The Colony Theater

There was a time that every small town across America had at least one theater. Whether they were known for movies or vaudeville they were centers of entertainment and culture.

So many have been lost to progress, neglect and apathy that it’s exciting to see one still operating. It’s equally sad to find the remains of a great old theater in a museum.

I paid my respects to the former Colony Theater at Highland House Museum in Hillsboro last weekend. The Colony was demolished in 2017. It opened in 1938 and was operated by the Chakeres chain for several years. It was owned by the city and then a nonprofit organization for some time but eventually fell prey to water damage and decay. It was deemed unsalvageable and torn down.

Highland House has a wonderful exhibit dedicated to this place. A mirror from the ladies room, small pieces of memorabilia, a stairwell railing, and a stunning piece of art called a bas relief are among the collection.

The bas relief will stop you in your tracks. This is a sculpture in low relief – so it has shallow depth but is three dimensional.

This one is a Renaissance Knight on a horse but the museum says that there were a total of eight sculptures that lined the theater walls and represented different places and ages including Egyptians, Native Americans, Vikings, Greeks and Romans. They were larger than life and skillfully created by Indianapolis artist Frank Boerder.

This type of art was commonly used in theaters of that era and they were typically uplit.

Whoever installed this piece at the museum did outstanding work and I found it most pleasing to the eye. Never fear – the other seven were salvaged and carefully stored.

Want to visit Highland House? You should! Click here to read about it and about the Hillsboro Marching Mothers exhibit.

Hillsboro Marching Mothers

About a year ago I stumbled into a story about the Hillsboro Marching Mothers that I struggled to believe happened here in Ohio.

This is what took me to Highland House in Hillsboro on Saturday. They have a nice exhibit about the topic in their Humanities Room. The centerpiece of this room is a short documentary that beautifully shows the human side of the events involving the Marching Mothers.

Here’s what happened.

In the mid-1950s many establishments in Hillsboro were segregated. For example, restaurants only allowed blacks to order takeout rather than sit at the counter or a table inside. While the high school was integrated, the elementary schools were not. In fact, black youngsters were forced to attend the Lincoln School, a building constructed not long after the Civil War.

The Lincoln School was subpar in every sense of the word. While it had been updated over the years to add indoor plumbing and electricity, the building was hazardous. They lacked basic tools like maps, globes and science equipment. The textbooks were outdated and many were missing pages. Multiple classes were taught in a single classroom.

These students didn’t stand a chance of learning as much as their white counterparts in the other two schools in town because they simply lacked the tools and resources to do so.

On May 17, 1954 (67 years ago this week), the US Supreme Court handed down their landmark ruling that established segregation in schools unconstitutional. Most school children learn about the case today and you may remember it as Brown versus the Board of Education.

This decision fell on deaf ears in many segregated school districts including this one. Instead, the school board flat out ignored the ruling.

That summer, Highland County Engineer Phillip Partridge took a remarkable, if not misguided step, to force the school board’s hand and to end segregation.

He set the Lincoln School on fire.

A few things happened as a result. First, Mr Partridge confessed to his crime as he feared the blame would fall on the folks of the black community. Second, he went to prison for his crime.

The school board’s answer was to fix up the building and send the children back to the 85 year old repaired school.

This set into motion a social movement the likes of which most American towns haven’t seen.

A group of mothers, disgusted by what they saw at their childrens’ school, said enough is enough. In 1954, they removed their children from the school and worked with Quaker teachers from nearby Wilmington College to offer their children a better education.

However, before engaging in school work every day, the mothers and about fifty children marched to the elementary school where they were turned away by the principal. Every. Day.

Over time, the NAACP got involved and a lawsuit was filed. The school board tried their hand at gerrymandering, redistricting in the most ludicrous way imaginable. A cross was burned in someone’s front yard. Some mothers had to drop out of the marches because their employers threatened their jobs.

And every day this group of determined mothers and their youngsters marched through the streets of town, likely terrified for their own safety.

The Hillsboro Board of Education finally relented, agreeing to integrate the elementary schools because the State Board of Education threatened to pull all their funding.

It just goes to show that many only do the right thing only when there’s money on the line. The fall of 1957 finally brought integration to these schools.

This sounds like stories I’ve heard out of the deep south. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that should happen in the north.

