After serving on the board of the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum in Goessel for more than 20 years, Fern Bartel is stepping into the role of the museum's director. Former archivist and curator Ben Schmidt resigned in December to attend graduate school.
"I've walked through here so many times and have been exposed to it over the years, but now I actually get to see what can I find out about these things," Bartel said.
The Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum is a complex of eight buildings that showcase the history of the immigrants that came from Russia to settle the area beginning in the 1870s.
"I'm currently trying to get a handle on who these people are," Bartel said. "It's hard to nail something down, you have to do research."
Identifying and documenting items and the people they belonged to can be a challenge, especially when they came from a time when spelling rules were more fluid and the immigrants were still speaking their native language, German.
"We also sort of feel that it's our mission, if somebody needs to have research on Mennonites from Russia — Low German Mennonites — that we can help them out and give them a little direction," Bartel said.
A lifelong Goessel resident, Bartel attended the Antioch one-room school for the first grade, then Goessel Elementary and graduated from Goessel High School. She lives on the family farm she grew up on and is a member of Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church.
Several of Bartel's own ancestors are featured in the museum's exhibits.
"That's pretty cool for me to have," Bartel said. "This is really just a passion for me and now... I get to fill in the gaps where other directors did not have quite the community connection that I do."
Bartel, who spent 22 years working for a photographer, is eager to get the museum's extensive collection of photographs digitized. The pictures need to be scanned so that digital copies can be made for display and the original photographs placed in a more controlled environment for preservation.
"One of my long-term goals is to archive these pictures," Bartel said. "I'm a very visual person, that is a focus of mine that I enjoy immensely."
Currently, photographs and items are grouped together by family for display. Dishes, clothing, needlework, tools and toys, some of which were brought over from Russia, can be seen alongside images of their owners.
"Many museums do not have the actual family connection to their artifacts like we do," Bartel said. "It's just great to be able to see the people that actually used these things. That's what is interesting to me."
The family collections can be seen in the Immigrant House replica, which adjoins the museum's store. Other buildings at the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum include early homes, the Goessel State Bank building, schoolhouses, a barn and the Turkey Red Wheat Palace, a large building housing early farm implements, horse-drawn buggies and a larger-than-life replica of the Liberty Bell woven from wheat stalks.
Some of the top priorities for projects for the museum include cleaning the exhibits and redoing the labels on the artifacts. Bartel will be able to take on those tasks while the museum is closed for the winter, then will rely on the museum's board members and other volunteers to help with visitors during warmer months.
"There are other community people who are retired that can sit here while the director works on other projects," Bartel said.
Bartel finds her new position with the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum, which she estimates draws in more than 1,000 visitors yearly, both overwhelming and exciting.
"It's awesome," Bartel enthused. "Just the fact of finding out a little bit about who these people were and learning about their life. We are all products of immigration from someplace else. That really touches me."
For more information about the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum (200 N. Poplar, Goessel), visit http://www.goesselmuseum.com or call 620-367-8200.