FLORENCE, S.C. – A headline on October 7, 1953, in The Morning News about the Florence Museum opening reads, “Modern Museum Result of Struggle.”
The story, written by Eugene “Nick” Zeigler for the Morning News, told of the trials and tribulations before opening on Spruce Street. As it was then, and is now, the Florence Museum is a product of teamwork and hard work from many people.
The new Florence County Museum will welcome the public this week but the new facility never would have happened if not for a dedicated few who persevered.
The Florence Museum started as the Blue Bird Tea Room, organized by the League for Woman’s Service. The Tea Room raised money for the Red Cross and other organizations during World War I. One of those involved was Jane B. Evans, who later went on to become founder of the museum. The Blue Bird Tea Room went on for three years after the war and deactivated with $2,500 in funds.
In 1924, Evans moved from Florence to Phoenix, Ariz., where she learned of a surplus of post-Spanish Indian pottery. The seller would only sell the pottery to small museums. Evans made a plea to the Blue Bird Tea Room trustees to organize as the Florence Museum. It was incorporated in 1936. Shortly after, $400 was spent to acquire the pottery starting a collection that would grow many times over through the years.
The Florence County Public Library displayed several exhibits from the Federal Arts Project, organized by Evans. Unfortunately her and others efforts weren’t met with enthusiasm as Zeigler wrote.
“ The interest shown by Florentines was evidently not sufficient to keep the project for in February 1937, the state director of the Federal Art Project WPA closed the program in Florence,” he wrote.
Not to be stifled, Evans kept increasing exhibits and in 1939, was able to occupy three rooms in the basement of the library. She died in 1950 and Zeigler wrote, “it created a real void.” In 1951, Eugene “Nick” Zeigler was elected president of the Florence Museum Trustees and planned to complete fundraising efforts started by Evans.
The museum trustees, through City Council put up a public referendum for vote in 1952 on purchasing the Lawton –Willcox – Chase property on Spruce Street. The property was $75,000, with $45,000 contributed by the museum. The referendum was defeated by 71 votes. Ben Zeigler, Nick’s son, said his father was asked if African-Americans would be admitted to the museum. Zeigler’s answer was an affirmative “yes,” which Ben Zeigler said didn’t sit well with segregationists at the time. Another referendum for tax support failed to pass in 1972.
“ When the county eventually took over the museum, it was a very fulfilling thing for my father,” Ben said. “He very much wanted to be alive long enough to see the groundbreaking (of the new museum). He really kept himself alive long enough to see that happen.”
After the groundbreaking, Nick Zeigler visited the grave of Jane B. Evans, his longtime friend, and considered his promise to her that the museum would not fail fulfilled. He died five months later at the age of 91.
Ben Zeigler, now a County Museum board member, said he doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t involved in the museum. Growing up, he worked there after school and in the summer.
“ When the concept was developed in the 30s by Jane Evans, and pulled along by others in the 50s,” he said, “it was very much an aspirational thing that gave the people of Florence a window to the greater world. It exposed people to art, hands-on history and things of cultural significance in a world before TV and internet.”
Florence County Museum Trustee and Florence Museum Trustee Becky Crawford joined the board in 1982. She said the new museum will have the capability to reach many more people than it has in the past.
“ It’s not a typical museum,” she said. “Ms. Jane felt like we needed to bring the world to Florence. The museum has existed over all these years because people put their heart and soul into it. Nick was a very smart man and had a vision of how it should impact the community and it will continue to do that.”
Florence County Museum Director Andrew Stout said the new museum is a realized dream that started 90 years ago.