Shawnee County Historical Society                          

Board of Trustees Committee Reports

December 3, 2017


2017 Board of Trustees


George W. Bernheimer, President                                   Johnathan Hart                                        

Tom Ellis, President-Elect                                                 Tim Hrenchir

Shirley Driscoll, Secretary                                                  Michael Lennen                                

William Wagnon, Treasurer                                              James McHenry

Laura Bettis                                                                           Patricia Michaelis                                                     

Jon Boursaw                                                                         Chris Schultz

Chris Bowers                                                                         Bryan Taggart

Carol Christensen




Melinda Abitz, Museum Educator

The President's Message

2017 has been a good and productive year for the Society. We have positioned ourselves for further growth as an organization, and to become a part of the growth of the heritage community in Topeka and Shawnee County. I believe that “thanks” are in order, first to you the members for your involvement and support and secondly to the Trustees who served this past year.  Your Board of Trustees is a dedicated and hard-working group of people who believe in heritage preservation and education.  Summaries of their work are in the packet that you have in the form of the committee reports, and I urge you to read them.  Take them with you and share them with friends and family and if you would like additional copies, they are available.

In reading these reports, you may get the impression that these committees are independent operations pursuing their agendas.  I assure you that this isn’t the case.  There is a synergy at work here. 

Early in the year work began on a strategic plan for the SCHS that would look forward 3-5 years. “Thanks” are owed to Terry Manies of Ideal Strategies for a large part of this work.  Terry was contracted by us earlier in the year to help us in Fund Development by investigating and by making application to grant funding sources to support our work. Terry’s work for us is funded by a generous grant to us from Dr. Glenn Swogger and his Redbud Foundation.  Terry helped to put our ideas into a plan which was subsequently presented to and adopted by the Board of Trustees.  I want to share some of these plan elements with you and illustrate how we are already acting on them.

In the Education Committee report, Committee Chair Carol Christensen and our Museum Educator Melinda Abitz comment on a recommendation from the committee to the Board that we become involved in StEPS. StEPS is a program developed by the American Association for State and Local History, an organization that we have been a part of for several years.  Completion of the StEPS program became Goal 1, Objective 1 in our strategic plan.  In a few minutes, Pat Michaelis will go into more detail about the program and how it will help us improve as an organization.

Another objective of our plan is to improve upon existing education programs and to develop new ones.  Here again, what has been done to move us toward that goal is detailed in the Education Committee report, beginning with a review of our historic site and program by an outside consultant recommended to us by the Freedoms Frontier National Heritage Area which funded the study as a part of a grant. 

Make no mistake. We have a strong education program, including our “Underground Railroad Experience.” This program has earned a reputation among educators as one of quality and uniqueness. Over the last few years, it has attracted schools not only from Shawnee County but other parts of the state such as Winfield, Fort Scott, and Salina.  This year, for the third consecutive year, a group of 30 5th graders from Omaha, Nebraska came in June to visit our site and experience the program. 


We survey every school group that comes to our site to look for areas in which we can improve our program and further provide support to teachers in their classrooms.  The last school to come was Auburn-Washburn Middle School bringing 120 students on November 20th.  In answer to the survey question “What can we do to improve our program?” A teacher responding said,

             “I hope at some point we could view more of the actual Ritchie house.” 

This response and similar responses are common in our surveys. That brings me to another element of our strategic plan which is to move forward with restoration of the interior of the Ritchie House including needed repair for preservation, and expansion of the areas for public access and interpretive use.   We use the Ritchie House as an active part of our education program, but because of access and safety concerns, we are limited to use of the first floor only. 

In the Property Committee report by Chair Jon Boursaw, Jon comments on the first step taken by receiving bids for a Historic Structure Report for the Ritchie House.  We intend to pursue grant funding for the restoration/interpretation project and to be successful we need to follow specific steps and procedures.  Having an HSR completed is the first step.  Restorative and interpretive work will need to be done in accordance with guidelines established by the National Park Service. The NPS is considered to be the authority in this kind of work, so much so that substantial grant funding sources will not consider a grant request unless verification of compliance with these guidelines is made.  Compliance is necessary if funding involves any Federal funds or credits.  As Jon reported, we have applied for a Heritage Trust Fund Grant to pay for the HSR and a decision on our application is expected in February.

