Nappanee Center Is a Vault Full of Historic Exhibits
Writer / Amy Lant-Wenger
Lyricists, poets and novelists the world over have been inspired by this unseen muse. It cannot be touched, yet it exists all the same.
It is the passage of time. And although going back and revisiting certain moments isn’t possible, there are places where images and mementos of the bygone days have been captured for people to linger over and appreciate.
The Nappanee Center is one such place. Within the walls of this historic structure there are several fascinating and informative rotating exhibits spanning nearly 150 years, all about the stories of Nappanee. While it’s a marvelous destination for education and enlightenment, the Nappanee Center has also evolved and includes a network of interactive experiences.
While the Nappanee Center in its current incarnation has existed for a relatively short period of time, the archival marvels within have been a part of a museum setting for more than 50 years. Back in 1971, the Nappanee Public Library created a separate suite of rooms designed to display and preserve their vast number of photographs, club records, school ephemera and other materials. The project was primarily under the auspices of Evelyn Lehman Culp, who was the beloved longtime director of the library from 1957 until 1977. Culp had a tremendous heart and passion for keeping Nappanee’s illustrious history alive and tangible for the community in which she was born and lived for the greater share of her life. Culp died at the age of 91 in 2002. In reverence to her contributions, the library museum that she worked so tirelessly to create was christened the Evelyn Lehman Culp Heritage Collection.
In the mid-2000s, an opportunity presented itself for the museum to relocate to a much more spacious facility. The Nappanee Public Library entered into an agreement with the City of Nappanee to relaunch the collection, an alliance which would bring together the Nappanee Chamber of Commerce and the museum under one roof. In 2007, the new museum debuted at its new home, 302 W. Market Street downtown Nappanee. The museum has a unique attached structure at its far west end, a building that served as the home of the John Hartman family. Hartman was a prominent Nappanee merchant and local community activist, who with his brothers became proprietors of the Hartman mercantile firm. The Hartman house sector of the Nappanee Center is a favorite element of the Nappanee Center. It features several antiques, photographs and other family treasures throughout several rooms of the homestead.
As the Nappanee Center was being established in its new location, another renowned citizen and key contributor to Nappanee’s legacy lent his talents and expertise to the cause. Charles “Chuck” Grimm was an integral volunteer in working as a curator, spending countless hours coordinating the exhibits, loaning several items from his own personal collections and serving in a variety of capacities as a longtime local historian. Grimm spent his entire life as a Nappanee resident until his passing in 2016.
Fifteen years later, the Nappanee Center is as diverse and intriguing as ever to both residents and tourists alike. With curator and literal caretaker Martha Owen at the helm, the amenities that the Center offers can now be enjoyed in various digital formats, an endeavor that Owen has initiated and implemented over the past five years or so. The Nappanee Center now features Facebook Live history chats and presentations, an active presence on YouTube, walking tours and the creations of painter Emma Schrock, the latter of which was donated by the Doug Grant family. The Schrock gallery features more than 70 pieces of Schrock’s artwork and is believed to be the largest private collection of her works. The Grant family also contributed additional funds to the tune of approximately $200,000, which enabled the Nappanee Center to install new lighting and display walls, interactive screens and fresh carpeting and paint. Those enhancements were also used to upgrade the Nappanee Cartoonists exhibits, which showcases the illustrations of the six Nappanee men who achieved national prominence through their art.
Owen has also hosted several podcasts, lovingly titled “Evie’s History Bytes,” as a wink to Culp. She and the Nappanee Public Library have also joined forces to create multiple family themed adventures like themed escape rooms, Museum Selfie Day and the popular production known as “Night at the Museum.” Every October, a group of local performers and volunteers come together to recreate well known moments and incidents of Nappanee history, complete with authentic character names of actual residents, period costumes and relevant trivia. Plans are already in the works for the 2023 production, which will feature a greatest hits format. In 2024, “Night at the Museum” will be centered around the 100th anniversary of Nappanee’s establishment as a city.
The Nappanee Center is located at 302 West Market Street, just west of downtown Nappanee. Hours are Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and Saturdays, 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. The Center is closed on Sundays. For more information about the facility, including a schedule of upcoming events, visit http://www.nappaneelibrary.org and click on the Heritage Collection tab, or call (574) 773-7812.