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Library museum in St. Johnsville to unveil hidden treasures

Friday, May 10, 2013 - Updated: 3:29 PM


For the Recorder

ST. JOHNSVILLE -- To say that the Margaret Reaney Memorial Library's Museum has gone through an overhaul is an understatement. For the first time in decades, the museum was cleaned, labeled and re-organized during a year-plus process by five devoted volunteers. During that process, a plethora of exciting historical items were unearthed, the contents of each room were re-displayed and revitalized with added information, and St. Johnsville's history was brought into clearer, more detailed focus.

Locals will finally be able to view the new museum, at 19 Kingsbury Avenue, closed since January 2012, during Springfest, which opened Thursday and runs through Saturday.

In the downstairs museum's South Room, or St. Johnsville Room, Mat Rapacz and Richard Bellinger spent over one year organizing and displaying every aspect of St. Johnsville's history. Before, the room contained mostly pictures of the Reaney family, which were largely unlabeled. Now, the room depicts a detailed history of St. Johnsville, with sections of photos devoted to village leaders, town supervisors, schools, veterans, business, transportation, industry and graduating classes, to name just a few categories.

The overhaul made the room's contents more applicable to current generations.

Rapacz, unable to even estimate how many hours the overhaul took, said that there were many challenges in re-arranging the St. Johnsville Room from top to bottom, one of the biggest being the search for information. There were many gaps to fill in terms of creating a cohesive history of the village and town's many mayors, supervisors, newspaper editors, photographers, and doctors, for example.

One room of the museum contains 300 drawers and numerous storage areas, which previously contained tons of unlabeled historical items packed into tight spaces -- including many items that the public has never even seen.

Included in the unearthed items was a 1865-1866 St. Johnsville GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) post flag. The flag contains the name of the soldier the GAR post was named after, Alonzo Smith, part of the 115th NY Infantry. Also unearthed, and newly on display, is WWII memorabilia, including a helmet, flag, signed Norman Rockwell prints, uniforms, and many other items tied to St. Johnsville's history.

The museum also contains a vast collection of items collected, labeled and donated by Robert Hartley, including arrowheads, Civil War battlefield memorabilia, pre-Revolutionary through Revolutionary War era items, Native American memorabilia, a button collection, and powder horn drawings.

Even the items that were on display in the vast museum previous to the overhaul have been properly displayed, categorized, and labeled, with each item -- many of which had no identification previously -- containing a newly added history.

In the beginning, the five volunteers -- Rebecca Sokol, Sharon Fuller, Paul Flanders, Mat Rapacz and Richard Bellinger -- thought the process would only take a few months. Once they began, they soon realized that the overhaul would take a lot longer than initially expected, even with the volunteers coming in nearly every day, instead of the couple days a week they previously planned on.

"It probably wouldn't have taken as long as it did if we hadn't stopped to read about and research everything," said MRML Board of Trustees President Rebecca Sokol, adding, "One of the goals was to make sure everything had information attached."

Even though the museum is finally ready for the public -- of which Sokol stated, "I hope they are as excited as we are," adding of the collection, "I hope it gives them more insight on what we have" -- there is still much work that needs to be done.

Sokol said "I hope we can continue to work on this as long as we can," which includes regular updates, maintenance, arranging new displays and documenting everything that's been done so far.

The group also hopes to put together a brochure so visitors with specific needs can pinpoint areas of interest, as it would take far longer than even one full day to view and read about every item contained in the museum.

Although Sokol noted that the process has been long, she said the chance to uncover so much information about St. Johnsville has provided a "great" learning experience.

"I enjoyed it," Sokol said, explaining, "You'd have to to do it."


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