Another goal in our Strategic Plan has to do with membership growth.  Some of the work that is underway is alluded to in Mike Lennen’s Membership Committee report. We are looking to ways to add value to your membership, make it more convenient for you to stay a member, and to create a more use- friendly system for becoming a part of the Society.  An example of added value for you is our new membership in Time Travelers.  Time Travelers is a network of cooperating museums and historic sites nationwide that offer admission discounts, gift shop discounts and other benefits to members of participating organizations. Mike is going to speak to other changes that we think will benefit us as a part of his by-laws change presentation shortly.

These examples are but a few of the elements included in our Strategic Plan and the work underway.

Also, this year we again recognized some of our fellow Shawnee Countians’ preservation efforts through our annual preservation awards, supported youth involvement in history education by supporting Kansas State History Day and involving Kansas Day participants in our programming.  Some of this work is outlined in Bryan Taggart’s Program Committee report.

Other things that we have done to support our community and to raise our profile have been to establish a Society Speakers Bureau.  The Bureau is a group of SCHS member volunteers who have put together short programs that are available without charge on topics concerning Shawnee County and Kansas history.  You can find information about the Speakers Bureau on our website, so if you are in need of a program for your civic club, church, or other organization, take a look at the possibilities.

Through the year have been the recipients of what I believe is exceptionally good press through The Topeka Capital-Journal about our organization and work.  For example, our John Ritchie Birthday event held last July received notice in the newspaper and on local television before the event and after.  The event was one of the best community participation events that we have had in several years.

A personal goal of mine has been to increase our community participation by different audiences in our community and in particular the African-American community. In our SCHS Bulletin #98, titled JOHN RITCHIE: Portrait of An Uncommon Man there is a reminiscence from Mrs. Margaret Wright which reads, The African-Americans of Topeka have not forgotten John Ritchie. Margaret Wright Maxwell, wife of the late Washburn political science professor, Betram W. Maxwell, recalls an incident of 1939.


“When we came back from a year in Europe, Mac made many speeches and a few groups asked me to speak too. One was a black church in the College Hill section. Before I

began to speak about the European situation, I said, in a sentence or two, that I was the great- granddaughter of Colonel John Ritchie, who was known as an ardent abolitionist. To my amazement, after my talk, at least a half dozen people came up to tell me they knew about my grandfather, that in fact their families were still living in the houses built on land he had given them.”

It would appear that John and Mary Ritchie and this house have been largely forgotten in the African-American community.  Save those that come with school groups; we have very few visitors or members of the African-American community.  It was for this reason that when the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita began work on the formation of the Kansas African American History Trail, I wanted us to be a part of it.

The house is more than a house built early on by two white settlers from Indiana. It is more than “Underground Railroad” site.  It is a memory place symbolizing aspirations for freedom. It symbolizes cooperation. It symbolizes the ideal of people of different races living in common community.  It symbolizes progress in our country, as slow and painful as that has sometimes been.  After our dedication ceremony on October 29, we again received some very favorable press in the Capital-Journal including an editorial on the importance of the Ritchie’s and this site.

So, again I say, we have in my opinion accomplished much.  We still have challenges, but that is good.  As I said in my first President’s Message that was published in Historical Highlights last January, challenges create excitement. We are here to serve, to make lives better by telling the story of people who made a difference in the lives of others.  The stories of how they met their challenges. Moreover, I say again; embrace the challenge!

George W. Bernheimer, President


Treasurer’s Report – Dr. William Wagnon, Treasurer

The income for the Society for 2017 was $42,620 with expenses of $39,500.

The society received contributions from the Sunflower Foundation, $15,000, and the Westar Energy Foundation, $5000. Membership and Sustainer donations were $10,836, and memorial gifts were $640. Reported gains from the account lodged with the Topeka Community Foundation were $9,260. Incidentals make up the balance.

Expenses principally included education programming, grant writing, property utilities and maintenance, and newsletters printing and distribution.


Respectfully submitted,

Bill Wagnon, Treasurer

Fund Development – Mr. Tom Ellis, Chair

2016 fundraising success targeted specifically for building capacity in our fundraising efforts allowed the SCHS to employ Ms. Terry Maines and her company, Ideal Strategies, to assist us with fundraising efforts. During this year we have developed and submitted grant requests to 9 charitable foundations totaling $97,000. We have received a $5,000 grant from the Westar Foundation, a few others have been declined and several remain pending the decision of individual foundation boards.


