Cape River Heritage Museum houses links to Southeast Missouri history

Monday, June 4, 2012
Period clothing and accessories are on display at the Cape River Heritage Museum. (Laura Simon)

The building that houses the Cape River Heritage Museum is a piece of history itself.

"The building used to be a police and fire station," says John Holcomb, president of the museum's board. "It was built in 1908 and used until the police moved to a new station at Sprigg and Independence (streets)."

For more than 25 years, the former station has been home to the Cape River Heritage Museum. The city was looking for something to do with the building and leased it to the not-for-profit organization that operates the museum.

"The city helps us out tremendously," says Bonnie Stepenoff, interim director of the museum. "They pay the utilities and take care of major maintenance."

Other than that, the group is responsible for operating costs of the museum. Money is raised through membership drives, gift shop sales and a suggested donation -- $3 for adults -- for admission.

The museum is preserving and celebrating the character of Southeast Missouri. One room of the museum is dedicated to Missouri history with exhibits on the Cherokee Indians who passed through the area, riverboats, the Missouri mule and Marie Oliver, the woman who designed Missouri's state flag.

Another room focuses on Cape Girardeau history with the "Cape Girardeau: Development of a River City" exhibit, designed by historic preservation students at Southeast Missouri State University.

"The students created an exhibit about Cape for the benefit of people not from Cape," Stepenoff says, noting the museum is a popular stop for riverboat passengers. "They want to know about the places they're visiting." (Riverboat cruises on the Mississippi River are resuming this summer, and four stops have already been scheduled in Cape Girardeau.)

Stepenoff says the students broke the exhibit into various themes. "The class had free rein to design the exhibit," she says. "It's a very good collection."

Holcomb says most of the items on display at the museum are donated.

"We have people call all the time," Stepenoff says. "A woman called (recently) with memorabilia from the Central High class of '42. We've got a wide-ranging, interesting collection. There's more upstairs than we can ever display."

Currently, the museum is housing two exhibits on loan from other collections, both focusing on the Civil War.

"Divided Loyalties: Civil War Documents from the Missouri State Archives" examines the turmoil in Missouri from the 1850s through the 1870s. "We're one of only four communities that will have the exhibit this year," Holcomb says. The exhibit will be on display at the Cape museum through July.

To go along with the state archives exhibit, an exhibit sponsored by Fort D and created by Patti House focuses on the war's impact on Cape Girardeau. The museum is also hosting its first-ever open mic Civil War event at 2 p.m. June 16. "Some people will be reading historic documents that have been passed down in their family," Stepenoff says. "Others may read poem (about the war). We've got seven people committed so far." She says anyone is welcome to read at the event.

In addition to exhibits, the museum has events throughout the year, including regular lectures on American Indian history and culture by Chief Paul White Eagle, book signings for local authors and a Heritage Day in the fall. All serve as a way to highlight and preserve the region's past.

Cape River Heritage Museum

Address: 538 Independence St., Cape Girardeau

Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; special tours can be arranged by calling the museum

Admission: $3 suggested donation for adults; group rates available

More information: 573-334-0405,

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