HARTFORD — A severe thunderstorm that tore through southwest Michigan earlier this week left the Van Buren County Historical Society reeling.
The museum along the Red Arrow Freeway contains several unique exhibits, which suffered significant damage after high winds from the storm ripped off parts of the roof of the three-story building.
“I cried,” said Sandra Merchant, president of the Historical Association. “We have just completed the 44 rooms for the coming season. Now we are back to square one.
The museum was recently reopened after being closed during the pandemic.
The storm ripped off the front and back of the museum’s roof, causing the third-floor exhibition halls to destabilize with water damage.
“This storm just picked up sections of roof and peeled them off,” Merchant said.
The Van Buren County Historical Museum has been a landmark in the county for years. Built in 1884 as the county’s hospice, the building at 58471 Red Arrow Highway became the museum’s headquarters in 1973 after the historical society reached an agreement with Van Buren County to lease the building for $1 per year.
Its exhibits and artifacts tell the story of Van Buren County, its founders and its people.
“The history we’ve preserved dates back to the founding of Van Buren County in the early 1800s,” Merchant said.
Floor by floor
After Monday’s storm, dozens of locals offered to help preserve the museum’s contents.
However, after the county building inspector assessed the damage, museum officials had to cancel volunteer support.
“We had arranged it for this weekend, but the building inspector marked the building red. We are not allowed in,” Merchant said. “We need to put a tarp over the parts of the roof that have been washed away, but it’s not just about throwing a tarp over it. The third floor must be stabilized.
Fortunately, the county still owns the building and has insured it for such situations, said acting county administrator Ryan Polk.
“The county’s current insurance renewal provides coverage for the building, including the roof,” Polk said Friday. “Our adjusters are still assessing the damage and we are still awaiting the results.”
Not only did county adjusters comb through the building, but also contractors from VanDam & Krusinga Building and Restoration in Kalamazoo. Crews were on site throughout the week to assess and clean up the water damage.
“The paper historical artifacts were taken to a climate-controlled building to be dried,” Merchant said. Carpets and furniture from earlier eras will also be dried and restored.
Most of the damage to museum exhibits occurred on the third floor, Merchant said.
“It hit three rooms and a hallway,” she said. Water damage also seeped into sections of walls and floors on the lower two floors.
A historic effort
While the county owns the building, the historical society owns the contents inside, which means they will need funding to remove and restore any of the affected artifacts.
Individuals wishing to donate to help with restoration efforts can do so by mailing checks to the Van Buren County Historical Museum, PO Box 452, Hartford MI 49057 or by visiting the GoFundMe page at gofund.me/17472e7a. The page was created by the Michigan Historical Society in an effort to assist the fundraising efforts of the Van Buren Historical Museum.
“The Van Buren County Historical Society is a longtime member of the Michigan Historical Society,” said Larry Wagenaar, executive director of the state historical society. “We are raising funds to help devastated parts of its collections and historic assets. … We’re just trying to focus on the museum’s statewide situation so that we can provide participatory support.
Merchant said she hopes within a month the building will be deemed safe to enter so the remaining artifacts can be removed.
“Right now it’s hard to just sit around and do nothing,” she said.
The goal, she said, is to repair and reopen the museum within a year.
In the meantime, the historical association will continue to hold its summer events – but not in the museum building.
“Our conferences will be held at Lawrence Township Hall,” Merchant said. “We will still have our annual paranormal event – the museum is said to be haunted – on the lawn in August.”