Next week the West Baton Rouge Museum and Historical Association will celebrate 50 years of preserving the history of the parish. The West Baton Rouge Historical Association and Museum will host a 50th Anniversary Gala and grand opening of the Golden Anniversary: Treasures from the Collection exhibit.
Saving history started by saving the courthouse
The West Baton Rouge Garden and Civic Club, the oldest civic organization in the parish, opened a library on the second floor of the third parish courthouse in 1933. Before the formation of the library, the organization focused its efforts on the upkeep of schoolhouse lawns, garbage disposal and got an ordinance passed requiring residents to fence in their chickens.
In 1931, the organization installed the first community Christmas Tree. One year later, in the midst of the Great Depression, the group decided to spend the funds on baskets of food for the needy in 1932 instead.
The 18 founding women of the organization met on Jan. 18, 1928 in the office of J.J. Whitehead and formed the West Baton Rouge Flower, Garden and Civic Association. The organization changed its name to the West Baton Rouge Garden and Civic Club in 1932.
Their mission was simple, to “promote improvements in the town and parish, beautification of home grounds and public buildings and cultural betterment generally” as written in the minutes of their first meeting.
The founding women were wives of leaders and business owners in the parish who wanted a role in the development of the parish. The organization’s first elected president, Mrs. J. Alexander was the wife of Eugene Alexander, owner of Alexander’s Meat Market in Port Allen.
In 1933, the organization formed a committee headed by Mrs. Puffy Dameron to oversee the formation of a public library. The women went door-to-door collecting books and donations from residents. On July 11, 1933, the West Baton Rouge Library, housed humbly on the second floor of the parish courthouse, opened its doors to the public. The Police Jury allocated public funds for the library to ensure its lasting success.
The humble beginning quickly became too small for the operation, and an annex was built to serve as the library in the community center. The courthouse was partially demolished in 1957, and as preparations for a full demolition began in the 1960s, the WBR Garden and Civic Club started a new project. In 1968, the organization acted again on its mission of cultural betterment by forming the Historical Association to save the former courthouse and library, giving it a new purpose as the West Baton Rouge Museum.
50 years and some change
Like the rest of the world, the Museum has seen many changes in the last 50 years. The front section of the building where the gift shop and a permanent exhibit are located was the entirety of the original museum. Additions like the Sugar Mill room, changing exhibit room and offices have expanded the capacity and functionality of the museum over the years.
The approval of a tax millage ensured community support of the museum, and allow it to grow and improve continually.
The sprawling grounds have seen their fair share of additions as well, including the Aillet House, cabins, and most recently, the Juke Joint. The Museum has become a staple for entertainment and education in and about the parish, with the annual Sugar Fest and the new addition of the Juke Joint stage as a permanent exhibit.
More recent changes have been to those running day-to-day operations of the museum. Angelique Bergeron, the former curator of collections for the museum, became Director in 2017. Shortly after, Kathe Hambrick, founder of the River Road African American Museum was named curator of exhibits.
Under the provision of former director Julie Rose, they worked together on the Cohn High exhibit, which earned a national award in 2016. The West Baton Rouge Museum won the Award of Merit for the exhibit and book, “Cohn High School: How We Love Thee 1949-1969,” an annual recognition for outstanding projects in local historical preservation and interpretation.
The museum also became nationally accredited in 2009 under the direction of Rose.
The most significant change has been the focus of the museum– evolving from the sugar story to the story of the parish told by its people.
Celebrating half a century
The West Baton Rouge Museum and Historical Association will commemorate the half of a century spent preserving the past with an anniversary gala and the grand opening of “The Golden Anniversary: Treasures from the Collection” exhibit on Saturday, Aug. 18.
The exhibit includes quintessential West Side items seen in previous exhibits and never-before-displayed artifacts.
Artifacts range from colorful costume to military relic to the handiwork of ancestors. A pair of handcuffs that belonged to West Baton Rouge Sheriff Sidney D’ubroca, dated around 1850 to 1880 will be on display. Other items date back so far they are considered archaeological specimens, like an arrowhead from 1,000 BCE donated to the museum by a young resident.
Treasures in the extensive exhibit are related in one way– they were donated by people in the parish to tell the story of the parish.
The exhibit showcases the diversity of the museum’s vast collection, Curator of Collections Elizabeth Brantley said.
As with all exhibits, the museum will host several Lunchtime Lectures in conjunction with the Golden Anniversary: Treasures from the Collection exhibit. The first is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 20 by Sid Gray on the move and restoration of the Aillet House, one of the museum’s permanent exhibits. The Aillet House, donated by the Dow Chemical Company, has been on the museum grounds since 1990 and is one of the largest objects in the collection.
The Treasures from the Collection exhibit will be on display through Oct. 28.