By John Hamilton
WILMINGTON – At the corner of North Lincoln and East Locust streets you’ll find a white stucco building that transports you back to a time long ago.
Rombach Place, as the residence is known, is owned and operated by the Clinton County Historical Society and home to both the museum and genealogical research library.
Purchased in 1955 for an estimated $30,000 from David and Elizabeth Williams, the home has stood for many years as a beacon to the past.
Originally organized by a small group of forward-thinking community members in 1948, the Clinton County Historical Society’s mission has always been the preservation and sharing of the county’s local history. Rebranding in the mid-2000s, the organization adopted the name Clinton County History Center to better represent the two organizations under its roof.
The Society’s current Executive Director, Shelby Boatman, has a long history here herself. Growing up in Wilmington, she later interned at the Historical Society while home from college during summer breaks.
“I originally applied for the open director position in 2019 to gain interview experience,” she said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think the board would hire someone halfway through grad school.”
Boatman was completing her master’s degree in public history when she submitted her resume.
After overseeing the organization for two-and-a-half years, Boatman has truly come to understand the value of community and local history.
“I always thought I’d end up in a big city, but since working at the History Center I’ve learned how important a small-town museum can be,” she said. “What sets us apart are the items on display throughout our museum. There are pieces that you and I get to call our own – we personally know who once wore or owned the items.”
In her opinion, small-town museums and historical societies often struggle with staying relevant or reaching younger audiences, but the Clinton County History Center has attempted to turn that idea on its head under her direction.
The Center hosted a variety of living history events, monthly lecture programs and more prior to COVID-19.
“When COVID hit us, we definitely had to rethink our approach and reach,” Boatman said. “We went digital — developed a YouTube page and took time to improve our website, membership newsletter, and exhibits.”
A senior intern from Wilmington College worked with the organization to develop a brand new Native American heritage exhibit which features stories and objects pre-dating the founding of Clinton County in 1810.
A large woolly mammoth tusk is proudly displayed in the exhibit alongside arrowheads, projectile points, and prehistoric tools all unearthed on farms locally.
“While we were closed during the pandemic, we repainted two rooms, really took time to think about exhibit layouts and see how we could improve our impact in the community,” she said.
Boatman enjoys helping a wide array of people make a personal connection with history.
“We have a huge collection of vintage clothing that was once worn by Clinton Countians, historical photographs of downtown, General Denver’s Civil War uniform and so much more,” she said. “Most visitors walk away saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe how much stuff you actually have and how informative the place is’.”
Boatman emphasizes how “the Center is a place where multi-generational connections can be made.”
“A good example is our Battle of Chickamauga (Tennessee) Civil War cannonball tree trunk,” she said. “It’s full of artillery projectiles. I’ve had people come in who visited 50 years ago, now coming with their grandkids and saying, ‘Oh I remember this tree trunk’.”
The Center also features a genealogy library, where people can conduct ancestry or property research.
“Some of my favorite things since I’ve been here is watching visitors solve a long-standing family mystery with the help of our volunteers. We can absolutely help them do that,” she said.
“It’s not always fun living through a historical moment,” Boatman said. “It’s been very mentally challenging processing events like COVID-19. We’ve tried to create a historical file here because we luckily had a 1918 flu pandemic file.”
She put together a story for the Wilmington News Journal earlier this year to ease people’s fears and show how our ancestors have experienced similar events.
“Documenting history in real-time can be really hard,” she said. “Cutting out newspaper clippings that are announcing how many Clinton Countians are sick or passed away has taken a significant toll on us.” She hopes that documenting these events and keeping them in the Center will show future generations what happened during this time.
As a 501(c)3 non-profit, the Clinton County History Center does not receive support from taxpayers or other government entities.
“Annual memberships, donations, bequeaths or ticketed events and gift shop sales are how we keep going,” she said. “It’s important now more than ever to support the History Center and small-town museums like us. We simply cannot keep going without the support of our community, members, and volunteers.
“Someone needs to be here in 50-100 years promoting and preserving the history we are living through today. I want to ensure that someone is the Clinton County History Center,” she added.
To learn more about the Clinton County History Center, please visit their website at www.ClintonCountyHistory.org or find them on social media @ClintonCountyHistory.
Due to COVID-19 impacts, the Center is currently open Fridays 1-4 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Check their website for up-to-date information.