McAlester Museum — Keeping the city's and area's history on view
By James Beaty Managing Editor of the McAlester News Capital
September 25, 2021
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org
The McAlester Museum, a sprawling collection that's housed in several rooms on multiple levels of the old McAlester High School Building, covers more than decades of history in Southeastern Oklahoma. It even includes a dinosaur room. While it does not have an actual dinosaur skeleton on exhibit, it does contain a cast of a dinosaur skull recovered near Broken Bow in the 1980s. Included in the display is a small placard that reads: "Acrocanthosaurus.” Big AK was found in Oklahoma some 500,000 years ago. "He was 40 feet long, 20 feet tall, jawbone of 4 feet, & teeth 10 inches. "He was a flesh eater, he could pick up a cow and eat it in one bite." The Acrocanthosaurus skull from which the cast was made was found in McCurtain County in 1983. A photo of Cephas Hall, one of the two men who discovered the skeleton, is on display with the cast taken from the skull of "Big Ak." That's just one of the exhibits on-view in the McAlester Museum.
"We have 12 rooms," said McAlester resident Mary Ann Gaberino, who has long been involved in helping keep the museum open. If the McAlester Museum is considered by some to be a little-known secret, Gaberino and others consider it a secret worth sharing. Planning to soon begin renewed efforts to spread the word about the museum's offerings, upgrades and renovations are underway.
It's inside the old McAlester High School building which houses the school's administrative offices at 220 E. Adams Ave. While its official name is the McAlester Building Foundation Inc. Museum —but those familiar with it simply shortened its moniker to simply the McAlester Museum. Tours were available by appointment only before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a temporary end to even those limited activities. "We weren't allowed in this building for about a year," Gaberino said. That ended up providing some time to clean out some storage areas in the back of the building that were used to store overflow items or things that had been considered for possible inclusion in the facility. Working to maintain the McAlester Museum and keep it going has been a decades-long activity for Gaberino. "I've worked hard at it for 34 years,"Gaberino said. She also noted the previous contributions through the years of volunteers such as JoAnn Shaw. Both Shaw and her late husband, Ernie Shaw, were deeply involved with the museum. These days it's pretty much up to Gaberino. She runs the McAlester Museum herself with the assistance of Jesse Alexander, who works for her. Gaberino contributes his efforts to help with the museum.
They have a lot of territory to cover, given the scope of the McAlester Museum, which is operated as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization. It covers a wide area, ranging from the first floor to the third floor of the school administration building in the old McAlester High School.
Some rooms are for specialized exhibitions, while others combine items from different eras. One room covers the 1900s through the 1950s, while another is dedicated to the 1950s through the 1990s. Rooms dedicated to specific subjects include the Military Room, the Coal Mining Room and the Hall of Fame Room — a room which includes materials related to former U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert and former Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh. Both Albert and Nigh are McAlester High School graduates. Nigh even returned there as a teacher, from where he launched his political career when he sought — and won — the office of state representative, before going on to his many years of service as lieutenant governor and then governor of Oklahoma.
Another popular area is the museum's Art Room. It contains a variety of art, including a painting by renowned folk artist Linus Bailey celebrating the first coast-to-coast flight of the Vin Fiz biplane in 1911. The Vin Fiz not only which included a flight over McAlester— the pilot also landed the aircraft in McAlester for a break on his history-making flight. Speaking of Bailey, the McAlester Public Library recently featured an exhibit of some of his other works, which included scenes from Hartshorne, Gowen and McAlester. Another art-related object is an entire stained glass window removed from the Busby Theater before its demolition. The site where the theater once stood in now the grounds of the First Baptist Church parking lot.
Among the most popular rooms is one devoted to McAlester Public Schools and related items, such as yearbooks. It's especially popular during school reunions. "We have a lot of people come into this room," Alexander said. Other rooms are filled with a variety of treasures related to McAlester — but finding help is becoming more difficult as some of the original museum benefactors are aging and not many are stepping forward in their places.
"I don't have people willing to give up their time," Gaberino said. She and Alexander had some help this summer, thanks to a group of McAlester High School students who assisted through a summer work program at McAlester Public Schools. They worked with Alexander to assist in cleaning out storage areas and he spoke of how much he appreciated their efforts. "They are a good group of kids,"said Alexander, who added they've provided lots of help. Plans include possibly holding a garage sale of some of the unneeded items in the storage area, with plans for the proceeds to be used to repair some windows in the building and perhaps for other purposes.
The museum operates as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization.
With hopes to begin tours again, the tours must be arranged in advance. "They have to call and set it up," Gaberino said. Anyone interested in arranging a tour can phone the McAlester Building Foundation's number at 918-423-2932. Someone is usually there on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Gaberino said. Many who've visited the museum come away saying they didn't know so many items were available for viewing in McAlester. "I have people tell me over and over, this is an awesome museum," said Gaberino.