TUPELO • Nearly four decades ago, a man named Oren Dunn presented a proposal to city officials.
He wanted to create a space that would house the history of his hometown – and a bit beyond.
The contents of Dunn’s proposed area would come from his own collection and from donations – he hoped – from others.
The history-minded Dunn received the go-ahead for his plan and in August 1984, Tupelo City Museum opened and Dunn became its first curator. His annual salary? One dollar.
Dunn continued to work there until his death in 1996.
The museum’s name has undergone a few tweaks through the years – Tupelo City Museum to Oren Dunn Museum to today’s Oren Dunn City Museum – but the location has remained a constant.
The museum, in Ballard Park across from Parkway Elementary School, once was part of Forest Lake Farms, a dairy farm owned by Rex and Nelle Reed.
In fact, the museum’s home is one of two barns original to Forest Lake Farms.
And inside its walls, visitors of all ages have seen an assortment of pieces from the past that include tools, medical instruments, fossils, farm implements, photographs, Civil War relics – and that’s just a start.
Perhaps the focal point of the museum is a model in miniature of a 1940s Tupelo, complete with an electric train passing through it.
The Tupelo Veterans Museum, situated in its own space in the rear of the city’s museum, is an extra gem for visitors. Tony Lute, himself a veteran, curates the space that’s filled with all manner of military memorabilia, most of which has been collected through the years by Lute.
Outside the museum, visitors will find a village with dog trot house from the 1870s, a a blacksmith shop, silos from Forest Lake Farms and much more, including Dudie’s Diner, a trolley brought to Tupelo from Memphis by Truman “Dudie” Christian in the 1950s. It became the first fast-food eatery in Tupelo when Christian began serving the now-famous dough burgers from his diner.
Through the years, as items have been added to the attraction and a diverse array of temporary exhibits have been featured, the museum has remained home to a hodgepodge of history. A collection of curators have been caretakers of the city’s museum.
And there’s a brand new curator on the job, one who’s no stranger to the ins and outs of the city of Tupelo.
Leesha Faulkner, former communications director for Mayor Jason Shelton, has left City Hall and can be found in her new digs at the museum.
Along with Lute, assistant curator Della Poston and an assortment of volunteers, Faulkner is on hand daily to greet visitors, answer questions and tell interesting stories about Tupelo’s history.
Let’s be perfectly clear: The goal of the museum will be to tell the Tupelo story. And Faulkner’s intent is to do some rearranging of the randomness in order to tell the story in a more organized, more chronological order.
“Our mission statement, broadly put, is to tell the Tupelo story through past choices, present circumstances and future challenges,” Faulkner said. “And we just want it to be told in a more visitor-friendly way.
“There’s some great stuff in here and we just want to present it with a bit more organization. We want to incorporate the history and not separate it so much.”
There’ll be a music room. And, yes, Elvis will be a large part of it. But there will also be Guy Hovis and Rae Sremmurd and other musicians who’ve called Tupelo home.
“We’ll have a Tupelo sports exhibit,” Faulkner said. “And change the emphasis by seasons.”
The Natchez Trace Corner with its stained glass signage will remain intact.
There’ll be space dedicated to pre-tornado Tupelo, the deadly tornado of 1936 and the tornado of 2014. As part of an attempt to make the museum more kid-friendly, there’ll be a Lego table.
“We’ll ask the kids, ‘If all you knew was taken by a tornado, what would you build first?’ Faulkner said. “We’ll take a photograph of them with what they build and post it.”
Of course, the Hospital on the Hill exhibit will be in the mix, and the Civil Rights Era, including the desegregation of Tupelo schools.
Something else planned is the building of a modern Tupelo, “from George McLean through the creation of the Journal, CDF and CREATE.”
“And the new era of Toyota and the Japanese influence, including our Cherry Blossom Festival,” Faulkner said. “The museum won’t remain static. When you come in, you won’t see the same museum.”
Faulkner and Poston make a strong team at the museum.
“Della has a great eye for making exhibits look good,” Faulkner said.
Clearly, designing the spaces is something Poston enjoys.
“It’s fun,” she said. “I might look crazy, staring at a blank wall, but then I get an idea of how to arrange and it works. A space can seem uninteresting or it can draw in people. That’s important.”
A shared hope of all involved at the museum is that more visitors – from Tupelo and beyond – would drop in.
“I’ve had more people say to me, “I’ve lived here my whole life and didn’t know the museum was there,’” Faulkner said. “Thats something we hope to remedy.”