It all started with a dinner plate. And now, nearly eight decades later, Roland Harris’ collection of local historical memorabilia will be served up for public consumption, plate included, at a new museum Harris has established at The Highland Home.
“I always liked old things. I think I like them more now, since I’m an antique, too,” said Harris, a Highland resident, World War II veteran, and former undertaker who has also written more than 1,000 history columns for the Highland News Leader.
The beginning of Harris’ fondness for the past harkens back to when he was in seventh grade.
The 91-year-old still remembers the day he laid his eyes on a gold-trimmed dinner plate at a store in 1930s Alhambra, which is where he grew up.
“The stores in Alhambra would give away stuff for free at Christmas. When I went to the store, I found an old plate from 1909. It had gold trim around it,” Harris said. “I’d never seen that before. It was intriguing. Once I got that, I never stopped collecting.”
But for years, his collection was simply that — a collection. The trinkets, heirlooms, baubles, books were all tucked away. That all changed when he came back to Highland after World War II.
“I started to seriously search for and collect memorabilia in 1950, after working with Tibbetts & Co., a former funeral home in Highland,” he said. “I was their funeral director, and that’s when my collection got going.”
At the time, Highland High School’s trophy case was bursting, unable to contain the hardware from district championships the school continued to claim. They needed a new, bigger trophy case and to dispose of the old one. But instead of allowing it to be thrown out, Harris jumped in and bought it, placing it in the lounge at the funeral home.
“I put my own items inside, but when other people would see it, they wanted their stuff in there, too,” he said.
And the rest is history.
“Once I started collecting, I never stopped. I never purchased expensive items,” he said. “Well, except for this one book,” Harris said, referring to an 1882 history book of Madison County.
“My aunt had recently passed away, and they were auctioning off all of her stuff,” Harris recalled.
Among the items was the book. Harris wanted it. But so did another relative.
“That’s when the bidding war started,” Harris said.
Right out of the gate, Harris offered $100. Another family member raised the bid, which continued to grow larger by increments of $5, until Harris hit $185. He got it, despite the reluctance of his wife.
“I felt terrific when I got that book, and I still treasure it today,” he said.
Finding a home
As he gained more and more treasures, the available space in his basement became less and less. It was nearly bursting with time capsules, each with its own unique story and origin.
After retiring in 1990, Harris started to search for a place to put his collection on display for the town to see. At first, he wanted to put it in the old Schott Brewery building. But with no air-conditioning or heating, those plans fell through. Harris sat on his collection for years until he and his wife moved into The Highland Home, an assisted living community at the end of Walnut Street.
“Of my 120 boxes of memorabilia, I had 98 of them here. The rest were divided up among my family, most of which was our own personal items,” Harris said. “But one day I was called into the front office here. At the time, I figured I was going to have to sell the rest of the items.”
The president and vice president of The Highland Home had a proposition. They wanted Harris to turn the rarely-used, older part of the building into the museum he had always wanted.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was a dream come true,” Harris said. “We only had room for 44 boxes of items in the museum, though. But if someone in Highland ever gave something away, we probably have it.”
He has pens on display older than some of the streets in town, along with unique coffee mugs, decades-old pencils, and collages of advertising fliers, brochures, and business from the early 1900s, all of which will be featured in the museum.
“At first, my wife called my collection my ‘Highland junk.’ Now it’s my ‘Highland treasures’ ” Harris said. “She’s warmed up to it over the years. Now, she’s helping me put the museum together.”
Harris has also collected the history of many families in Highland. That genealogy will be on display as well.
The museum will span from 1804 up to the present day.
Opening planned soon
Harris is hoping to have the museum officially ready by the end of winter. He hopes to have an open house sometime in February, but since he’s virtually working alone, it’ll take every bit of the winter season to complete his enormous project.
“I had three different people come in and help me, but after helping me for one day, they never came back,” he said. “Two of my sons help me on occasion, too.”
The museum will host an open house, but an official date hasn’t been decided yet. But after that, it’ll be by appointment only.
The Highland Home will be having its first annual “Nativity Festival” on Sunday, Dec. 4 from 1 to 4 p.m. The home will have Nativity sets on display that day from residents, former residents and families. That day, there will also be a “sneak preview” of just one room of the new museum, as well as the south part of the first floor of the main “Art Hall” and some of the “North Farm Room.”
If you’d like to schedule an appointment to see the new museum, or if you have a piece of Highland history you think may fit in the museum, you can call Harris at 654-5005.