Next year we will work to increase personal donations from individuals in addition to continued efforts on foundation grants.

Respectfully submitted,

Tom Ellis, Fund Development Committee Chair

Property & Facility – Mr. Jon Boursaw, Chair

In early June bids were sought on trimming back and thinning out the huge Elm tree immediately behind the Cox Communications Heritage Education Center.  The work was needed to lengthen the expected life of the tree which is estimated to be well over 100 years old.  Three bids were received and Custom Tree Service of Topeka was the low bidder.  Their bid was approved by the SCHS Board and Custom Tree performed the work shortly thereafter.

Also in June the decision was reached that in order preserve the historic aspects of the Ritchie House a considerable amount of work is needed to be done on the interior of the structure.  The goal of this project is two fold: (1) Preserve the interior structure of the facility and return it to its original décor as much as possible, and (2) Improvements to the interior would improve the long term use of the house for tours and interpretations.  The first step in this process is to have a Historic Structure Report (HSR) performed. Upon its completion the HSR will provide the Board a full description of all necessary interior and exterior assessments and needs, allowing the Board to prioritize future preservation and restoration activities.  Solicitations for bids were sent out to 29 firms located in the surrounding area with a submission date of no later than August 1, 2017.  The low bidder was Hernly Associates of Lawrence, KS.  The SCHS has recently submitted a grant request to the Kansas State Historical Society Heritage Trust Fund which, if approved, would fund 80% of the HSR cost.

On Thursday, July 13th, three days before the celebration of the John Ritchie’s 200th birthday, in conjunction with the SCHS Annual Ice Cream Social, the local area experienced a very serve thunderstorm with exceptionally high winds.  These winds cause considerable damage to several of the trees on the SCHS property.  A group of Board members gathered at the Ritchie House on the following Saturday to clear the downed limbs and other debris prior to the event the next day.  Following the event another solicitation was requested for more tree trimming.  This time the low bidder was Heartland Tree Service of Topeka.  This bid was approved by the Board and the work was satisfactorily performed.

Respectfully submitted,

Jon Boursaw, Property & Facility Committee Chair

Communications – Mr. Johnathan Hart, Chair

The Communications Committee coordinates the publication of the Historical Highlights newsletter, maintains the SCHS Facebook page (https://www.fa//m/ShawneeCountyHistoricalSociety/), the Society website (, and publishes the SCHS News to Use email newsletter.

Historical Highlights is published 3-4 times a year and has been edited by Mr. Johnathan Hart.  Mr. Hart will be stepping down as the Editor effective December 3, 2017.  This year an editorial committee made up of Mr. Hart, Dr. William Wagnon, Mr. Tom Ellis, and Mr. George Bernheimer reviewed the newsletter to improve content, format, and to return the newsletter to its original intent as a vehicle for historical interest articles when the publication of the SCHS Bulletin ended in 2011. The result has been more space devoted to historical interest articles and an elimination of information that is available in the three other sources.


Mr. Hart and Mr. Bernheimer have maintained the Facebook page and the website.  The Facebook page and the website also have undergone some reorganization for a cleaner look and to make website information easier to find.  A revision and updating of the Archives section will continue into 2018. Other information such as items and notifications in the Events section is revised monthly.  An addition to the website this year is a Video section which will be expanded as material becomes available. Our Facebook postings are frequently posted, with permission, on the Topeka History Geeks Facebook page resulting in an electronic reach exceeding 19,000 households for the SCHS.

Mr. Bernheimer writes and publishes the SCHS News to Use email newsletter twice a month to keep members and interested parties informed of meetings, events, and other SCHS activities. If you are not receiving the email newsletter, please let us know your current email address for addition or correction.

Respectfully submitted,

George Bernheimer, Committee Member

Program Committee – Mr. Bryan Taggart, Chair

Sunday May 7th, the SCHS Preservation Awards were held at NOTO Arts Center 935 N. Kansas Ave, in Topeka.  A Historic Preservation Award committee made up of Mr. George Bernheimer, Chair, Mr. David Heinemann, Mr. Tim Paris, Mr. Grant Sourk, Mrs. Renee Stevens, and Mr. Bryan Taggart selected seven properties to receive preservation awards.  Society member and previous board president Mr. David Heinemann served as Master of Ceremonies.  In addition to accepting a preservation award for the NOTO Arts Center, Ms. Ingrid Pearson, the Executive Director of the NOTO Art District provided attendees a brief summary of on-going activity of the District.  Attendees also enjoyed a presentation by Miss Kim Vu, 1st place winner of the District 3 Kansas History Day Competition in the Senior Individual Documentary category.

