A mere five years ago, Bill Swanson had no interest in museums. Last year, he helped save one.
“I wasn’t a museum person before I took this job,” he said. “I was in sales and marketing, so this wasn’t in the plans.”
Swanson, who moved to Baldwin County from Wisconsin seven years ago, became director of the Holmes Medical Museum after Foley Marketing Director LaDonna Hinesley asked if he would be interested in a simple, 15-hour-a-week gig.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Today the museum is still standing because that part-time gig turned into a rescue mission for Swanson after hurricane winds nearly tore it to the ground. In the process, Swanson became a history lover.
“Now when my wife and I travel around Alabama, if I see a depot or a historical building, we’ve got to go and see it,” Swanson said. “We both love learning about Alabama and traveling to see what it has to offer.”
Working at the museum has given Swanson the chance to learn about Foley’s local history. He quickly became knowledgeable in stories about Holmes Medical Museum, many of which were handed down from locals themselves.
“It was such a good job, because I’d sit and talk to the people from Foley who would tell me stories about the city and the hospital, and then you’d have your snowbirds that are coming back and they always have lots of questions about Foley, so it’s good,” said Swanson.
But, as with many things in life, Swanson could never have predicted the situations he would witness while working at the museum. In the midst of keeping the museum open during the COVID-19 pandemic, Swanson and his family experienced their first hurricane: Sally.
Swanson and his stepson were at Holmes Medical Museum early on Sept. 16 after Sally blew through. The damage they saw was mind-blowing.
“There was water dropping in everywhere, pieces of the ceiling were still falling down,” he said. “We just started grabbing chairs, just anything that we could move and taking it to the good part of the building. Things that were bigger, like couches and big wooden desks, we took blue tarps and started tarping everything. You could look up at the ceiling and see the sky.”
Swanson and his stepson put the first two layers of blue tarp across the roof to prevent more rain from coming through. The contractor added the final layer. Further investigation revealed water had gotten into the walls. Mold began sprouting within a week.
“As with everything, there’s a positive,” Swanson said. “Close one door and another one opens, and so we had the opportunity to renovate the museum. We were able to do some things we had been wanting to do already.”
The downstairs portion was redone to match the look of the Railroad Museum located in Heritage Park. The building renovation was kept in line with the era. The new paint that went onto the walls upstairs was computer-matched to the other colors on still-standing walls.
After a new roof, flooring, and walls went up, Swanson and volunteers brought items out of storage. Original items returned to the museum. New items began making appearances too, all period-items from the time the museum was in operation. Part of the upstairs was redone to match the nurses’ station that it once held.
Everything had to be checked with the insurance agency and done in accordance with historical building guidelines. Through numerous donations and $60,000 out of pocket from the museum’s fund, the museum was able to reopen to the public in August, 2021, less than a year after Sally tried to tear it down.
Swanson said the museum will be using some of the lessons learned in that process going forward. “We had about 10 volunteers that came to help with the museum,” he said. “We really didn’t have a volunteer crew before, and now it’s something that we want to develop. We want to get a few more volunteers, because there’s labeling, we want to do a complete inventory, but it’s going to take more than just me.”
Though Swanson is retiring from his job with the city, he’s not leaving the museum entirely. He runs the board for the South Baldwin Museum Foundation, and he doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon, especially since the board has a long list of ideas for Holmes Medical Museum.
“We’re having a counter made and going to create an old grocery store concept downstairs,” he said. “That’s what used to be down there, so we’re going to recreate it. Then upstairs we’re keeping it the hospital from 1936 – 1959. So, I’m not finished here yet. It’s interesting, it’s one of those you find something you like to do and make it your job type of things.”
Holmes Medical Museum is located at 111 W Laurel Ave. in Foley. For more information, check out https://visitfoley.com or call the museum at 251-970-1818.