Steve Noll is retiring, but he’ll still be near the work that’s been his focus for the last 13 years.
“It’s been an interesting trip,” he says.
Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society for the last 13 years, is retiring at the end of the year. Operations Manager and Archivist Caitlin Eckard takes over in January.
“It’s an opportunity that came along,” he says, “and I guess it’s all worked out.”
During Noll’s years, the Historical Society has added programs such having Independence School District first graders tour the 1859 Jail & Marshal’s Home, and hosting haunted tours – sold out again this year – at the jail on Friday nights in October.
“Those are patrons who probably would not come just to tour the jail,” he says.
The group also has been involved in publishing history books, including working with the Mid-Continent Public Library this year on “The First Beverly Hillbilly: The Untold Story of the Creator of Rural TV Comedy,” after a manuscript by Ruth Henning was found in papers the Historical Society had and was sorting. More books from that partnership are possible.
“It’s such a great way for JCHS to partner with the library,” Noll said.
The Historical Society has been in the Truman Courthouse on the Independence Square since 1975, but Noll has had to oversee four moves during his years, getting back into the courthouse after it was extensively renovated in 2012-13. (The Historical Society is not part of county government, but the county gives it space.) Now there’s more space for collections and artifacts, and for researchers to do their work.
And more resources become available over time. The Strauss-Peyton Collection of photos – Kansas City’s famous and infamous, Noll said, as well as many visiting celebrities – is nearly digitized. The collection consists of more than 12,000 images on glass negatives.
One example: The burlesque dancer and actress Sally Rand (she was from around here) was 22 when she sat for a portrait in 1926. Those photos, along with biographical information, are being posted online for researchers and others to use.
“This will be uploaded to our website and be available for people to enjoy,” Noll said.
The project closest to Noll’s heart, however, is even more ambitious: sorting, scanning and uploading the 500,000 to 1 million images in the Chris Wilborn collection. Wilborn, like his father, was a commercial photographer in Kansas City, and those decades of work produced what Noll called “early photos of almost every significant structure” in the Kansas City area, as well as many pictures of the city’s movers and shakers.
Noll and his wife, Marianne, made the donation to the Historical Society to allow it to buy the collection and keep it in Kansas City. Work on the collection figures to take up a good deal of their time for the next couple years.
“We’re going to stay with Wilborn until it’s done,” he says.
The idea is to get it digitized and then invite libraries, researchers and the public to help solve the mysteries the many of the photos pose.
“It’ll be available for people to actually peruse,” he says.
Noll points out that local historical societies tend to be formed when people come together to save something local and significant. For this group, it was saving the jail in the late 1950s. It and its collection have come a long way.
“Our archives started in one file cabinet in the basement at the Truman Library,” Noll said.
And all sorts of things come the way of a historical society.
When the Stephenson’s Old Apple Farm Restaurant was bulldozed nearly six years ago, Noll and others had the foresight to hang on to its distinctive neon sign.
Now plans are in the works for a Kansas City neon museum.
“We do anticipate,” Noll says, “the Stephenson’s sign being rebuilt and moved to the location.”