The New Brown County History Center

By Jeff Tryon

John V. Davis rings the bell and begins the April dedication ceremony by shouting, “Hear ye! Hear ye! Today is a day in history!”

The new Brown County History Center is a generational accomplishment for the venerable Brown County Historical Society helping to secure and protect their valuable collections, attract and give focus to the thousands of visitors who pass through town each year, and provide facilities for a wide variety of organizations and events.

The culmination of years of planning and devoted labor, including thousands of volunteer hours, the new center will be “the single most important development in the area to give visitors an understanding and appreciation of our rich history of survival, industry, culture, arts, nature, and place in an increasingly complicated world,” according to the Society.

Ivan Lancaster, Alice Lorenz, and Brenda Maine
The Society’s board president Ivan Lancaster, Alice Lorenz, and Brenda Maine, chair of the Pioneer Women cut the ribbon.

The striking and attractive building, by Kirkwood Design, fits well with its municipal neighbors, the county office building and the Brown County Public Library, an arrangement which should please genealogical researchers. It also adjoins, across Gould Street, the Society’s “Pioneer Village” a collection of old buildings which house artifacts from pioneer days.

“The Historical Society wanted to move closer to Nashville for visibility, and this location became available. It’s ideal because it is just north of the Pioneer Village,” said board member Alice Lorenz. “So the whole complex links together that way.”

Lorenz has been zealously committed to getting the new History Center project complete and up and running.
“I’ve been pretty involved,” she said. “I’ve been in there with every builder and construction company. We’ve been working on this for seven years, with fundraising, planning, and working with architects.”

Construction by general contractor Dunlap & Company, Inc. began in January 2014. No tax dollars were spent on the 18,000 square foot building, and there is no mortgage. It was partially funded by Brown County Community Foundation contributions (some from the late Howard Hughes) and through private donors including Lorenz.

“Well, I wanted to get it done,” said Lorenz. “People would say, ‘Well, you have to wait until you get all the money.’ I said, ‘If you don’t get started, you’ll never get done.’
“I’m very pleased.”

And well she should be. The beautifully-appointed facility has everything the society might have wished for during its long sojourn through less-than perfect facilities—a former home on Helmsburg Road and the old bowling alley/skating rink, now a craft brewery, just north of town.
“One really wonderful benefit of the new building is it has environmentally-controlled space for the storage of all the documents and valuable collections of photos, maps, and records.”

The archive is open on Tuesday and Friday afternoons.
In addition to the archives, the Center includes a large public research room, a grand hall with large windows overlooking the town, a large meeting room with kitchen facilities, and rooms for different community groups.
The centerpiece of the building is a log cabin interior that has been recreated in a large room just off the entry to the building.

The "log cabin"
photo by Jeff Tryon

The “log cabin” is filled with antique furnishings, including a large collection of laundry day appliances and related items from the 1800s. It also features a permanent display about local nature lover and history buff Jack Weddle.

“We’re just getting started and trying to set up some initial exhibits,” Lorenz said. “The main collection of artifacts is still at the Pioneer Village. There are lots of interesting tools there, along with the looms and the weaving in the pioneer cabin, and the doctor’s office.”

“We only think of the artists as being the early 1900s, but there are many current artists who draw on that past, and are pretty creative in the things they are doing now,” she said. “We have a project for a permanent collection of local artists’ contributions.”

The newest temporary exhibit is a collection of old things people found in their yards and brought to the Historical Society.

“I think that’s an important part of it—to inspire people to be interested in things they might find, whether they contribute it to the Historical Society or not,” she said. “As people come in to visit, they often have things they want to donate. But we for sure only want things with a Brown County connection.”

The impressive exterior stone work, comprised of 100 tons of Brown County Stone, was installed by local artisans Paul Bay and Sons. They were presented the Grover G. Brown Award for “Outstanding Contributions to Brown County History” at the Center’s dedication on April 26.

Soon there will be a little replica one-room schoolhouse on the front lawn between the center and the Pioneer Village.

Lorenz said the momentum of the project has attracted new members and put the Historical Society in people’s minds.

“We’ve gained a lot of new members, people want to get involved in passing on the history and traditions of Brown County,” she said.

The group has over 300 members now, and meets monthly.

“A lot of historical societies around the state have an annual meeting—people send in a donation and they’re members, but they are not overly involved,” Lorenz said. “In this one, it’s so nice because people are active.”
Alice Lorenz became a member sometime in the 1970s, but her parents, Fred and Jane Lorenz, were charter members of the Brown County Historical Society in 1957.

The Brown County History Center is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and some other times and days as volunteers are available and events warrant. An admission donation of $2 is accepted.