McAlester Museum keeping the city's history alive

·4 min read

Jul. 22—It's on the verge of becoming similar to a little-known secret, but those still working to upgrade the McAlester Museum are hoping that will soon change.

Spread over several rooms in the old McAlester High School building which houses the school's administrative offices, its official name is the McAlester Building Foundation Inc. Museum — although many of those familiar with it simply call it the McAlester Museum.

Tours were available by appointment only before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a temporary end to even that limited activity.

"We weren't allowed in this building for about a year," said McAlester resident Mary Ann Gaberino, who has long been involved in the museum.

Now, with the easing of restrictions, those involved with the museum are using the down time to clean out some related storage areas in the back part of the building.

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," she said, noting the previous contributions of JoAnn Shaw and others. Shaw's husband, the late Ernie Shaw, also worked to benefit the museum.

These days Gaberino pretty much runs the operations herself with the assistance of Jesse Alexander, who works for her.

It covers a wide area, ranging from the first floor to the third floor of the building.

"We have 12 rooms," Gaberino said of the museum, which is operated as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization. Some rooms combine items from different eras, such as a room that covers the 1900s through the 1950s and another with items from the 1950s through the 1990s, she said.

Other rooms dedicated to specific subjects include the Military Room, the Coal Mining room and the Hall of Fame Room, which includes materials related to former U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert and former Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh. Both attended McAlester High School and Nigh even returned there as a teacher, from where he launched his political career.

One of Gaberino's favorites is the Dinosaur Room, which contains a cast taken from the skull of an Acrocanthasaurus found in McCurtain County in 1983. A photo of Cephas Hall, one of the men who discovered the skeleton is also on display with the cast, affectionately called "Big Ak."

The museum's Art Room 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, which included a flight over McAlester.

Another prized object is a stained glass picture removed from the Busby Theatre before its demolition.

One of the most popular rooms is 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.

In addition to Gaberino and Alexander, assistance in cleaning out storage areas has come from a group of youth employed through a summer work program at McAlester Public Schools.

"They are a good group of kids," said Alexander, who added they've provided lots of help.

Any tours must be arranged in advance.

"They have to call and set it up," Gaberino said. Anyone interested can phone the McAlester Building Foundation's number at 918-423-2932.

Typically, someone is there on Tuesdays and Thursday's, although Alexander is expected to be involved with the storage-clearing project for a few more weeks.

Anyone interested in volunteering to help at the museum can also call the MFB number.

The hope is to have 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.

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.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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