Sunday July 16th, the Society hosted John Ritchie’s 200th Birthday Anniversary Celebration and Ice Cream Social.  Thanks to some tremendous volunteer efforts by many SCHS members, the event was counted as a huge success!  Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast issued a proclamation to commemorate the date and attended the event along with approximately 200 other Shawnee County residents.  Attendees were treated to performances by The Westar Bluegrass Band and Santa Fe Band.  Society member Mr. Johnathan Hart demonstrated candle making, Kaw Valley Carvers and Friends of Historic Topeka Cemetery group were on hand.  Historical interpreters Mr. George Bernheimer and Mrs. Diane Bernheimer portrayed John and Mary Ritchie, Mr. Tim Rues portrayed Jim Lane, and Mr. Kerry Altenbernd portrayed John Brown engaging with the event attendees.  Tours of the Ritchie house were provided and young and old alike enjoyed G’s Frozen Custard on a hot summer afternoon.  The bandstand and bathroom facilities provided by Shawnee County Parks & Rec were greatly appreciated!  The event also had great community support prior to and after the event from The Topeka Capital-Journal and Mr. Ralph Hipp of WIBW 13 and WIBW News.

Sunday October 29th, the Ritchie House was dedicated as a Kansas African American History Trail site.  Board President Mr. George Bernheimer opened with remarks about the significant role that the Ritchie’s and the Ritchie House played in the struggle for freedom, then introduced Ms. Jo Bogan.  Ms. Bogan, Trail Coordinator for the Kansas African American History Museum traveled from Wichita with her family to be present and recognized the Shawnee County Historical Society/Historic Ritchie House as the first site to formally commemorate the Trail opening.  Attendees were then treated to two traditional gospel songs delightfully performed by the Topeka Community Mass Choir, were invited to tour the Ritchie House, and enjoyed refreshments in the Cox Communications Heritage Education Center.

Respectfully submitted,

Bryan Taggart, Program Committee Chair

Education Committee – Mrs. Carol Christensen, Chair, Mrs. Melinda Abitz, Museum Educator

1. Visitor attendance at the Ritchie House (as of November 20, 2017) was:

Total attendance: 1591

Students and adults on school field trips: 1030

Walk-ins and site visitors at special events: 561


2. The Society received an interpretive grant of $3,562.64 from Freedom's Frontier

National Heritage Area to acquire and implement recommendations for improvement

in the interpretation of the Ritchie site and grounds, landscaping, and improvements

in the education program.. As part of the grant,

--Mr. Tim Talbott, site manager of the Mahaffie Stage Coach and Stop in Kansas City,

and his program director, Ms. Katie Lange, reviewed the Ritchie House site, grounds, and

interpretive programs on January 23. The trustees reviewed the final report, which was

received on February 3.

--Mrs. Melinda Abitz, the Museum Educator, is creating a new program on "Coming to

Kansas Territory: Building a New Life on the Prairie" for third- through fifth-graders and

has been working on revising two existing programs: "The Underground Railroad in

Kansas Territory" and on "Immigration in Kansas." The new and revised programs will

include new materials, power-points, hands-on experiences for the students, and

pre-visits to classrooms to enhance student learning at the site. Partnerships have also

been formed with teachers at Highland Park Central Elementary to help enhance history


--Grounds improvements were recently made on the north lawn of the Ritchie

House. Trees were trimmed, and the picnic tables and campfire ring were arranged to make

a creative use of the site's spaces.

--Plans are underway to improve the school field trip experience by creating a

cave-like area in the basement of the Cox Communications building.


3. The Society received other funds specifically for educational programs:

--$2000 grant from the Westar Energy Foundation

--Donations from the annual Ice Cream Social, which was combined this year with

the celebration of the 200th birthday of John Ritchie


4. The Committee recommended that the Trustees begin the Standards and Excellence

Program for History Organizations (StEPs), the American Association for State and

Local History's self-study assessment program designed specifically for small- to

mid-sized organizations. The Trustees voted to use the program and began the

self-assessment in 2017.