Yet, here we are telling this shameful chapter in our history. Honestly, I’m proud of the folks at the Historical Society for owning this story rather than try to sweep it under the rug. They handle it respectfully.

Talking about where we have come from can open a dialogue about where we are today and where we need to be. In these racially charged and tense times, these conversations can help us understand the complex system of racism in our country.

If you go, be sure to watch the film on this topic. It’s less than twenty minutes and it is powerful. The film interviews an elderly woman who was one of the Marching Mothers as well as her grown children who credit their mother’s bravery and persistence for helping them take their rightful place in local schools.

Cant make it to Highland House? They sell the dvd in their gift shop!!

Highland House Museum

The best adventure typically begins with a destination that sounds interesting and then involves finding other things to see and do in the area. That was certainly the case on Saturday when I located numerous things to see while en route to my my destination – Highland House in Hillsboro, Ohio. Read about some of it here.

If you’ve ever driven Route 50 through Hillsboro you’ve gone right past their front door. If you’re anything like me, you’ve wondered what it is but never actually stopped.

I stopped Saturday and am so glad I did. It’s a museum run by the Highland County Historical Society. It’s also home to some of the friendliest, most welcoming people you’ll ever hope to meet.

I had heard about an interesting exhibit at the museum but hadn’t made the connection in my mind to the neat old house I had seen on the corner. So it was great to find myself visiting this place I had wondered about for so long.

The building dates to the 1840s and is a lovely Federal Style home. Each room is dedicated to a different theme like military history, medicine or education. There’s a Victorian bedroom, a nursery and formal dining room among other nicely appointed spaces. There’s a hall of fame that tells stories about significant people from their past. Plus, you’ll find lots of artwork, and goodies galore everywhere you look.

In fact, they had some things I had never seen before and tell many stories that are rooted locally but that are part of a bigger story of our nation’s history.

For example, they have a telephone switchboard. I have never seen one in real life and was fascinated by the beauty of this technology.

Anyone else remember the old party line system? Those were the days! It made me want to ask Sara from Mayberry to get Andy on the phone.

There’s a gorgeous walnut desk that was hand carved by a local lady. Plus there are military uniforms, pictures and other items that drive home the humanity of war.

A handmade quilt embroidered with names also caught my eye as did a striking bas relief (pictured at top) and other items from the Colony Theater. Look for more on this another day.

Did you know that Highland County has produced three state governors? I had no idea that two Ohio governors came from here as did another who held office in Idaho.

Out of more than a dozen rooms to choose from, my favorite was the Humanities Room. Here, they tell stories about some important social movements. They have a map that depicts the Underground Railroad in the county. There’s a little on temperance and a lot about the desegregation of local schools in 1956.

This last piece was actually the point of going. I was shocked when I read a story about an Ohio school district still fighting tooth and nail in 1956 to keep their schools segregated. This story is too much to tell today so come back tomorrow and learn about this piece of Highland County’s history which led me to Highland House.

It’s both disturbing and inspiring and I found this museum treated the subject with great respect.

Another tidbit I didn’t expect to learn is that Casper, Wyoming was named for Hillsboro native Caspar Collins. He died a hero in 1865 while fighting Indians at the Battle of Platte Bridge. That’s near present day Casper.

At the time he died, Lieutenant Caspar Collins was a young man of 20 and far from home. I flew into his namesake city a few years ago and had the best diner milkshake of my life in that town. I had no idea there was a connection to my region. And yes, the city honors Caspar whose name has an ‘a’ but they screwed up the spelling and used an ‘e’ instead.

My self guided tour through this museum was great fun. I got the impression that for every item that captured my attention there were at least ten more I didn’t even notice.

Best of all, the ladies working that day were great fun to chat with and made me feel welcome. The self guided tour is free but they do request a donation and that you sign their guest book.

Every community needs a place like Highland House for the safekeeping of memories and relics. It’s not just a repository for stuff. It’s a keeper of stories – some big, others kind of small – but all meaningful in some way.

Come back tomorrow to read about the mothers who marched for integrated schools and to give their children a better life. There are a couple of other specific stories from here that I want to tell you in the coming days.

Meanwhile, learn more about Highland House, including their seasonal hours, at their website or search for the historical society on Facebook.