In its new exhibit, "Behind the Bricks: 20 years of the Laurel Museum," the Laurel Museum has unveiled a wealth of memories recapping every exhibit in the two decades since it opened in a brick millworkers house on Main Street.
The exhibit, which was unveiled Sunday and continues through December, documents how Laurel history lovers who were part of the Laurel Historical Society came together to establish a museum to preserve the identity of the town.
The current exhibit is organized into sections reflecting past exhibits, and offers hands-on activities that describe what goes into creating exhibits at a small museum.
A timeline with photos wraps from room to room exploring the back stories of past exhibits and the people who brought them to life, beginning with the museum's inaugural exhibit, "From Millhouse to Museum."
Among the many items displayed are works by early 20th-century Laurel photographer Bert Sadler, nostalgic clothing and hats, a variety of historic records and objects and a stately 1894 tall clock built by Benjamin Mallonee at his Main Street shop.
Brian Coyle, of Laurel, brought his children, Aide, 8, and Eamon, 11, and his mother, Carol Coyle, to Sunday's opening. Coyle found he had a connection to the exhibit: he lives in the house where the clock last resided.
"When I was purchasing my house, it was in there," he said. "The family that sold us the house donated it here before I moved in."
Eamon said he enjoyed looking at all the artifacts from past exhibits and that "it's cool that they had diaries of people who worked at the mill."
A map titled "1876 Real Estate Plat Map of the Talbott Estate" hangs over the west mantel in the museum. Various photos, records, diaries, postcards of the Laurel Cotton Mill, maps, portraits and other objects used in past exhibits are arranged artfully in glass cases and on shelves.
"It's very nostalgic, I'd forgotten about some of the stuff that's up there," Lee Mewshaw, of Laurel, said. "I really liked the Sadler photos; that was my favorite [past exhibit]."
Mewshaw said she was pleased to find her husband John's photo on one of the panels, showing him taking a photo of his own at a previous exhibit.
Nancy Steinecke said the museum reminds her of her own millhouse in historic Laurel.
"The whitewash on the walls is very similar to the walls in my basement; it's the fieldstone walls with whitewash," she said. "It's pretty amazing; these things were built to last."
Board newcomer Richard Friend, a graphic designer who grew up in Laurel and maintains the Lost Laurel blog, has been volunteering with the museum for three years. He created the banners for this 20th anniversary exhibit as well as for former exhibits, "Ripped from the Headlines: Laurel in the News" and "Lost and Found Laurel."
Friend said the anniversary exhibit offers a recap of the past 20 years, but that "it's much more than a timeline."
"It gives you a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how an exhibit comes together," he said.
Betty Compton, who's been a voice for the Laurel Historical Society since volunteers formed the original Laurel Horizon Society in 1976, is a founding director of the museum with the late Jane Cole.
Compton said that in the early 1990s Laurel Historical Society members began looking for a space in Laurel for a museum, and asked then-Laurel Mayor Joseph Robison for exhibit space at the Laurel Municipal Center.
Instead, Robison offered the 1840 former millworkers house, known informally as "the oldest house in Laurel," which the city had purchased from the state in 1985. Compton remembers the house, which had boarded-up windows and a vine-covered porch, was pretty much an "eyesore," and renovation estimates were at $350,000.
The city pledged matching funds and agreed to rent the historic house to the Laurel Historical Society to use as a museum for $1 per year.
Suddenly, the historical society volunteers were operators of a bricks-and-mortar museum.
"Jane Cole and I attended every meeting on museum organization that we could find and visited many small museums to be better prepared when the building was ready for occupancy," Compton said.
On the day the Laurel Museum opened in May 1996, she said chairs spilled from the lawn onto the street. A reception followed across the street at St. Mildred Hall where large prints of 1890 photographs by Sadler decorated the walls.
Karen Lubieniecki was president in 1996 and currently chairs the museum's executive committee. She said the Laurel Museum grew from the trailblazing activities of Compton and Cole and current board member Marlene Frazier.
"Prior to the museum's opening, Jane and Betty and Marlene and others had been doing exhibits at different places in the community," Lubieniecki said. "They had an interpretive plan and an early collections plan."
Interpreting the Laurel Museum as a small museum representing greater Laurel rather than a house museum has been key to the museum's success; introducing new exhibits each year, Lubieniecki said, keeps it fresh. The museum also includes a research library, offices and accession area on the second floor and a third-floor storage attic.
The Laurel Museum has received more than 20,000 visitors since it opened its doors in 1996 through the efforts of volunteers. Today, there are two paid staff members: Executive Director Lindsey Baker and her assistant, Monica Sturdivant.
Compton, who with her husband, Richard Compton, has retired to Washington, D.C., said it is heartening to see the outstanding achievements accomplished by the Laurel Historical Society's members, officers and board.
"Some of my happiest times were spent with folks who, like my husband and me, loved their town and the story of it founders," she said.