LAFAYETTE, Ind. — John M. Harris spends each Tuesday and Wednesday quietly working in a small office surrounded by shelves stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes containing ... well, that's what Harris is finding out.
Outside his office, a much larger room is filled with stacks of boxes, filing cabinets and a conference table for sorting. Throughout the Frank Arganbright Genealogy and Research Center, items are in storage -- items someone at some point considered historically significant.
Nestled in his small office on the second floor of the center on 10th Street across from the Moses Fowler House, Harris' task is to computerize the Tippecanoe County Historical Association's hard-copy card catalogs and computerize years of donated items that escaped being enumerated or completely slipped through the cracks.
He rhetorically repeated the question to himself as he leaned forward in his chair, reaching for a 10-pound cannonball set on a table in front of him: "What is it that's fun? Being able to handle something like this that probably goes back to the Revolution," he answered, holding out the solid shot that was found in the area of Fort Ouiatenon.
For Harris, 67, the fun is also bringing order from chaos and the chance to play history detective when he stumbles across undocumented items or some unrecognizable trinkets or artifacts.
Each week is different from the previous -- another thing Harris enjoys about his job.
"It takes a lot of attention to detail, and it's a kind of work that not everybody can do," Harris said.
The hands-off rule enforced on most visitors to museums doesn't apply to Harris, who for nearly four years has gone by various titles ranging from collections manager, collection coordinator or curator of collections. Call him what you will, Harris sees himself as a simple curator of the association's accessations that date back to its first gifts, received around 1925. And he's happy to do it.
A 2008 grant from the Greater Lafayette Community Foundation allowed the association to purchase Past Perfect, a computer program used nationally by museums to catalog and cross reference collections. The association then needed someone with museum experience to wade through the collections, the card catalogues and the museum's undocumented donations. That's where Harris came in.
"Kathy Atwell (TCHA director) approached me about setting up its software," Harris said, noting after four years, he's just scratched the surface of the association's considerable holdings.
A former director of the Tippecanoe County Historical Association, Harris spent 15 years of his career in Tippecanoe County as the association's director from 1972 to 1987, when he left to go to the Indiana Historical Society, from which he retired after 19 years.
He's now a partner in his wife's Indianapolis business, Heritage Photo & Research Services, and he treks back to his old stomping grounds twice a week.
At first, the grant paid him a part-time wage for his work.
"The grant ran out after a year," Harris said, "but I just kept coming because I was having fun. I always wanted to be a curator."
The association's board recently hired Harris again to pay him for his labors. It's a promising sign for the association, which just finished its third consecutive year in the black -- albeit, barely.
Atwell hesitates to label the positive bottom line a turnaround or a sign of better financial days ahead.
Instead, she attributes it to watching expenses, tough fiscal decisions and successful fundraisers, such as the Feast of the Hunters' Moon, which has escaped being rained out the past few years.
"We have a very small, dedicated staff," Atwell said. "That helps."
Colby Bartlett, the association's board president, gave a few more details about the efforts to revitalize the association.
"It hasn't been easy," Bartlett said.
"As a result of that, sales tripled what they've been in the past," Bartlett said of the shop's revenues.
The association recently learned that a grant to fund needed repairs to the Fowler House from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Historic Preservation and Archeology was denied, Bartlett said. This leaves the group with a challenge of how to fund the repairs and preserve the 19th century house.
For Harris, his fondness for and familiarity with Greater Lafayette led him back to the Tippecanoe County Historical Association, where he can do what he enjoys without the hassles that Atwell daily faces.
"I think of TCHA as where I grew up," Harris said.
In many ways, the association came of age under Harris' tenure as director. The association grew to become the largest county historical association in the state during the 1970s and 1980s; it became accredited -- an accomplishment allowed to lapse when renewal came up -- and the Feast of the Hunters' Moon grew and became a richer living-history and educational experience.
"There was definitely an increase in historical awareness that started about that time (of) the bicentennial," he said when asked if 1976 drew people to the association and its events.
Interest in history continues today, Harris noted, pointing to the popularity of cable's History Channel.
It's a point Bartlett and Atwell both made.
While people might have grown disinterested in seeing dusty artifacts under glass at museums, they seem to enjoy the entertaining interactions that have education nuggets embedded in them, Bartlett said, suggesting that the association might develop more interactive programs, such as living-history events with re-enactors.
"I think in five years, we won't look the same as an organization," Atwell said.
"A lot of people don't realize how historically significant our area is," Bartlett said. "There's a very rich 10,000 years of native history."
Then there is the French colonial influence, French and Indian War and Revolutionary War events that played out at or near Fort Ouiatenon, leaving its mark on Tippecanoe County. The area witnessed the most significant Old Northwest Territory Indian resistance at Prophetstown and the Battle of Tippecanoe, followed by the forced removal of Native Americans.
"We really took a top-to-bottom look at operations and asked, 'How can we increase revenue and cut costs?'" Bartlett said.
Part of the answer was to partner with like-minded groups such as the Tippecanoe County Area Genealogy Association, Bartlett said.
Atwell pointed to marketing the association's properties, most notably the Tippecanoe Battlefield Museum and its gift shop, which Bartlett said has an expanded and improved book selection on the Indiana frontier era to rival selections at national museums.
Atwell would like to see a day when the association can display more of its collections in a museum, but she realizes that small, county-run museums are rare.
"History museums are different from art museums," Harris said. "History museums try to document the lives of everyday people, as well as important people.
"To document the everyday lives, you're going to deal with the minutiae."
That means hat pins, broaches and even undergarments that are of no monetary value have significant historical value to document lifestyles that seem foreign to today's generations.
Of course, the association's collections also include the invaluable work of George Winter, Harris said. Winter was a frontier artist who sketched and painted Native Americans in Tippecanoe County. Many of his works are on display at the Tippecanoe Battlefield Museum, thanks to Cable and Evelyn Ball, Lafayette residents who collected Winter's work.
Insulated from the daily juggling act of running the association, managing its properties and watching the bottom lines, Harris creates computer records detailing what is in the associations' possession.
TCHA opened Fowler House as a museum in 1941. The museum closed in 2005 as revenue declines forced staff cuts.Comment on this story
Should the day come when TCHA reopens its museum, it has sufficient and varied collections to recount the lives of those who lived and toiled here, and Harris' work to computerize and catalog the collection will become priceless.
If that day never comes, Harris' work still makes a difference in the lives of historians and the curious looking for clues to the past.
Harris said, "It's worth it when somebody comes and says, 'Can you show me a picture of some school house?' And we can go to the computer and pull it up."
Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com