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Old Depot Museum unveils new exhibit

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The Old Depot’s newest exhibit, Horse Power, seeks to tell the story of the arrival of the automobile and its impact on life in Franklin County. The exhibit collection includes artifacts such as one of Kansas’ first license plates, a 1910 car, and a speaker from the now defunct Ottawa drive-in.

Automobiles first arrived in Franklin County at the turn of the 20th century, Staresinic-Deane said. The first car owner in Ottawa, HH House, bought his vehicle for $ 1,200 in 1903, about the price of a house at the time. Because cars were such a big investment, only the wealthiest members of society could afford them until the mid-1920s or so. As more and more people started buying cars, horse parks and stables became obsolete and gas stations and tire shops sprang up all over the country – and the Franklin County was no exception. “This whole industry that literally didn’t exist 20, 30, 40 years ago suddenly happened,” Staresinic-Deane noted. Auto racing quickly became a popular pastime, and a race track was even built in Forest Park to provide speedsters with a sure (r) way to push the limits of their new machines. Automobile culture has been an integral part of Franklin County culture since the first automobiles entered the station in the early 20th century, and it continues with events like the Ol ‘Marais River Run Car Show, which was to elsewhere the very inspiration for this exhibition. “We thought it would be fun to do something that was planned for the auto show weekend,” said museum director Diana Staresinic-Deane. “As we began our research, we realized that we had so many photographs and mayflies relating to the transition from horses, horses and strollers to cars, and that’s the story we decided to tell. “

Staresinic-Deane said museum staff began looking at the artifacts and researching the exhibit in early 2021. The museum has thousands of artifacts stored at the Franklin County Records and Research Center, including several hundred pictures of cars. After three or four months of sifting through the artifacts, museum staff were able to narrow their selection down to around 40 items. “We were trying to pick the ones that were representative of what was going on and showed a lot of different communities in the county,” Staresinic-Deane said. “What interests us about our photos is that cars are driven by all kinds of people,” Staresinic-Deane said. “We see people of color, we see women driving … it’s pretty cool because we don’t always have pictures that show everyone”,

The exhibit includes photos showing the role of the automobile in Franklin County history, such as an image of a fatal gasoline truck fire in 1936 in Ottawa and snapshots of the Ol Marais River race. There is also a reproduced version of the iconic Ottawa beacons, which were first erected in 1948 as a solution to traditional road signs, which were often destroyed by cars or bad weather. Each marker consisted of 150 pounds of concrete poured into custom molds and cost seven dollars to make. In 1966, there were over 500 charging stations across the city. Many of them have since been destroyed, but Staresinic-Deane says community members are doing their part to keep the ones that still exist in good condition.

A replica of one of Ottawa's iconic street markers at the Old Depot Museum's Horse Power exhibit - each marker weighs approximately 150 pounds.

The Horse Power exhibit will be on display at the Old Depot Museum until September 2022. The museum recently made the decision to display three exhibits at a time for one year each – the other two currently on display were shown in the spring and the end of summer. “We used to do three shows a year and they only lasted a few weeks actually, and people didn’t get a chance to see them,” Staresinic-Deane explained. Museum staff are hoping the extended deadline will allow more people to come and view the exhibit, especially now that the museum has resumed normal hours after being closed several days a week due to COVID. The Old Depot Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday.


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