History Museum Will Emerge Better, Community Support Needed
Ongoing Repairs and Re-Imagining Will Result in "Hands-On Experience"
Last updated 10/30/2023 at 1:40pm
Major improvements are underway at the Lake Wales History Museum that are expected to make the facility a center of community activity as well as a draw for residents and visitors alike, according to Executive Director Melissa Stoller.
The ongoing project includes needed repairs to the 98-year-old building as well as reimagined and refreshed exhibits. The non-profit museum is seeking volunteers with carpentry skills to help with the ongoing reconfiguration.
Stoller promises that the center will be "more interactive for families and kids," who will be able to be "hands on" in each section of the museum, including handling real fossils.
"We want something in each space that is tactile, even something as simple as an old phone, because most kids, that's all they know," Stoler said, indicating a cell phone. "The material culture of the past, we know it, but they've never experienced it."
The extensive process has a volunteer board led by President Brandon Alvarado working at raising the funds and support to complete the redesign. "We're very grateful for a Mountain Lake Community Service grant that has provided the funds to facilitate this very necessary museum exhibit renovation," Alvarado said.
Included in the work are interior construction of a new "Cracker house" that will tell the story of the cow hunters and cattle ranchers who first populated the area in the late 19th century.
A replica railroad locomotive will offer a playhouse for the kids to enjoy the fantasy of driving the train, with railroad videos leading to a visit to the authentic historic caboose.
"It will be a much more exciting space than we've ever had before," Stoller said, "with these large builds that are so much more interesting than a panel on the wall."
Citrus exhibits, Bok Tower and the other "attractions" that drove the tourism industry, the naval stores and turpentine industry, and the development of the downtown area and the railroads will have creative new interpretations.
An exhibit on the pre-Columbian cultures of the area will feature two prized ancient canoes which were hand-carved from whole trees hundreds of years ago. Stoller described them as "incredible" and "so significant," but said that they aren't really receiving the deserved attention as they had been displayed.
An exhibit on the natural history of the area, the "ancient islands" of the Lake Wales Ridge, will allow kids to be able to touch fossils. It will include the story of Spook Hill, where visitors will come face-to-face with an enormous alligator representing the apocryphal story of the origin of the feature in a titanic battle between the enormous beast and a Native American chieftain.
Stoller, with the assistance of Museum Curator Anderson Hanna, hope to make the facility a much more community-centered space, able to host local groups and clubs, where people enjoy social time.
A new use of the large former freight room, refurbished with historic crates and barrels to an authentic appearance, will be central to that function.
Outside the broad south entrance to the museum stand the rail cars and two fire trucks, attractions Stoller hopes to leverage to expand the draw for the museum.
"The thought is, let's get some people here for funsies, so especially in good weather, we invite some food trucks," Stoller said. "You can get some food, come in through the back freight room doors, sit down, and you've come for the food, but now you've discovered the museum."
The long repair process has kept the museum closed for some months as assessment has been done to the structure. It remains unclear when the facility will reopen.
"We don't know what the timeline is, there's been a lot of water damage" that will require the replacement of the window at the former station-master's desk area, Stoller said. Those repairs will be conducted by the City of Lake Wales, which retains ownership of the building and collections.