Hendricks County Historical Museum Ushers Patrons Into the Past

Writer / Jamie Hergott

Crossing the threshold of the Hendricks County Historical Museum and Jail feels like stepping into the past. The old hardwood floors groan with every footfall, the air is cool with smells of aged artifacts and the décor is straight from the 1800s.

The museum’s mission is to collect, preserve and interpret historical artifacts specifically relating to Hendricks County and its residents. Nestled in the heart of Danville on Washington Street just south of Main street, the museum is currently owned and maintained by the county. A century ago, however, it served at the County Sheriff’s residence and jail, particularly from 1866 to 1974. 

Most people hope that the County Sheriff keeps charged criminals under lock and key. But more than 100 years ago, he and his family lived in the same house with them. In fact, the entrance to the jail, with its stone-cold metal bars, can be seen from the bright and cheery kitchen, which displays colorful Fiesta Ware and strawberry wallpaper. The contrast is drastic. The jail, separated for men and women, is dank, dark and provided absolutely no privacy for inmates.

“It was a real deterrent to crime,” says Deanna Hindsley, President of the museum’s Board. “Who would want to be here? We left it pretty much as it was. You wouldn’t want to come back here once you came the first time. It’s very stark.”

The first sheriff to move in with his family in 1866 was William Calvert. Once he was elected, his wife was automatically elected Matron of the Jail and was responsible for cooking for inmates as well as cleaning up after them. In fact, original paintings of William and his wife hang in the parlor. They were painted by William himself.

The sheriff did not get a salary, though he did get to live in the house, so he had to have another day job. Hindsley says the fact that the jail was in the house didn’t seem to impede on family life or visiting friends.

“Ruth Jensen used to live here and is still living,” Hindsley says. “It was quite an elegant and beautiful home in those days, and her children still tell stories of living here. Their friends just loved coming. They didn’t have any problems getting visitors.”

However, she added that each time a new sheriff was installed, the incoming matron would naturally request a new set of locks placed on the jail.

Ruth’s son Michael Funk can recall moving into the house when he was 15 years old. His father Merle Funk was the last sheriff to live in the house.

“We would be sitting there eating dinner sometimes when they would bring the prisoners in,” Funk says. “We could hear them carrying on. Sometimes they were rowdy. Sometimes we could even look through the window and see it.”

Funk says not all of the prisoners were a threat. Some became trustees, which meant they were entrusted with a small amount of freedom. One such prisoner loved to paint, and he painted portraits of each of the five members in Funk’s family, including his two younger sisters. The original paintings currently hang in the upstairs hallway.

While there were never concerns of a jailbreak, Funk says that as a teenager he was sometimes allowed to go on runs.

“I’ve seen some stuff maybe a teenager shouldn’t have seen,” Funk says. “But we never had any major incidents. We had family functions and friends over just like we would in any other house.”

Families living in the sheriff’s residence were often under public scrutiny, and Funk remembers being told not to get in trouble and embarrass the family.

“It was definitely a learning experience,” he says.

Visitors to the museum can experience life in the past by meandering through rooms still set up as if the house was still occupied by a sheriff and his family in the 1900s. The echoes from people tromping across the second floor and cool air drifting from the jail make the house feel like a portal to what life may have been like a century ago.

While the entry annex hosts an annually changing and themed exhibit, the rest of the house is packed with items that are unique to the Hendricks County area. This year, the theme for the annex is “The Great War,” referring to World War I, in honor of its 100th anniversary. The walls are covered with facts relevant to the time of the war, including fashion, news events, traveling circuses and changes in the law during that time. A timeline shows the progression of the war and the involvement of other countries over time.

“We change these displays out each year, so that we have something new for people to come and see,” Hindsley says.

Most of the time, items come from county residents offering what they find when a grandparent passes away or when they finally clean out their attic. Hindsley says volunteers make sure items are in good condition and that they have a relationship to the county. An accession committee meets every couple months to go over these items.

“We are filled to the brim right now,” Hindsley adds.

Most displays are made of items from storage or loaned collections, such as cameras, railroad memorabilia, or boy and girl scout memorabilia, which are all exhibits they have had in the past.

The Central Normal College room, right off the annex, displays information and photos from the college that used to be in what is now the Town Hall. Many school teachers in Hendricks County attended this “Normal” college, which meant it was a teaching college. Hindsley herself had teachers who graduated from CNC.

Between the years of 1866 to 1974, the building was home to 30 different sheriffs and their families. In 1975, the building became a museum when a new jail was built, which is still standing on Old U.S. 36. The museum has slowly evolved over the years as artifacts have been collected and donated. The first-floor layout also includes the kitchen, military room, parlor, sheriff’s office, and foyer, all decorated, refurbished and designed to reflect the time period.

The military room boasts many items from World War I and World War II, including clothing, weapons and even food and recipes that soldiers used in wartime. Original posters hang on the walls, loaned by Hendricks County residents. Upstairs, the master bedroom and children’s room are fascinating displays of everyday life, filled with books, wash basins, toys, clothes from the era, an impressive and intricate dollhouse on a turntable and home décor.

The museum operates almost solely on volunteer power save for their first, part-time employee hired a month ago. One of those volunteers, Gail Tharp, has been volunteering at the museum for 11 years.

“I originally was just interested in the backroom information,” Tharp says. “The photos and the research. Now? Well, now I do everything.”

Tharp gives tours, cleans, sorts artifacts, and helps keep the museum running smoothly. She gives so much of her time because she believes in the mission of the museum.

“I think it’s just important for people to know their heritage,” Tharp says. “Some people are new to the county, and this helps tie them to the background of where they live. It’s just a hidden treasure. Many people don’t know we are here, but we have been here for 40 years.” 

Hindsley agreed that the ability to make history come alive is what makes the museum so special. It’s why she loves representing the museum.

“We are very proud of the museum,” Hindsley adds. “Doing tours is my favorite part. That connection of history has a lot to do with our lives today.”

The museum is an active part of Hendricks County life, its fundraisers expected and anticipated fixtures on the county’s calendar. Upcoming events include:

• Ice Cream Social – This event will take place in August so stay tuned. There will be blue grass entertainers, tours of the museum and ice cream served.

• Ladies Tea – This event will take place in the fall at the Hendricks County 4H Fairgrounds.

• Road Rally – This event will also take place in the fall.

The museum is open Fridays and Saturdays to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Stay up to date by visiting their website: hendrickscountymuseum.org. or follow them on Facebook.

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