Whitney Area Museum is open and ready to share local history

Reporter: Ellie Mahan

June 9, 2022

After being closed for two years due to COVID-19, the Whitney Area Museum re-opened to the public at the beginning of May. Rhonda Bass, director of the museum, said she hopes to open the museum every Saturday in June and July. She said the attendance levels this summer will determine the museum’s hours for the fall. She has seen a wonderful turnout for the past two Saturdays and looks forward to meeting more people who are interested in the history of Whitney.

Rhonda Bass, director of the Whitney Area Museum, describes the section of the museum that features veterans who have connections to the town. She pointed out her father, Cecil Smith, who earned five bronze stars while he was a battalion sharpshooter in the Army from 1943 to 1946. Bass’s military connection extends to the younger generation as well, with her grandson and granddaughter’s husband both being in the military.

When Bass started at the museum seven years ago, little to no artifacts were in display cases. Since then, she has remodeled and made numerous improvements. She estimates that there are now more than 100 pieces of history displayed and divided into sections.

Bass, who was born and raised in Whitney, has always been interested in the town’s history, and her passion for local history only grew over time. She said people visit the museum from out of town to learn about their descendants from Whitney. She enjoys preserving history for the generations to come. “They’ve got to know about their relatives or grandparents and where they came from because there are some neat stories,” she said.

Established in 1990 by active community members Fred and Jennye Basham, the Whitney museum is located in the old post office building. Museum leaders preserved the original P.O. boxes that were in the post office and placed them in a way that visitors can look to the right as they enter the museum and be reminded of a piece of the building’s history that was kept alive.

The museum is organized into many different themed sections. Most of the memorabilia and treasures in the museum were donated by town residents or natives. Some items required museum leaders to reach out to influential members of the community and ask for certain artifacts that were important pieces in Whitney’s story.

One important portion of Whitney’s history is the backstory of the Whitney Dam. Funding was granted for Lake Whitney in 1941 after a flood left 2,000 Waco residents homeless. When the U.S. dedicated funds to its involvement in World War II, the flood control project was put on hold and was later picked back up in 1947. The land that was flooded held cemeteries with over 2,400 grave sites, some of which dated back to 1857. Whitney Memorial Park was created, and six of these historic cemeteries were relocated to the park.

Construction of the Whitney Dam’s 10-story powerhouse was completed in June 1953. The 5-year-old twin daughters of the project engineer of the dam, Jan and Nan Haima, flipped the switch to start up the dam powerhouse. Sixty-four years later, Jan Haima, whose twin sister was deceased, returned to Whitney in 2017 to flip the switch on the lake’s giant new hydroelectric turbines that were built in a $32 million project.

The museum presents a photograph of the twins flipping the switch on the day that the original construction was completed, and Pam Townley, who volunteers her time to the museum, was able to obtain the blouses that Nan and Jan were wearing in the 1953 photo.

Townley said, “I lived right across the alley from them [the Haimas] for years and years. When Jan passed away, and Sissy, the older sister, came down, I helped them go through the entire estate… I was so glad that those two blouses were still there so that I was able to get them into the museum.”

One of Bass’s favorite displays, in addition to the dam memorabilia, is the Battle of the Benches section. Fred Basham, who established the Whitney museum, was mayor during the time of the Battle of the Benches in 1949. The tale of the Battle of the Benches, which was published in Life Magazine, is one most Whitney residents know. Old timers sat on their beloved bench, “whittling, spitting and passing judgment on everything that passed.”

At the corner of Brazos Street and Washington Avenue in downtown Whitney, the bench was located across the street from what was at that time the newly opened Whitney Clinic and Hospital. Women of the town were irritated by the men sitting on the bench and would go out of their way to avoid the old timers. In response to complaints, Mayor Basham removed the bench, which started the battle that ultimately ended with the old timers getting their bench back. A bench is still in place at the site today and was refurbished in August 2021.

Another topic displayed in the museum is the evolution of the Whitney hospital. The hospital was housed in multiple buildings over the years, including the current location of Whitney Urgent Care and the current location of End Zone Sports Bar and Grill.

The second story of the current End Zone building was destroyed by a tornado, and that building was a bank before it was a hospital.

The doctors at the hospital’s North San Jacinto Street location were known for making house calls. The hospital section in the museum contains a rocking chair and a crib from the hospital’s nursery. It also holds a uniform that belonged to woman who was part of a hospital volunteer group called the Pink Ladies. During the time she volunteered, from 1989 to 1998, she kept pins to show the number of hours she volunteered at the hospital, which totaled 8,300.

A popular attraction at the museum is the collection of yearbooks from decades ago. The museum also has photographs of the school building in 1904, 1928 and more.

Other displays the museum has to offer include: the story of Emmeline Carver and the Carver Homestead, which stands today at 1127 East Jefferson in Whitney; a display that explains the history of Fort Graham; the printing press from the original Whitney Messenger building (the current location of The Lakelander Newspaper), along with decades worth of old copies of The Whitney Messenger; copies of the Lake Whitney Views publication; a music section that contains a collection of old instruments with an organ from the 1800’s, old record players and one of the first radios in Whitney; vintage dresses, hair appliances and makeup; a Tommy Duncan display; antique tools, kitchen appliances and homemade aprons; Whitney’s old jail door; a summary of the Lake Whitney Riding Club, which practiced in the arena that was in the current location of Texas Great Country Cafe; a veterans section; old photos of significant business and church buildings downtown; a hands-on toy department where children can play with any of the vintage toys or dolls; and a cotton sack that belonged to one of Bass’s relatives who picked cotton in the 1900’s.

Both Bass and Townley have several personal connections to pieces in the museum. When Townley’s grandfather heard the Whitney Dam was being constructed, he came from Dallas to begin work on the first lodge on the lake in 1948. He built 10 cabins and a floating boat dock. In 1951, Lake Whitney Views published a photo of Townley with her granddad who opened the first Whitney lodge. Her grandfather also helped found Lake Whitney Association in 1950, before the chamber of commerce was established.

Townley said she remembers when the Pioneer Days festival first started and how much the festival has changed since then. In the beginning, the event was put on by the Lions Club. All the businesses in Whitney worked together to have booths and raise money for the Lions Club, which was planning on donating funds to people who could not afford glasses.

Townley’s father participated in the event because he owned a grocery store downtown at the current location of The Hall Closet. Townley said, “It was so much fun. I can remember in front of daddy’s store, he had a ferris wheel, and it was about 12 or 15 feet tall. It had four little cages on it. The grocery stores and different businesses, their distributors, people they bought from, came down and put up special displays and gave away ice cream.”

A tradition leading up to Pioneer Days at that time was for men to go without shaving their facial hair, and if they shaved, they had to donate to the Lions Club. Townley said, “If they were caught not growing a beard, they had put a little jail together downtown, and they arrested them and put them in ‘jail.’ Their family had to pay a fine for them to get out, and that fine went to the Lions Club.” Several costumes worn at Pioneer Days festivals held decades ago are displayed at the Whitney museum.

Townley, who lived in the historical Carver Homestead for years, expressed that local history should be kept alive. She stated, “I think that the history of Whitney and the importance of the history, especially since the lake, needs to be considered when we put together events, when we work on what we’re doing in the town. Whitney history definitely needs to be preserved. There is so much to it.”

A free offering to the community, the Whitney Museum does not charge visitors a cover fee, but donations are always encouraged, and volunteers are always welcome.

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