Clark County Museum’s storytelling effort now 50 years old

So, of all of the items here …

Mark Hall-Patton quashes the question before it’s finished.

“Don’t ask me my favorite. You’re not going to get one,” he says. “It’s like asking me for my favorite child.”

His response is understandable. The Clark County Museum has become the home of an amazing array of artifacts, keepsakes and just generally cool things over the past five decades, from thousands of hotel matchbooks and swizzle sticks to a 1909 Sears automobile to, even, entire buildings that have been picked up and moved to the museum’s grounds.

On Friday, the Clark County Museum, 1830 S. Boulder Highway, officially celebrates its 50th anniversary. That it has reached the five-decade mark to become the oldest historical museum in the Las Vegas Valley is testament to a group of determined people, good timing and a few lucky breaks over the years.

The museum’s history begins serendipitously, after Anna Roberts Parks, an avid collector of historical and natural history artifacts who eventually had to rent a warehouse to store all her stuff, died in 1962 and her heirs began searching for someplace that might want to maintain and exhibit her collection.

“They were trying to get the city of Las Vegas, the county, somebody to be interested in all this stuff,” says Hall-Patton, Clark County museums administrator. A committee of the Henderson Chamber of Commerce got involved, deciding that a museum should be in that city.

In 1967, an agreement was reached between the Henderson Chamber of Commerce and the Clark County School District for use of the gymnasium of the old Townsite School in downtown Henderson, Hall-Patton says. “Then, on April 20, 1968, at 1 p.m. — yes, we know the time — the new Southern Nevada Museum was opened.”

Originally, the museum was interactive. “It opened with the idea that you could touch everything, you can play the musical instruments and all of this,” Hall-Patton says. “A sweet idea, but bad for artifacts. That only lasted a few months.”

In the early ’70s, the city of Henderson offered the private nonprofit organization that was running the museum the property on which it now sits. In 1974, then-administrator Roy Purcell heard that the Union Pacific Railroad was giving away a depot in Boulder City. It late 1974, it moved to the site and became the museum’s first structure.

By 1978, the nonprofit running the musem was struggling, and former county commissioner Robert Broadbent began pressing for the county to take it over so it wouldn’t close.

The county took over in March 1979, renaming it the Clark County Southern Nevada Museum. Then-director Bernard C. “Buzz” Nolan “was the one who really got us settled in with the county. … We’ve had the right directors at the right time,” Hall-Patton says.

In 1979, the museum saw the unofficial beginnings of what would become Heritage Street when the Beckley House — originally envisioned to be used for office space — was moved from downtown Las Vegas to the museum grounds.

Other historic homes, as well as a print shop and a wedding chapel, were moved in subsequent years and now are open for self-guided tours. The museum also is home to other historic artifacts, including a locomotive from an attraction called Fantasy Park, once located on Washington Avenue east of Las Vegas Boulevard.

“Anybody who grew up here went to Fantasy Park,” Hall-Patton says. “The train apparently was for kids to fall off of. That’s what most adults who remember it tell me.”

Hall-Patton says Heritage Street and its homes are the exhibit visitors find most intriguing.

“You can see how people lived here,” he says. “We tend to forget we didn’t always have air conditioning, we didn’t always have good refrigerators and things like that.”

Just as intriguing are the museum’s other exhibits, displays and artifacts that cover everything from Native American basketry, relics from the Cold War/Civil Defense era to such midcentury artifacts as kitchen housewares and fishing equipment.

Hall-Patton says he likes to think of the museum’s artifacts as “the physical memories of the community.”

“Our mission is to tell the story of Clark County,” he says. “So that goes back to prehistoric times and comes up to today.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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