For whom the bell tolls ...

Saturday, August 20, 2005
Bob Schmidt, a tour guide, described the significance of an antique chair, trunk and photographs at the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum in Altenburg, Mo.

ALTENBURG, Mo. -- The reverberating dong of the rooftop bell is muffled by the interior stone walls of the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum, but even muted, the noise is still beautiful to Bob Schmidt.

There's a story behind that bell, Schmidt will tell you, that dates back to the original Saxon Lutherans who settled in this corner of Perry County in 1839.

The German immigrants originally brought four such silver bells -- each cast in Spain in 1761 -- with them to America, but left the bells in storage in St. Louis while they settled in Southeast Missouri.

Later, they returned to St. Louis to retrieve the bells but found they had only enough money to pay for the storage on one. The other three now hang at Xavier Catholic Church in St. Louis.

"We always say they have three of our bells and they always say we have one of theirs," says Schmidt.

He laughs at the story, one he's told many times and one his father, who was also a tour guide at the museum, told before him.

It's really more than a humorous story though; it's a part of Schmidt's history. A history now on display in the museum's new facility in Altenburg.

While finishing touches are ongoing, the addition to the original museum is now open and filled with Lutheran-inspired exhibits.

The museum, which was the first Lutheran church for the Saxon's original settlement here and later became a Lutheran school and then a museum, is operated by the not-for-profit Perry County Lutheran Historical Society.

The new facility, which is attached to the old museum, was made possible through an endowment from the late Vernon Myer.

"It was his dream to build this museum," says Carla Jordan, a local preservationist who has coordinated the opening of the new center.

The facility is climate-controlled and has a full basement for future expansions.

"It's a state-of-the-art facility but it was a challenge because it was a huge blank slate," said Jordan.

The exhibits feature antique furniture donated by families who are tied to the Saxons and other period items that reflect life in the 1800s. There are tributes to Perry County history in general, such as the Wagner Hotel and farm work.

One exhibit is a dedication to Myer, with furniture from his home, his tell-tale green fedora hanging on a coat rack and plaques that recognize his life's work.

The old part of the museum currently houses a traveling state exhibit called "Mapping Missouri", which will be on display through Sept. 4.

There are Lutheran artifacts from Germany, including a 500-year-old Bible and a roof tile from Martin Luther's home.

The roof tile is among Schmidt's favorite displays.

"When my dad was a tour guide, I always thought, 'Someday I'll learn that stuff,'" Schmidt says. "Then dad passed away and I thought, 'Oh no, I have to learn it all myself.'"

And he did. Schmidt now volunteers as a tour guide and also serves on the historical society board.

He rings the patina-crusted bell and shares details about life for the county's earliest Lutherans with visitors.

The official dedication for the new building will be Oct. 2. The museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

335-6611, extension 128

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