Sixteen days before Christmas when I was a high school freshman, I dashed out the front door of my central Illinois farmhouse, avoided falling over Mac the dog who liked to run alongside of me when I ran for the school bus, and headed to Sullivan High School for the day’s class.
I was called out of PE class that afternoon and taken to the principal’s office where Augie Adams, a family friend who rented our pasture for his horses, met me. “Do you know where your mother is?” he asked. “She’s driving my dad around on his territory,” I said. Dad had had a heart attack the previous summer and was not yet cleared to drive to visit the farm equipment dealers in his territory. A relieved look came over Augie’s face. “Well, your house just burned down and we found your mother’s car in the garage but we couldn’t find her,” he said.
That was how I learned that the only things I had left in the world were my parents, the clothes I was wearing, and the things I had in the gym bag I had carried to the bus that morning.
As I grow older and consider the things I want my grandchildren to know about the family, I think of all that was lost in that fire. Pictures mostly, but also letters and trinkets that meant something to the family. My father built C-54s at the Douglas Aircraft factory near Chicago during World War II and I remember some of the keepsakes he had of those days (the factory is now O’Hare Field). I think of my great-grandfather’s little Civil War pistol that he carried when he was a fifer at Vicksburg for the 126th Illinois Infantry. I think of a baseball card collection. People think of all kinds of little things as well as the big things when there’s nothing left after a disaster.
This life experience is why I have anxiously followed the several-year effort of the State Historical Society to get a legislative appropriation for a new Center for Missouri Studies that the society wants to build in Columbia. Executive Director Gary Kremer has led that effort through a lot of disappointments until this year when the legislature included $35 million in a bond issue bill for the center. During the time it took Gary and others working closely with him to convince the legislature and the governor to pass and sign the bill, the estimated costs have gone up a few million dollars. The society trustees have voted to contribute and help raise the amount needed to fill the gap. If things go smoothly, the new facility will open in 2018 on some land between the University of Missouri-Columbia and the downtown area of the city. It will be on Elm Street, across from Peace Park.
(Truth in advertising moment: I am a vice-president of the society)
The State Historical Society of Missouri has been housed in the Elmer Ellis Library at the University of Missouri-Columbia since the library was opened 99 years ago. It has been a resource for tens of thousands of students from dozens of disciplines, not just those majoring in history, and for thousands of other researchers looking for stories and lessons that the past can tell. The Center for Missouri Studies will be an even more important resource giving all who seek to put their careers, their lives, their communities, in context.
We have lived in fear for some time that something would happen in that library basement that is the society’s home that would damage or destroy records that tell us how we came to be the state—and the people of the state—that we are. A broken steam pipe, a water leak, a fire—we have experienced these things in recent years which adds to the urgency of this project. A few years ago, you might recall, a disenchanted young man set several fires in the library in the middle of the night. Although the fires caused no damage in our quarters, the water used to put them out caused extensive damage to our facilities. A few pages of important old documents were damaged but somehow our archives escaped the flow that made our administrative offices unusable for months. Thankfully the water did not pour into the storage area where we have more than $100-milion in art works by Bingham, Benton, and others. The bullet missed us, but just barely. We have lived with elevated fear since then.
The society headquarters, and thus Missouri history, now are tucked away at the end of a shaded sidewalk, almost unnoticeable to the thousands of people who walk through the area. Our history deserves better than a precarious existence in an obscure location. And Missouri history finally is getting that something better.
This isn’t just a building. It’s a statement. It says history isn’t just a bunch of musty, dusty records; it’s life. The society is not a storehouse, a place in a basement where we keep old stuff that’s no longer used. It is, instead, a place of discovery, of adventure, and learning who we are and how we got to be who we are. The building will be US. It says Missouri history has value. It says Missouri history is a dynamic story still being written. It says Missouri history is central to understanding who we are as a people, as a state, as a nation. This is the state that was the opening door to everything that is the American West.
Missouri history is American history. The Revolution? Records of the people who lived in what became Missouri in those years will be here. War of 1812? It wasn’t all fought in the east and the northeast. It was here in Missouri, too. The words of Lewis and Clark will be here. The personal passion and tragedy of the Civil War are in the letters, journals, diaries, and other records that will be here. Records of the cruelty of slavery will be preserved here as will be the cruelty of Reconstruction.
The growth of our towns, the highways that connect them, and the businesses that gave and give us jobs will be in this building. The world wars, the depression, the civil rights movements—all of them will be here. Missouri in all of its nobility and narrowness, in all of its heroism and its cowardice, in its compassion and its hate will be in this building.
Dedicated staff guide visitors to that information in today’s inadequate quarters, hoping nothing bad happens until that great moving day into the Center for Missouri Studies. No other building in the state will be able to tell the stories of the state and its people as emphatically as this one will be able to tell them.
Our history deserves to come out of the shadows and into the sunlight. And the sunlight will be bright for the future of our past with this new building.