The volunteers and staff of the Museum of West Louisiana are preparing for a facelift. The main building of the museum, the old Kansas City Southern depot in Leesville, has been in need of a new roof since Hurricane Rita blew through the area in 2005. The roof replacement has been delayed by a number of obstacles over the years. Museum workers are now packing things up so that work, which will also include other renovations, can begin immediately after the newest bid package is complete. “We have to get this place packed and moved out,” said Fleeta Penton, the museum’s new director, in anticipation of the upcoming repairs and renovations.
Penton is a Vernon Parish native, recently retired, back home with her Army husband. Formerly a member of the museum’s board of directors, Penton is familiar not only with the museum’s needs, but also with the area’s history. However, the job couldn’t be done, she said, without the priceless contributions of long term volunteers Alpha Martin, Bridgitte Dubiel and Linda Harris. All three not only donate their time and labor to the museum, but also their insight into the area’s history.
The museum offers exhibits on the culture and life of southwest Louisiana residents, along with memorabilia from World War II. Other items of interest include archaeological artifacts, logging and railroad memorabilia, clothing and household items, and special displays. Recent additions include the P.O.W. Paintings, a group of scenes painted on the walls of a local hotel by German prisoners of war during World War II.
From 1916 until 1968, the Kansas City Southern railroad served as a primary travel and transportation center for the city of Leesville and the surrounding area. According to author Thad Hillis Carter, the Kansas City Southern Railway initially offered freight service from the immediate Kansas City area south. As the line expanded toward Texas, each tiny community had its own railway station with access to daily passenger and freight services. Over time, rail travel declined, and the depot fell into a state of disrepair. On October 25, 1984, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and by 1986, had been fully restored to serve as a storehouse of artifacts illustrating the history, culture, and resources of Vernon Parish and the West Central area of the Louisiana Territory.
Currently, Penton and her volunteers are focused on packing up the items in the depot and moving them to secured storage. The local archaeology group has also helped in packing up displays, said Penton, who said she’s expecting archival supplies to arrive soon so that more delicate items, such as clothing, can be preserved as carefully as possible. The Vernon Parish Police Jury and Tourism Commission also plan to help with making improvements to Pioneer Park. Located on the southern end of the museum property, the park provides space for picnics, cookouts, special events, or just sitting and relaxing.
The Dyess House features scale models built by Elbert Dyess, many of the which depict buildings and structures that would have been common to a farm or timber operation in southwest Louisiana a century ago. Dyess also gifted the museum with his collection of tools, which are displayed in the same building. Other buildings on the grounds include the Alexander Airhart home (a dogtrot cabin); a shotgun house; a barn; and the China Grove church/school. These buildings serve as examples of the architectural styles which were common to the area during the 1800s and early 1900s. Each has been fully restored and displays a variety of historical artifacts.
Penton, who has a degree in history and experience in library studies and presentation/preservation, said that once the repairs are made on the depot, the displays will be cataloged and organized as they’re returned to public display. Though the depot is closed, the other buildings remain open for visitors. Penton said that the museum is always in need of volunteers, and welcomes visitors by appointment or during regular hours, Tuesday through Saturday, from 1:00pm to 5:00pm.
For more information, contact the museum at (337) 239-0927; by email at firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit www.museumofwestla.com.