Heritage House Museum was founded in 1976 to preserve Orange County history. Lately, history has been unpreserving the museum.
Hurricane Laura’s winds blew out upstairs windows in the 1902 J.O. Sims House. The rain blowing vertically soaked into rooms and then flowed downstairs. By the time the staff arrived two days later to check, the ceiling drywall in the downstairs dining room was coming down and wall paper was peeling.
The damage came as the board of directors had hired workers to begin repairing Hurricane Harvey damage to the museum campus.
Board President Sue Denosowicz said the museum has insurance and a restoration team was called in to begin work Sunday.
Monday, a curator from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts visited to give hints on how to preserve the furnishings and artifacts that have been donated by generations of local families.
Denosowicz said the curator will return to give lessons on how to clean and preserve items. The museum will be looking for community volunteers to help.
Giant generators arrived from Houston Wednesday to begin running the air conditioning system to help climate control. Restoration workers worked in the hot, humid still air of the building to wrap items in bubble wrap and store in boxes.
One item taken down was a framed Japanese cloth artwork donated by descendants of the Kishi family, who brought the work with them in 1907. The Kishi Colony was a farming community of immigrants in the Terry-Orangefield area.
The upstairs has four bedrooms. Most of the damage was in the “children’s room,” with a child-size bed and crib, plus toys. A paper mache nanny figure by artist Avril Falgout, who had an exhibit at the museum in 2015, was wet.
Wednesday, the figure, who is holding a handkerchief to her face, was sitting in the sun drying as the staff was hoping she could be saved.
Rugs were also hanging outside to dry.
Hurricanes in the past 15 years have seriously affected the Heritage House job.
The Orange County History Museum was professionally designed to give visitors an overall view of local history. The museum opened in 1990 in the 1890s Woodmen of the World Hall facing Border Street. The entrance was through the back door on the same campus with the J.O. Sims house.
Hurricane Rita in 2005 heavily damaged the museum, but it was repaired. The storm surge flood of Hurricane Ike in 2008 twisted the building on piers. An engineer declared it unsafe.
Orange County acquired the land and tore down the building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The county’s adult probation building was built on the site.
The Heritage House office and library has for nearly 30 years been in a 1940s cottage moved to the campus. It was flooded in Harvey.
The Williams Building is a two-story 1920s house moved in 2011 from the site of the new Orange Central Fire Station in the historic district. The building has been used for exhibits and to house the collections of Dr. Howard and Elizabeth Williams, founders of Heritage House. Dr. Williams, a physician, collected photographs of Orange County and wrote two history books. It, too, flooded in Harvey.
Heritage House is a partner with the University of North Texas, which operates the Portal to Texas History.
The Heritage House collection on the Portal includes nearly 2,000 photographs, some dating back to the pre-Civil War days. The museum has the original photographs, or copies, on file.
The collection of items includes a leather “cap,” which is a 1930s football helmet worn by local Ox Emerson, the city’s first professional football player.
A painted portrait of Sabine Rarebit hangs in an upstairs bedroom of the Sims house. The smooth-hair male terrior raised by F.H. Falwell. Rarebit won the Westminster Dog Show in 1910. The best female in the show was Sabine Fermie, his kennel mate.
Falwell was the general manager of the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company and built a Spanish-style mansion on Green Avenue furnished with Stickley pieces. His hobby was raising smooth-hair terriers at his Sabine Kennels in West Orange. Every dog had the first name “Sabine.”
J.O. Sims was a descendant of Orange pioneers and the Ochiltree family. He was a banker, but not part of Orange’s millionaires who had mansions on Green Avenue. He and his wife built a wood-frame house and added to it. They lived there until the 1960s.
The house was vacant and fell into disrepair. The city was going to demolish it as part of a downtown renovation that included the Stark Foundation building an art museum and theater, along with restoring the W.H. Stark House. The city planned a parkway boulevard (by the police station) and the house was in the way.
Local citizens came together to save the house as an example of a middle-class Orange family’s life. The group moved the house a block away to Division Avenue, where it stands today. The campus grew through the years.
One of the museum’s first events was a visit with Santa Claus free to the public. Larry David, an insurance agent and a founder of the museum, portrayed the jolly old man. David passed away earlier this year.
The museum for decades held a Past Times events where children could churn butter, ride a horse-drawn wagon, and wash socks on a washboard. The city’s then-new Art in the Park later conflicted with it, and the event eventually ended.
Volunteers also gave “trunk shows” to school classes as they brought early 20th Century items to let kids see how their grandparents, or great-grandparents, did chores and had amusements.
More recently, the museum has joined with drama students from Vidor and Bridge City high schools to present an October “Historic Ghost Walk” through downtown. The walk has true local history of deaths, scandals, and murder.
The museum has also sponsored a tour of Evergreen Cemetery off Border Street with stops at graves of historic people.
Both events have had to be canceled in 2020 because of the Covid pandemic. This year’s cemetery tour was to feature victims of the 1918 influenze pandemic.
Volunteers and donors created Heritage House. Denosowicz said community support will be needed again to help save the house, the history complex, and our local stories.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-