaging youth and the families of our community,” Pelfrey says.

Another permanent basement display provides a brief history on the evolution of local law enforcement.

“The most lawless town in Indiana,” an 1875 quote from the Chicago Tribune calls Fort Wayne. The Chicago newspaper story continues: “Judge Borden of the Allen County criminal court told a grand jury in 1879 that ‘it is useless to shut our eyes to the fact that for the past year crime has been increasing. … the papers teem with daily accounts of murders, robberies, rapes and other crimes which cause the blood to chill in our veins.’ ”

Chances are that Anthony Wayne’s pictures and artifacts will always be available to be seen, as will the story of Little Turtle and the tale of Samuel McDonald, who was the last person to be legally hanged in Fort Wayne on Oct. 9, 1883. One of the 250 tickets issued to the public by then-sheriff William Schiefer to watch the hanging has McDonald’s last name as McDonel.

But some of the displays are temporary and will eventually return to storage.

“We share right about 12 percent of our total collection, even though we have about 30,000 square feet in the facility,” Pelfrey says. “Since the building clearly wasn’t designed to be a historical museum, we’re able to show only about 12 percent of our total holdings.”

Some items are stored in the upper levels of the museum, and other items are stored, and insured, at an off-site facility. And Pelfrey was mum on both the items in storage and where they’re kept.

“Most folks enjoy history, even if they don’t fully realize it,” he says.

Even if they don’t make or take the time.

stwarden@jg.net

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