Preserving history, 1 piece at a time

NAPPANEE — For Chuck Grimm, the key to securing Nappanee’s future is preserving its past.
Grimm, president of the Nappanee Historic Preservation Commission, is a mix between museum curator and artifact locator in the spirit of History Channel’s “American Pickers.”
To Grimm, the commission’s goal is simple.
“We want to save old buildings and the stuff in them,” Grimm said.
A lifelong Nappanee resident, Grimm’s mind is like a supercomputer crammed with the town’s history.
“We have a lot of neat stuff to brag about here in Nappanee,” Grimm said. “There are a lot of things that make this a great place to live.”
Grimm’s base of operations is the museum at Nappanee Center, which opened in 2006. Many of the items come from Grimm’s large private collection, which is still sizable, and located in his basement. Prior to Nappanee Center’s opening, Mayor Larry Thompson would bring curious visitors to Grimm’s underground exhibition.
“No other community could possibly have anyone as valuable as Chuck Grimm with regards to your history,” Thompson said. “He has studied, researched, collected historical data on Nappanee almost all his entire life. Now as someone who is retired, he is giving back all this knowledge to our city. Anyone who hasn’t visited Nappanee Center or with Chuck is missing out on one of the most fabulous explanations of history any city in America could have.”
Grimm’s family history in intertwined with Nappanee’s. He is a fifth-generation resident, his great-grandfather opened the town’s first drug store and his grandfather was chief of police for three decades.
Grimm, 66, has collected Nappanee memorabilia since he was 8 years old, when he was already labeled a pack-rat. A buyer and seller of antiques for a half-century, he often receives calls from people saying they have a bunch of old stuff they’re going to throw away. Grimm hustles over, sometimes to old, cruddy basements, and saves desirable relics.
“My wife Carol thinks I’m crazy, but she’s used to it by now,” Grimm said. “This job just fit me. Even though it’s volunteer, it’s worked well for me.”
Grimm volunteers around 25 to 30 hours a week at Nappanee Center and in his endless quest for museum additions and preservation projects. As for motivation, Grimm points to what he calls Nappanee’s “five major disasters.” He’s not talking about weather or fire. The “disasters” are five building lost to demolition, which included Coppes Hall (torn down in 1965) and Shively House (demolished in 1970).
“They are the kinds of things we’re trying to prevent,” Grimm said. “If those houses were up today, they would be icons, and our committee would never let somebody tear them down. But back in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was all about throw it away and get something new.”
When visitors come to Nappanee Center, Grimm automatically directs them to five displays featuring local historic bragging points — its six national cartoonists, the most for a United States city per capita; the Smokey Stover Foo Car, created by cartoonist Bill Holman; Airforce One pilot Todd Beer; Vance George, conductor of the San Fran-cisco Symphony Chorus, which won four Grammys and Emmy under his watch; and Nappanee’s status as kitchen capitol of the world. The 11,000-square foot facility houses more exhibits, which make up the Evelyn Lehman Culp Heritage Collection, which started at Nappanee Public Library and was named in honor of its head librarian from 1957-77. Culp’s daughter, Jeanie (Culp) Dudley, was appointed to the Historic Preservation Commission last month.
The commission is a five-person committee formed in 1988. Its members are appointed by Thompson, who Grimm considers an invaluable ally.
“Obviously if City Hall ever wanted to tear something down, they’re probably going to win,” Grimm said. “Luckily we have a mayor that is a historic person as well and doesn’t want things like that to happen.”
The commission has been busy, and its efforts have been rewarded. Nappanee was recently recognized as a “Preserve America” community, a designation straight from the White House. Nappanee became the 795th American city to earn the distinction, a result of three years’ work to meet requirements. Along with a sign recognizing the honor, a letter came from First Lady Michelle Obama. Altogether, it’s one of the great honors in the field of historic preservation.
“In the right circles, that really means a lot,” Grimm said. “There were a lot of hours involved.”
Some of the commission’s finished improvement projects include West Park Pavilion, Nappanee Depot, Nappanee Theater and the Hartman house, which Nappanee Center is connected to. Future plans include downtown window restoration and fixing up the Stauffer Park bridge.
The commission works hand-in-hand with Indiana Landmarks and the Indiana Historical Society.
“I feel very inferior to those people, because they are constantly working to save buildings,” Grimm said. “I’m in awe of the great things they do.”
As for the museum, Grimm is always looking for more volunteers, to do everything from lead tours to cleaning. He is also waiting for his eventual successor to walk through the door one day.
“I can’t do this forever, so I hope we can find someone with my passion,” Grimm said. “I haven’t seen it yet. There just aren’t many historians around as crazy as myself.”