5. Committee members set up display tables and activities at three Topeka events

during the year:


--Kansas Day Celebration at the Kansas State Historical Society Museum on

January 27 (Education Committee members Mr. George Bernheimer and Mrs. Melinda Abitz

interacted with more than 1000 children from all over the state at their display table,

which featured hands-on activities related to Victory Highway markers.)


--Rotary Freedom Festival for the general public in downtown Topeka on July 1

(Education Committee members Mrs. Melinda Abitz and Mr. George Bernheimer, and volunteer Mrs. Diane Bernheimer staffed the booth.)


--Teacher Appreciation Night at the Topeka Zoo on August 10 (Education

Committee members Mr. George Bernheimer and Mrs. Melinda Abitz interacted with teachers at this annual event, which is designed, in part, to give educators ideas for field trips.)


6. Committee members Mrs. Melinda Abitz and Dr. William Wagnon attended on October 5 the

"Reinventing the Historic House Museum" workshop in Kansas City, Missouri.

Sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History, the workshop gave

them helpful information that could be applied to the Ritchie House.


7. With the goal of having the Ritchie House open on some weekends, beginning in

2018, the Committee began work on a plan to recruit and train volunteers to serve as

tour guides on Saturdays.


Respectfully submitted,

Carol Christensen, Education Committee Chair

Other Committee members:

Melinda Abitz

George Bernheimer

William Wagnon


Membership Committee – Mr. Michael Lennen, Chair


Membership committee members for 2017 were Dr. William Wagnon, Dr. James McHenry, and Mrs. Laura Bettis.  In addition to sending renewal requests to current SCHS members, the committee sent post cards (with personal messages) to 2015-2016 members who had not renewed by mid-February 2017. Follow-up emails and some phone calls (made by most Board members) were also directed to those who had not renewed by March-April.  Additionally, SCHS Board members were provided draft letters to send to friends or acquaintances who might be potentially interested in SCHS membership and were also encouraged to provide introductory memberships to two individuals. Complimentary memberships were provided to 6 individuals through the Topeka History Geeks website and to 5 individuals at the John Ritchie 200th Birthday Celebration in July.


The Membership Committee also engaged in extensive discussions as to whether a 12-month membership based on the date an individual joined the SCHS, rather than the current calendar-year membership approach, should be implemented.  As a result of those discussions, the Committee concluded that the 12-month approach would be desirable and presented by-laws amendments to the SCHS Board that would be necessary to permit the change.  At its October Board meeting, the Board approved the submission of the amendments for vote at the Annual Meeting.  In conjunction with the proposed change to a 12-month membership period, the Committee has also explored the merits of obtaining an outside vendor to manage membership data and communications. No decision has yet been made as to when or to whom such a transition might occur. 

Membership Committee efforts were complemented by the Board’s establishment of a SCHS speakers’ bureau and efforts to ensure that membership materials were available at events where the SCHS was represented.  Current SCHS membership is 179.

Respectfully submitted,

Michael Lennen, Membership Committee Chair


StEPS Project – Ms. Patricia Michelis, Chair

The Board of Trustees of the Shawnee County Historical Society voted to participate in StEPS, a standards and excellence program was developed by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) to assist small historical organizations and museums in meeting relevant national standards and to create policies and procedures designed to accomplish those standards.  The Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area in Kansas and Missouri encouraged its members to participate in this self-assessment program and provided grants to cover the AASLH enrollment fee. The program is divided into six areas of emphasis:

  1. Mission, Vision, and Governance

  2. Audience

  3. Management and Stewardship of Historic Structures and Landscapes (tied in board ranking)

  4. Interpretation

  5. Stewardship of Collections


The Board is working on the Society’s mission and vision with the assistance of Ms. Julie McPike, a facilitator provided by Freedom’s Frontier.  The Board has assessed the elements of the Mission, Vision, and Governance section using the rating system of basic, good, better, and not even basic.  The board will now make assignments to undertake activities related to those elements that were rated basic or below.  The Board plans to complete the Mission, Vision, and Governance area by early spring.  The entire Board is working on this as the mission and vision are critical to any future efforts.  The other areas of emphasis included in StEPS will use a subset of Board members lead by the appropriate committee chair and from SCHS members. 

Respectfully submitted,

Patricia Michaelis, StEPS Program Project Chair