Steaming through history

Clifton Steamboat Museum embraces eclectic collection

“I don’t know what your thing is yet, but I promise we’ll have it.”

Sarah Hearn Wells laughs, an infectious laugh that echoes around the 24,000-square-feet Clifton Steamboat Museum. To say the museum has something for everyone is more than just a cliché — it’s a fact.

Sarah Hearn Wells stands beneath a grain elevator that dominates the lobby of the Clifton Steamboat Museum in Beaumont. ISSUE photo by Michelle Cate

The museum, founded by Sarah’s grandfather David Hearn Jr. in 1993, is a magnificent hodgepodge of memorabilia that covers far more than steamboats. Looking for a full-sized tugboat? Got it. Interested in military memorabilia from at least six wars? Got you covered. Paintings and graphics? Of course. Scouting? Please. How about a grain elevator from the late 1800s? Yep, they’ve got that as well.

“As you can see, this is a very eclectic place and these were the things he loved and he was passionate about,” Sarah says. “It is the Clifton Steamboat Museum, but it’s much more than steamboats.”

There is a strong nautical thread throughout the whole museum.

“(My grandfather) remembered growing up as a little boy and going to the Port of Beaumont and watching the ships coming and going, watching them being built during the world war — just that national pride of the ships being built and way the community interacted with our military,” Sarah says.

David Jr. was an engineer by trade and owned Metal Forms, a Beaumont company that manufactures heat exchangers. His business ventures allowed him to indulge his passion for collecting.

“So many of the things have special small little stories,” Sarah says. “If there was one thing he liked he would get as many as he possibly could. For example, the Remington’s in our garden. His parents had one small Remington sitting on a bookshelf when he was little and he just loved that. When he was older and successful he purchased as many as he could.”

Sarah says the museum has a collection of Lincoln library books, which are archived, because one of David’s grandparents had some and he thought they were beautiful.

David Jr. was a fan of Robert Haas, a ship model builder from Lumberton. Sarah remembers seeing the ships her grandfather had collected.

“When I was a little girl, before there was museum, I would go to his office and on any surface that there was there was a ship model — so that was my favorite thing to do, to look at the ships,” she says. “Haas had a saying that children can only understand so much looking a two-dimensional piece, they need that three-dimensional ship model to really understand the workings of the ships. So I grew up going to look and see the small pieces, and the waterlines painted on there.

The Clifton Steamboat Museum has more than 100 ships by model builder Robert Haas. ISSUE photo by Michelle Cate.

“Once my grandfather started the museum, he acquired many more and we have over 100 throughout the museum now.”

David Jr. was still active in his business when he founded the museum. He was very hands-on Sarah said, and wanted to be involved in the day-to-day business. He was so hands-on that all of the buildings were built specifically for the museum.

“Being an engineer by trade, he loved building the buildings and the design portion — that was a passion of his,” Sarah says. “The buildings are replicas of different buildings, which is something he really enjoyed doing. The Moresi’s Foundry, when you go inside is a banquet facility, but the outside is a replica on an actual foundry in Louisiana. He would get the exact measurements and recreate it in detail. The restaurant and deli is not open now, but that structure, the footprint is a match to the house next to the Sabine Pass lighthouse. He really enjoyed those nods to the different buildings.

“More than just our exhibits, there are hidden history pieces throughout the complex.”

After David Jr. died in 2011, at the age of 83, the museum was maintained but not promoted and there were no fixed hours.

Enter Sarah. She grew up in Beaumont and married a sailor, Seth Wells, and moved to San Diego. Three years ago, the couple moved back to Beaumont.

“I like to say he worked really hard and I had a lovely time in San Diego,” she says, laughing. “We knew we wanted to come back — we both had family here. We loved seeing the world and we loved getting those experiences, but this is home.”

Taking over the museum was a natural fit for Sarah.

“I always say that my grandmother was the best history book I ever read,” she says. “She told stories and she made history more than just dates to remember — it was stories of people. So I had those experiences, and just growing up around my grandfather who loved stories and was just a lover of people.”

