STF Museum opens with ribbon cutting celebration

Thursday, October 12, 2006
Mayor Marion Bearden (center) cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tryonza last Friday. (Tribune photo / Samantha Martin)

"Cotton is part of our history. It's part of a story that needs to be told," said Marion Bearden, mayor of Tyronza. "This museum can be used as a tool to reach out to visitors and youth so that the story is told and never forgotten."

Bearden's comments came as part of the ribbon cutting and grand opening ceremony of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum (STFM) in Tyronza. The ceremony was held on the museum's grounds last Friday afternoon.

The white ribbon was stretched between two decorated hoes and cut in front of the beautiful cotton mural painted on the side of the building.

The museum features historic photos, artifacts related to tenant farming, oral history excerpts, 1930's news reel footage and interactive exhibits featuring STFU songs, poems and interviews with former union leaders.

Besides Bearden, other key speakers included Arkansas State University president Les Wyatt, Congressman Marion Berry, State Representative Wayne Nichols, State Lands Commissioner Mark Wilcox and Ruth Hawkins of the ASU Heritage Studies Program. Other ASU representatives also spoke during the ceremonies.

The grand opening celebrated years of hard work and sweat that were poured into the project which was described by all as a labor of love. Plans to establish the museum began in 2002 when the historic Mitchell-East Building was donated to ASU by the City of Tyronza. During the 1930's the building housed the dry cleaning business of H.L. Mitchell and the service station of Clay East, two of the organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in 1934. The building served as the unofficial headquarters of the union until its offices were moved to Memphis.

"I grew up in a little town just like Tryonza," said Congressman Berry. "The idea, spark and energy to make America a better place to live, work and raise a family came from places just like this. Much of it came from here."

Berry commended the town for its efforts to preserve history in such a lasting and fitting way.

"The farmer's union gave hope at a time when there wasn't much hope," he said. "In the pictures in there you see the lack of hope in people's faces. You could see the desperation."

Berry said the union gave people that hope they so desperately needed.

"It's the power of the human spirit that makes these things happen," Berry said. "This is a fitting tribute to that."

The museum building was renovated using grants from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council (ANCRC) and a "We the People" challenge grant through the National Endowment for the Humanities. ASU also acquired the adjacent historic Tyronza Bank building through ANCRC funds.

Facades of the bank and the Mitchell-East Building have been restored to their 1930's appearance, while the bank interior has been modified to include a reception area, gift shop, office and classroom.

Hawkins thanked the town and all who were involved for their hard work on the project.

"This all began with the dream of people in Tyronza who wanted to save this building," Hawkins said. "It couldn't have been done without them."

Hawkins recognized several local citizens for their dedication to the project including John Wayne Austin who is accredited with first bringing the idea to the table, Thelma Jett, Barbara Ross, Drexel Gill and Bearden. Hawkins presented those recognized with a plaque that thanked them for their exemplary leadership in saving the Mitchell-East building for present and future generations.

"This museum creates a rich, textured glimpse of what life in Arkansas has been," said Les Wyatt, ASU president. "Places [like this] stand testimony to the people who make them significant."

The museum, which is located on Main Street, is open 9 a.m. -- 2 p.m., Monday through Friday and by appointments on Saturday. Special programs can be arranged for school tours. For more information call 870-972-2803.

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