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The SLV History Museum, a misnomer in stucco

Article by Marcia Darnell

History – July 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE NEW SAN LUIS VALLEY History Museum is a beautiful building, renovated and remodeled to create the look of a Southwestern home in a downtown business zone. It is, like many other small-town museums in the West, filled with a jumble of items from individual donors. However, most of those items seem to have nothing to do with the history of the Valley or its people.

Exterior of museum
Exterior of museum

A few folks in Alamosa began work to get a museum in the early ’90s, according to museum board member Dorothy Brandt, herself one of the primary movers and shakers. The facility was squeezed into a cubbyhole near the city offices, but the powers that be wanted a larger, permanent space for their dream.

In 2005, local businessman Ralph Outcalt donated the old Motor Parts building and three lots for the museum. Donations and grants were acquired to begin renovations. The museum finally opened last December.

“We are trying just to get this together,” said Myrna Swift, office manager and only paid staff member.

The museum is reaching out to the community, working with Adams State College’s Community Partnerships and recruiting ASC students to generate a marketing plan for the museum. More construction is planned for the future, depending on funding.

Phase II of construction will add a conference room and educational area. Phase III plans involve a natural history area. Swift would also like to add more on the railroads.

The Alamosa Local Marketing District Board provides some funds, but has no say in the contents of the museum. Other monies have come from a $20,000 Boettcher grant, the support of a local bank, and private donations.

The contents of the museum, now at the corner of Fourth and Hunt, are also donations by local people. Brandt said there’s more stuff in storage, awaiting future construction.

What’s there now is interesting, but largely irrelevant to Valley history.

At this point, the facility could be called the Anyplace Museum. Initial displays include an Eskimo, a collection of arrowheads, and a set of exotic insects and arachnids from around the world.

Exhibit at SLV History Museum
Exhibit at SLV History Museum

ONE VALLEY ITEM is the World War I uniform of Cecil Houlton, complete with a history of his service. Civil War-era medical equipment is next on the tour, but it’s not region-specific and could have come from anywhere. This is incongruously located next to a “button coat” owned by a local woman, Edith Cowan.

An old dollhouse is charming, but also irrelevant to local history.

A collection of Barbie and Ken dolls rests next to an assortment of dishes, candelabra, and knick-knacks. Both lie atop a cabinet salvaged from a Valley general store. The base is more intriguing than the items it supports.

Facing the Barbies is a true SLV history display. Photographs of Valley settlers are arranged on a wall, along with a gorgeous lace mantilla. A glass case holds Valley artifacts, including a commemorative plate of the Sand Dunes.

The case also features handwritten books from early Alamosa government. One is a treasurer’s log, another contains handwritten city ordinances. Interestingly, the book was open to a page on blue laws: “No bawdy house … shall be kept or maintained within the limits … of Alamosa.”

The exhibit also offers brief histories of German, Dutch, and Japanese settlers in the Valley. These are apt, but should be much longer.

There’s a specific display about Hank Wiescamp, a noted auctioneer and Appaloosa breeder.

Then it’s back to generics: a hat rack holds a collection of headgear from history. Nearby is a tribute to railroads that would be at home anywhere in the continental U.S.

An overview of dairy farms is short, but at least features SLV dairies. A display of uniforms and accessories from 20th-century wars, sparse as it is, was donated by area veterans.

Replicas of an old general store, post office, and schoolroom are enchanting, but similar exhibits can be found in museums across the West. Most disturbing are the cases full of Native American beadwork, all clearly marked “replica.”

CONTRAST this museum with the Rio Grande County Museum, which is all about Valley history. Through this summer, the RGC Museum in Del Norte will offer exhibits on V.V. Anderson, local physician and survivor of the Bataan Death March, as well as displays on Summitville, Hispanic settlers, and Fremont, among others.

The SLV History Museum should change either its focus or its name.

“Its for the people of the Valley,” explained board member Brandt. “I’ve got a favorite saying, ‘The world is like a library, and a library is only as good as the books on the shelves, and nobody wants to go to a library with only one book.’ If you want people to come to the museum, you have to make it local.”

To its credit, the SLV History Museum plans a summer presentation on the Zapata and Medano areas near the Dunes. For more information, call the museum at 719- 587-0667.

“The fun thing is when people from the Valley come in and see pictures of their childhood homes and stuff from their past,” said Swift. “Their faces just light up.”

Arachnids at SLV History Museum
Arachnids at SLV History Museum

The museum is at 401 Hunt in Alamosa. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for students, and kids under 12 get in free.

“”Come down and see what we have,” said Swift.

Marcia Darnell lives and writes in the San Luis Valley.