A model of the lumber ship the City of Beaumont by Robert Haas. ISSUE photo by MIchelle Cate.

Sarah earned a degree in dance — “Every good museum director needs a dance degree,” she says, laughing loudly again — but she minored in history.

“When I was teaching dance, my favorite parts were to teach the cultural and historical impact, and how does the history of the people reflect the dance and how does the dance reflect the people? Even though I was not directly applied to history it’s always been a part of who I am.”

Apart from reviving her grandfather’s legacy, Sarah says she enjoys the random visitors who visit the facility.

“My favorite part is to get to share the museum on a random Tuesday with someone who was just driving by and thought, ‘Huh, I’m not really sure what this is, I’m going to come check it out,’” she says. “Because we are so eclectic, someone has a connection to something in the museum and they get to tell their story — and that’s just as big a part of history as the items in the cases.”

For the first two years after Sarah returned to Beaumont, the museum was open by appointment only.

“We could meet people when they wanted to tour,” she says. “We had a very casual appointment schedule  — you could make an appointment that day and we had a strict minimum of at least one person so you didn’t need to bring a group in. I think that was really special and I got to experience those people that just happened through and get those one-on-one stories.”

The museum now has regular hours and plans to expand once they get more traffic, Sarah says, but they still make appointments and will try to accommodate everyone who is interested.

Among the works of Herring Coe are casts for a model of his statue of Dick Dowling. ISSUE photo by Michelle Cate.

The collection is so huge that Sarah says they had to streamline things a little. She cites the example of Beaumont artist Herring Coe, a graduate of what was then Lamar College, who created the sculpture of Dick Dowling at Sabine Pass, and also created sculptures that still adorn buildings at Lamar University. The museum’s collection, which includes wax molds and other steps in the casting process, was donated by Coe’s daughter.

“He was everywhere,” she said. “We had so much of it that I was finding people couldn’t see it because of the quantity. So we thinned it out — we still have it in our archive — with the hopes of rotating through. It’s really interesting to see how people look at it now, because there is the ability to consume it on that scale.”

Even when the Coe collection was vast, Sarah said the things people were drawn to were the pieces they had seen, such as the Lamar panels or the frieze from the Piccadilly Café.

Sarah said that, for now, the museum is not actively acquiring works for the permanent collection but is focusing on specific temporary exhibits.

“For example, for Women’s History Month we did ‘Women in the Military,’” she said. “We had over 18 women’s military uniforms that are not part of our collection, so that was special to see the interaction with that. It’s not something you normally see. It was a treat for me.”

The Port Arthur grain elevator, a two-story high structure that was in operation for more than nine decades, from the late 1800s to the 1900s, dominates the museum’s lobby. The large construction is made of longleaf yellow pine, a staple of the area. Adjacent to the elevator is a model of the City of Beaumont ship by Robert Hass. The ship was made of pine and was used to ship the pine that was milled in the area. The planks were slid through a trap door to keep the planks long. The exhibition cases are also made of long leaf yellow pine, Sarah says.

The museums’ grounds are also home to the Hercules, a 90-feet-long tugboat.

David Hearn Jr., founder of the Clifton Steamboat Museum, oversees moving the tugboat Hercules to the facility.

“Sabine Towing was retiring the Hercules at the time the museum was being built, and they said, ‘If you can move it you can have it,’” Sarah says. “Being a stubborn Texan that (my grandfather) was, we’re pretty sure he would have moved it even if there wasn’t a need for it. The Hercules came in three pieces early one Sunday morning down the streets of Beaumont.”

The Hercules’ engine is on display in the lobby. It is so large and heavy that the concrete foundation was poured and the museum was built around it, Sarah says.

The museum features a lot of military artifacts. In addition to the museum, David Hearne Jr. was part of a committee that spearheaded Navy Days in Southeast Texas, the equivalent of Fleet Week in larger cities.

“Beaumont, Port Arthur, many of the surrounding communities, adopted a ship as their second home port,” Sarah says. “They would come, they would have parties for them — when they would deploy they would send care packages for them.”

