By Gwen Sisson
Even though she is officially “retired” from teaching, it remains a vibrant part of her life.
Now, Joan Wilson is teaching people of all ages about the history of the Oktibbeha County area.
She began as a volunteer at the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum and over the years, has been one of the driving forces behind the new interior and exterior renovation of the building.
“I have always been interested in the history of Starkville and feel that a museum is excellent way to preserve and share local history,” Wilson said. “Also, Starkville, being a university town, should have a museum. We also wanted to have something more for people to do in our area.”
The Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum was established in the 1970’s as a bicentennial project by “a very ambitious and determined group of residents.” By the time Wilson got involved, it was the consensus of the museum board of trustees that an update was desperately needed to the museum’s interior.
Wilson is the first to say that the city of Starkville is very lucky to have the interest and expertise of the faculty and students from Mississippi State University —and the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum has also benefited from that expertise.
Wilson said the renovation of the museum involved many steps and many people.
The first step was to receive a grant from the Greater Starkville Development Partnership and the Convention and Visitor Bureau to bring the late Cavett Taff, a professional museum consultant, to help evaluate the museum and develop plans for future development.
“Cavett held a workshop in which we took a serious look at what the museum should offer,” Wilson said. “He also helped by designing exhibits as examples for use in the future.”
Along with Cavett, Wilson said museum officials were fortunate to have Cindy Gardener from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to answer many questions as they began serious work to redo the museum. Wilson said Gardner also helped in prodding the group into action.
“Then the lucky part happened,” Wilson said.
Dr. David Lewis of the MSU School of Architecture, had the students in one of his classes photograph and catalog each artifact in the museum. The students then made proposals on how best to exhibit the artifacts. In addition, Dr. Lewis and his students renovated the first two rooms in the museum. All of the materials for that project were donated by Bell Building Supply.
“We were able to raise enough funds to renovate the rest of the exhibit rooms, following the color scheme suggested by the MSU architecture students,” Wilson said.
The museum was closed for several months while the interior was totally redone with new carpet, walls and ceilings repaired and painted and new overhead lighting installed.”
Museum board members packed up each item within the museum for the renovation. Oktibbeha County trustees did the moving of heavy items and preparation for the painting, etc. And several MSU football players donated their time to help move some of the heavier items.
Wilson said more luck came along when the museum board was asked to be part of a national study to develop standards for small museums. She said the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum was one of six museums in Mississippi and one of 48 in the United States selected for the national study.
Participation in the study provided the museum board an on-site workshop, conducted by museum professionals from the Old Capital Museum in Jackson. This workshop showed board members the best ways to prepare exhibits.
“Since our museum relies solely on volunteers, this was an invaluable opportunity,” Wilson said.
Then more luck came their way.
The museum was able to obtain display cases from the MSU Department of Biological Sciences, and at this point the museum board was ready to start the display process. The decisions were made as to the areas of interest should be displayed. Museum board members and Friends of the Museum Board developed the displays.
The Starkville Civic League provided funds for the medical display and the Starkville Kiwanis Club provided funding for the Kids Corner.
Wilson said another connection to the expertise offered by living in a university town has been the ongoing landscape design and construction by students in the MSU Landscape Architecture Department under the direction of Wayne Wilkerson and Cory Gallo.
“They have solved a major drainage problem by the implementation of a water garden and drainage management,” Wilson said. “This spring, Cory will lead a student project to replace the museum porch and entrance ramp.”
This will be the third year of a five year project to renovate the outdoor area of the Heritage Museum.
Wilson said the Oktibbeha County Master Gardeners have also provided assistance with landscaping at the museum.
According to Wilson, programming is a essential for the success of the museum and since the re-opening, programming has been a primary focus.
“Having rotating exhibits is a new project that will entice folks to continue re-visit the museum,” Wilson said. “And the ‘Our Community’ series highlights areas of historical interest within the local area. It is vital to continue to find ways to interest people to visit the museum on an on-going basis.”
Wilson said Wanda Thorne was instrumental in, not only helping during the renovation, but also in organizing the Friends of the Museum. The Friends promote the museum through programming, volunteers and fund-raising.
“They are also essential for the success of the museum,” Wilson said.
According to Wilson, the Friends of the Museum have raised funds for interior improvements and supplies. They are also funding the much needed repair and painting of the exterior of the museum as well as being instrumental in funding the landscape projects.
Wilson said the museum board is continuing to work to make the exhibits interesting and find new ways to enhance exhibits. They are also working to continue to collect the history of the area.
“A continuing project is to treat the museum’s holdings in an archival fashion to ensure that they will be part of this area’s history for years to come,” Wilson said. “With support from the community, as well as that from the Starkville Board of Aldermen and the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, we will continue to move forward.”
But when asked, it is the children’s area of the museum that truly is a passion for Wilson, stemming back to her love of teaching.
Wilson taught at the Methodist Day School in Starkville for several years under the direction of Ann Thompson.
“Those years were very enjoyable,” Wilson said. “We were able to be creative and allow the students to discover so many things in settings that were hands-on experiences. I always look back at that time as one of the best —I still whistle and sing the songs.”
She said that love of hands-on learning is an element she wants to incorporate into the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum.
“Having programs and exhibits at the museum for children is very important,” Wilson said. “Diana Crabtree, a member of the Friends of the Museum, has worked with funds from the local Kiwanis Club to develop the Kids Corner area.”
With those funds, Crabtree and Glen James have built a very popular fire engine and a discovery table that presently has arrow heads, shards and sea shells for the children to “discover.” Wilson and Marion Honsinger have also developed children’s programming.
“We feel that if a child enjoys coming to this museum, they may want to visit again and also go to other museums,” Wilson said.
The Starkville Kiwanis Club funding also provides supplies that are used for children’s tour groups.
Wilson was born in New Jersey, but her father was a Methodist minister. When she was 15, the family moved to a small town (899 people) in Iowa and Wilson loved it. She said she did not know that wheat was ever green! Her mother is 93 and still lives in Iowa.
She attended the University of Missouri and received a bachelor of science in education.
Her husband, Bob Wilson, was born on the family farm in Missouri. He also went to the University of Missouri where he received his bachelor’s, master’s, his doctorate degree, and as Wilson likes to say “and me and our three children.”
Today, daughter, Sheri is an artist living in Kennesaw, Ga.; daughter, Gwen is an accountant living in Mt. Juliet, Tenn.; and son, Bob is a school administrator living in Malden, Mo. The Wilsons have seven grandchildren.
“We all get together when ever possible, especially for MSU football games,” Wilson said. “Noisy and lots of fun!”
The Wilsons moved to Starkville in 1969 when Bob accepted a position in the newly formed Biochemistry Department at MSU. During his tenure he chaired the department for 10 years. His research allowed the family to travel to several countries as well as live in Scotland for six months. Bob is a professor emeritus of the MSU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
“A wonderful adventure,” Wilson said. “I had not been further south than southern Missouri until the day we pulled into Starkville. It was an adjustment, but I am a ‘bloom where you are planted’ person, adjusted and after a bit of time, called it home.”