In the hours after Hurricane Sally scraped across the coast last month, the windmill outside the Baldwin County Heritage Museum turned slowly in the breeze. It screeched and strained making an awful, howling racket until one of the damaged paddles finally let loose and tumbled to the ground.
Behind it, the 39-year-old building dedicated to all things Baldwin County stood tall, if battered. Dozens of pine trees were toppled around it. Some landed on the museum’s 112-year-old church causing rain to drizzle inside and cover the altar and discolor the floor. There is a 1-inch gap now between the window casing and the glass, evidence that the building may have shifted in the onslaught of winds.
Braces placed inside the church’s foyer after Hurricane Ivan, were left in place. Tammy Kinney, the museum’s executive director, wonders half-jokingly if they are what are holding the church upright today.
“These are historical buildings so contractors are scared to touch them,” she said, pointing to the original pine framework of the structure’s roof. “And that makes the cost of repairs go up.”
While spinning itself into Baldwin County lore, Hurricane Sally battered and beat the place that would eventually tell her story.
Now, officials are left with a mess – a museum that was facing mounting repair bills long before Sally struck. The storm’s destruction served to push much of that work from needed to urgent.
“There’s never a dull moment, that’s for sure,” Kinney said.
Around every curve of the wooded property there is more damage.
Another lanky pine tree landed on the facility’s potato shed and sitting area, smashing through a lean-to roof. And still another plowed through the metal roof of a silo turning the conical top inside out. Rushing flood waters washed out some of the trails and road around the property, pushing water into structures.
Inside the main building, most of the ceiling tiles hang curiously low in the center, indicating where water had gathered and sat before evaporating in the post storm heat. Darkened spots on the floor and display boxes show how high the water gathered inside the exhibit hall, appearing ankle deep in some spots.
Buckets in an exhibit dedicated to past hurricanes were filled with water that dripped from the ceiling above them.
The Baldwin County Heritage Museum Association, Inc. was organized in April, 1981 by a group of residents who wished to gather artifacts, tools, machinery, the histories and ethnic cultures of the men and women who settled in the county about the turn of the century. The five acres it now sits on was donated by original board members, John and Ruby Haupt. The piney, wooded lot was intended to provide a rural setting that represented the land as the first settlers would have discovered it. By October, 1987, the museum was open to the public. A larger exhibit hall was opened in 2008.
Now, it is filled with artifacts donated from every corner of the county. Outside visitors can glimpse early life in Baldwin County along a trail that includes tractor and farm equipment, a general store, school house and the church.
Over time each aging piece has required its share of upkeep, a costly endeavor since many of the antiquated pieces and structures require specialty attention.
After Hurricane Ivan repairs were made to the roof of the exhibit hall. Now, 16 years later, the roof is in need of total replacement. Estimates made before Sally struck place that cost at $70,000.
The museum staff applies every year for multiple grants at national and local levels. Each year they are turned away.
“I don’t know if it’s because we’re not flashy enough or it is a lack of prestige. I wish somebody would tell me,” Kinney said.
To date the museum has been functioning with an operating budget of just $35,000 - $50,000 a year – enough to keep the doors open but never quite enough to cover heftier repair costs such as a new roof.
After Sally, Dowling Tractor Service in Florida lifted the trees off of the top of the historical structures for free. Volunteers and Kinney’s family cleared enough of the fallen limbs and brush to make the property walkable again in preparation for the museum’s annual Haunted Forest.
Until they find a donor, the museum staff continues to patch holes and work around the damage.
“A donation of $100,000 would go a long way,” Kinney said.