Sarah says it was a way for her grandfather to connect back to watching the ships in the port of Beaumont when he was a child. He loved the interaction between the civilians and the military.

In recognition of his efforts, David Hearn Jr. received the Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher Distinguished Civilian Humanitarian Award in 1999. The award is “ a multi-service recognition to be given to an individual or organization demonstrating exceptional patriotism and humanitarian concern for members of the Armed Forces or their families.” It is one of the highest honors a civilian can receive from the military.

Sarah says that her grandfather was a lover of individual stories, and many of the pieces in the collection tell history from an individual perspective. A love of country drove David Jr.’s respect for the military.

A collection of hand-carved neckerchief sliders from the Clifton Steamboat Museum’s Boy Scout exhibit. ISSUE photo by Michelle Cate.

“But it wasn’t a bumper sticker for him,” she says. “He was very gentle and people get the wrong idea. It’s not that military side of things — it’s that pride side of things.”

The museum covers all the major wars from Texas Independence to Korea. The Pearl Harbor Survivors group used to meet on the property and they donated some of the pieces in the exhibit. Rear Admiral Dennis R. Conley, who worked with David Jr. on Navy Days, has an entire case of personal memorabilia.

The museum is seemingly endless. When one section ends, one only has to go through a door to another set of rooms branching off a maze of hallways. From model warplanes by Bill Janis to WWII posters, to a vast collection of uniforms and items, the Clifton Steamboat Museum is a delight for fans of the eclectic.

The museum also hosts a vast collection of Boy Scout memorabilia. When the scouts visit, the museum has a scavenger hunt to find related items scattered through the collection apart from the main exhibit upstairs. David Jr. was a not a scout himself but his four sons were all Eagle Scouts. A group called the Old Timers Association maintains the exhibit.

“They are former Boy Scouts, their kids are out of scouting, so this is a way for them to stay involved,” Sarah says.

The Girl Scouts are also working on an exhibition for their Silver Award.

Sarah’s favorite piece in the museum is a sculpture called “Cross Current,” by Steven Kensrue from California.

Sarah Hearn Wells’ favorite art piece is Stephen Kensrue’s “Cross Current.” ISSUE photo by Michelle Cate.

“It’s got a free-standing water line around the animal,” she says. “Above the line is very serene, very quite. But below, its wild — its legs are (going). I feel like that’s very metaphorical. My brain is the paddling and the fish is swimming, but when I am giving a tour I like to present to the world that I am calm and serene.”

Kensrue’s main focus was “to bring the beauty of nature inside,” Sarah says.

“Because there are people like me who really like air conditioning, and if he brings nature here, where we’ll enjoy it, we’ll do a better job of taking care of the earth,” she says. “So that’s one of his goals with his art.”

There are many other artists in the collection including John James Audubon and his son John Woodhouse Audubon, Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, David Behrens and the delightfully named Woodrow Wilson Crumbo, covering topics from landscapes to cityscapes, nature to industry and everything in between.

There’s even some taxidermy because, well, why not?

Sarah says the eclectic nature of the collection can have a positive effect on family groups.

“One of the things I just love is when a family comes in because the father or the son, one of the family loves steamboat, and they come in and you can just see everyone thinking, ‘Well, Johnny gets his two hours,’ and they’ll fall in love with the art or who knows what it might be,” she says. “It’s so good to see that realization of, ‘Oh, I get to enjoy this time, too.’

“It’s fun to see families come and they all go to 14 different places and they all have 14 very different experiences.”

To describe the Clifton Steamboat Museum as a glorious mess is no insult. It is a truly fascinating mishmash of themes and styles, each fascinating in its own right. It could be argued that history is about discovering ourselves through the lives of others. The life of David Hearn Jr. and his particularly eclectic vision is worth exploring again and again — and his granddaughter Sarah is a willing guide.

The Clifton Steamboat Museum is located at 8727 Fannett Rd. in Beaumont. Hours are 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Thursday, or by appointment. Admission is $7, seniors, students and veterans are $5, children five and under are free.

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Story by Andy Coughlan, ISSUE editor

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