Rocks, fossils, early computers among items filling the rooms of former school

The original Truman State Bulldog mascot may still be in Kirksville. Plants never before thought to exist in this part of Missouri are being discovered and catalogued. Seemingly ancient computers are stacked up for study. Murals, including one depicting the Beatles and their yellow submarine, adorn the walls. And a practicing doctor of osteopathic medicine uses part of the space to see his patients.

These are just a few of the items and happenings inside a Kirksville structure many might believe is abandoned, but whose owner says is actually a museum.

The Washington Museum of Natural History, Arts, Science and Literature, to be precise.
Residents might know it by another name: Washington Elementary School.

The Harrison Street building's current owner, Charles Tharp, is battling leukemia and put the property up for sale recently, meaning it could change hands for the first time in more than 20 years and require thousands of items to find a new home.

Tharp's wish is that doesn't happen, that new owners would emerge who keep the building's mission intact.

"I would like to see it continue with some kind of service to the community because, after all, it was the community that built it," Tharp said.

Constructed in 1925, Washington was one of several active elementary school buildings for the Kirksville district until the 1980s, when the district moved those grades to new homes on the current R-III campus.

The old buildings went up for sale through sealed bid auctions. Tharp, who studied auctioneering and was taught to put in odd-numbered bids to increase odds of success, bid $1,555.55.

He won.

"I believe in 'nothing ventured, nothing gained,' so I put that up," he said. "I was actually very surprised I got it because it was such a low price I really didn't think I had any chance of getting it."

Tharp already had a small not-for-profit museum and believed the old school could provide the space he need to "hold a lifetime collection." It currently houses two classrooms full of rocks, fossils (including what he says are the remains of the original Truman State Bulldog) and more Tharp has collected in the area and inside a cave beneath land he owns near Columbia. Another classroom is dedicated to electronics, with early Apple computers, typewriters, radios and more lining shelves, while another serves as a herbarium for retired professors interested in botany.

Other spaces feature a library of sorts, with many volumes left over from the days the building served as an elementary school, or storage of old Northeast Missouri State University band uniforms, gymnasium scoreboards, stone from the face of the old Kennedy Theater building, and studio space for a resident Truman art student, who have access provided they do something artistic to improve the building's interior, hence the large murals on many walls.

Part of the school has even been converted into a large living space one of Tharp's friends calls home, and Dr. Steven L. Funk has converted the principal's office into his physician's office.

The museum is able to be toured, though by appointment only. It's meant more as a place for those of varying interests to have room for their studies.

"It's a large, eclectic collection of things," Tharp said. "It's kind of a loose collection of people who have different interests. We merged a group of interests into that building."

Tharp said the building has provided him with fantastic experiences and memories and, if he felt he had a choice, he wouldn't be looking to sell.

"My health the last few years hasn't allowed me to continue with the project. I have leukemia. I don't have the energy. My spirit is willing, but the body is weak," he said.

"I'm hoping maybe someone else will pick up the torch and continue on with public usage of he building and provide benefits to the citizens of Kirksville," he said, adding the space could be converted to serve as a community center.

Vicki Benson, of Remax, is handling the property's sale. She said she contacted the City of Kirksville after the building was listed, but never received a response. She's already shown the property to a few interested parties and is confident it will find a buyer.

"With how strong the Kirksville economy is right now, on the real estate side it seems to be better than it's been in a long, long time," she said. "We've had an incredible year and I think all the brokers would probably tell you that. I just think there has been a complete turnaround."

The building itself is in fine structural condition, Tharp said, noting its brick, concrete and steel makeup and that he replaced the roof in 2000.

Selling means Tharp may need new homes for his items, some of which could be donated to universities or the Adair County Historical Society. It's not something he looks forward to doing, but said the time has come for new ownership of the former school.

"I have enjoyed my stewardship of that building," he said. "It's provided me with a lot of hours of fond memories. I'm hoping it will continue to do that for someone yet.

"It's time to pass the torch onto a younger generation."