Flashback Friday: Frontier Acres Museum and a Historian 4-Her
Hannah Spiehs is an award-winning historian, animated storyteller, and a dedicated researcher of Nebraska history. She’s also an 11-year-old sixth grader at Aurora Middle School in Hamilton County. Hannah was the recipient of a Nebraska State Historical Society Certificate of Achievement at the 2016 Nebraska State Fair. Her project, called Frontier Acres Museum, 1969-1989, is a photo display of postcards from the Frontier Acres Museum near Spencer, Nebraska, in Boyd County. Hannah’s interest in the project sprung from her hobby of collecting postcards. “My grandma said she had some postcards from our family’s museum for me, and I was like, ‘What museum?’” Hannah said. Hannah’s great-grandparents, Arthur and Mary Boettcher, collected pioneer-era machinery, clothes, and household items and displayed them in over twenty buildings across five acres north of Spencer. The museum was available to the public for a small fee and was open May to October. The museum included pioneer houses, a train depot and caboose, a church, a one-room school house, a blacksmith shop, and an old-time photo shop, a general store, a log cabin, a sod house. Art also built a two-roomed treehouse specifically for children to play in. Mindy Spiehs, Hannah’s mom, has many memories of Frontier Acres. She was one of twenty-one cousins and all but three lived in Spencer. The museum was their playground, and it had so many buildings that they could all pick one as their “own.” “My grandparents really enjoyed children,” Mindy said, “And they wanted to preserve the pioneer way of life for them.” “Because everything was changing from the way it used to be,” Hannah said. Along with the buildings, the museum had a wide array of antique farm machinery and several dozen classic cars. “Art fired up the steam engine every Sunday and blew the whistle,” Mindy said. She added that he was always encouraging children to get their hands on the artifacts. “Grandpa let you wander around and look and if you picked up a bowl or something, he was like, ‘Play with it. Pretend you’re eating supper like a pioneer,’” Mindy said. He passed this attitude down to his daughter and Hannah’s maternal grandmother, Carolyn Conroy. “Grandma has the idea that you can have all these cool things, and they don’t do any good and aren’t any fun if they are sitting in a box,” Hannah said.
After Art and Mary passed away, the museum’s collections were sold off and many of the buildings were scattered throughout Nebraska and South Dakota. But Carolyn has gathered a few of the buildings, including the schoolhouse and two of the pioneer houses, for her grandchildren to enjoy. They even decorate one of the houses for Christmas and spend time popping popcorn and reading “A Night Before Christmas” before the fire – the only source of heat because the house doesn’t have electricity. “It’s always really dark in there so grandma always lights the old-fashioned oil lamps,” Hannah said. Hannah, her brother, and her cousins play in the house frequently in the summer. “And it’s pretty hot in summer. But worse is the grasshoppers,” Hannah said. “Grandma’s school is always fun because Grandma is always the teacher. You learn your ABCs in a fun way.” “A whole other generation plays in her houses,” Mindy said. “We’re not sure who has more fun – Grandma or her grandkids.” Gary and Carolyn Conroy live north of Spencer (on the farm where Art and Mary once lived) and love to show their houses to anyone who wants to stop and visit (and play). Hannah enjoys playing with all of the antiques that fill the houses. “There’s a box and you crank the handle and then put it up to your ear, and you have to spin the spinny thing,” Hannah said. “It’s a rotary phone,” Mindy explained. Hannah says the experience has given her a different perspective than many of her friends and classmates at school. “Some of my friends say, ‘I can’t live without my iPod or my Xbox,’ and I’m like, ‘Technically, you could,’” Hannah said. “Your friends haven’t got to experience hands-on history,” Mindy said. “Those kinds of things make history come alive to kids.” Hannah said when she grows up she would like to be an inventor, actress, architect, and owner of a diner, candy and jokes shop. She is in Future Problem Solvers (FPS), is a brown belt in taekwondo, and has been running in one mile and 5K races with her mom this past year. This was Hannah’s third heritage project and the third to earn a purple at the Nebraska State Fair. Her best advice for other 4-Hers who want to try out heritage projects is that you get out what you put in. “If you really don’t like it or don’t put in any effort, you’ll just get a red or a white,” Hannah said. “If you don’t put any effort in it, you won’t get results.” Hannah said she thinks of her best ideas “when my left eye is closed and I’m staring at my closet.” She enjoyed adding to her family’s already impressive appreciation of history. “We found out things we had forgotten,” Hannah said. “If you explore your family history, there’s going to be something strange and unusual.”