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Mike Cecil stood before the old Marion County courthouse Sunday afternoon surrounded by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Ernie “The Turtleman” Brown Jr., musicians, local officials and several members of the Marion County Historical Society.
“What you’ll see today on the third floor is not the end,” he said. “It’s the beginning.”
Although the Marion County Heritage Center had its “soft” opening in September, Sunday was the grand opening.
Hundreds of people examined the displays of local history, listened to music performed by President Lincoln’s Own (a group that appeared in the recent movie “Lincoln”) and had their picture taken with the Turtleman.
Sunday would not have been possible without community support, however. Cecil said the Marion County Fiscal Court has been a tremendous partner.
Last year, the historical society signed a two-year lease to use the top floor of the old courthouse to establish the heritage center. Under the terms of the lease, the county has agreed to pay the utilities for the building, with the expectation that at the end of the two-year agreement, the historical society will be able to take over those expenses.
But the idea to put the heritage center in the courthouse goes back to former Lebanon Tourism Director Chris Hamilton, according to Cecil.
“He knew that one day this building would become available. He said this would be the perfect place to have a heritage center,” Cecil said. “I was sitting in the meeting when he said that. It dawned on me then that he had a vision that nobody else had.”
Cecil said the tourist commission has continued to support their efforts in other ways. He pointed out that current tourism staff, Nicky Reynolds and Carla Wagner, presented them with the opportunity to house the Turtleman museum.
“It took me about 30 seconds to realize that his exhibit needs to be part of this heritage center because he's a huge draw,” Cecil said.
That has already proven itself to be true, as anyone who was in Lebanon last Ham Days can attest. Since the center opened, they’ve had visitors from all over the United States and Australia, according to Mary Kay Clements, who is a member of the heritage center’s executive committee.
“It’s absolutely amazing who comes in here,” she said.
The heritage center has also become the new home of Don Johnson’s instrument collection. Johnson is an internationally known trumpeter who calls Marion County home. He and his group, the Kentucky Baroque Trumpets, have won national awards, and that recognition led to their performance (as President Lincoln’s Own) in the movie “Lincoln.” Now, the uniforms they wore in the movie and some of the instruments they used are among the display items in the heritage center.
As Cecil said, Sunday is just the beginning.
The historical society has a vision of taking over the entire courthouse (although that, too, would require the fiscal court’s approval).
Clements shared their dream of establishing a small café serving soups and sandwiches, opening a gift shop and creating a small theater in the former district courtroom. She said they could foresee hosting book signings or similar events as well.
The center is also hosting a quilt display through the end of the month. It is the first of multiple rotating exhibits planned for this year.
Later this year, the center will also host displays on the industries of Marion County and the wildlife native to the area, Clements said.
Cecil said they would like to add a few more permanent exhibits as well. Specifically, he would like to see a display honoring the county’s military veterans and a display to honor the local Junior Miss/Distinguished Young Woman program. The Junior Miss exhibit would be particularly appropriate since is the 50th anniversary of the Marion County program, Cecil added.
That’s also where people like Grimes come in. Cecil said he would like to bring in celebrities whenever the heritage center opens a new permanent exhibit.
Grimes was invited Sunday because of her connection with the Turtleman, who she met while campaigning two years ago in Lebanon.
“He is always himself,” she said.
Cecil admitted that he wondered if maybe they had taken on more than they could handle when he walked into the courthouse last July.
“Some of the rooms had plaster falling off the ceiling. The walls hadn't been painted for years. Some things worked. Some things didn't,” he said.
Every month, things got a little better. Jerry Evans helped get community service workers from the jail to remove the seats from the old circuit courtroom. The Lebanon city employees helped, too, by changing light bulbs and moving items on display and display cases.
Offices have been set up. Displays are available for viewing. And as more people have seen what’s in place, they’ve been encouraged to get involved.
“People are coming to us asking to be part of our exhibits and part of the heritage center,” Clements said.
Cecil said membership in the historical society has been on the rise since the center opened, noting that they added 35 or 40 new members in the past month.
In the future, he hopes the heritage center will become a “beehive of activity,” hosting cultural events for the community.
“This great old building has a sense of intimacy,” Cecil said. “People like coming here.”
Marion County Heritage Center
The grand opening for the Marion County Heritage Center was held Sunday, but visitors can see the displays throughout the week.
The center is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
Mike Cecil, the president of the Marion County Historical Society, said the center could also be opened at other times by appointment. To schedule an appointment, call (270) 699-9455.
A website, which is still under construction, can be found at www.mcheritagecenter.org.