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Museum cleans up after cleaning up

By TIM UNRUH

Special to the HDN

COLBY -- A bit of housecleaning netted the Prairie Museum of Art and History some cash Wednesday morning and gave historians there another reason to appreciate Thomas County's pioneers.

While cataloging boxes of donated memorabilia, registrar Chris Griffin found a cash donation from 1970.

In an envelope from the Ronald Thiel estate, Griffin retrieved $200 in crisp $20 bills.

"It seemed like they were straight from the bank," said Christina Beringer, marketing manager at the museum. "It was like Christmas."

The money is going back to a bank to be deposited in the museum's account.

Dated in the 1960s, some of the bills were held in a bunch by a paper clip that had rusted and left an imprint.

"We were awfully surprised," Beringer said.

The discovery came from one of 20 boxes donated by the family of Verney Kear. A few donation checks were pulled from other boxes that were given to the Sons and Daughters of the Soddies, an organization that Kear founded in 1955.

The checks have been shredded, Beringer said.

Kear also organized and helped establish Sod Town, 2 miles east of Colby on U.S. Highway 24, in 1958.

"He built the first sod home there," Beringer said.

Sod Town no longer exists, but a sod house built in 1984 is displayed on the museum grounds.

Kear had encouraged the "Soddies" -- those who had been born in, lived in or attended school in a sod building -- to send in letters and memorabilia to document their experiences. More than 25,000 people joined the organization by 1971. In return, Kear sent each a certificate for participating.

Griffin and others have been cataloging and digitizing the letters, photos and other artifacts contained in the boxes since they were received. Eight of the boxes remain to be opened.

The activity is "always exciting" to the history-minded staff, Beringer said, but the discovery of the donation did add some energy to the process.

"We're a bunch of historians. We live to go through archives," she said.

"It's amazing the things you come across when you go through boxes that have been sitting around for 20 or 30 years."

The discovery is timely, as well. Born in 1897, Kear photographed local businesspeople in Colby in 1937 as part of Farmers and Merchants Bank's 50th anniversary. Those photos are part of the "Way We Worked" exhibit at the museum, which includes photos of current businesspeople in the Thomas County seat.

Kear is connected to the Thiels. He worked on Henry Thiel's farm in Thomas County from 1923 until his death in 1975. Henry is a grandfather to Robert Thiel, whose estate made the $200 donation.

"It's a full circle," Beringer said.