Jul 26, 2022 1:03 AM

Historical Society gets new leadership

Posted Jul 26, 2022 1:03 AM
Tim Blackwell, the new assistant director for the Des Moines County Historical Society, left, and Colton Neely, the new executive director, pose in front of the sign for the Des Moines County Heritage Museum. (William Smith/The Burlington Beacon)
Tim Blackwell, the new assistant director for the Des Moines County Historical Society, left, and Colton Neely, the new executive director, pose in front of the sign for the Des Moines County Heritage Museum. (William Smith/The Burlington Beacon)

William Smith
The Burlington Beacon

The Des Moines County Historical Society has a couple of fresh faces heading up Burlington’s three museums.

Colton Neely, 24, started his new job as executive director of the Des Moines County Historical Society on July 12. Tim Blackwell, 22, started his job as assistant director of the historical society the same day.

They’re just getting their feet wet now, but Neely and Blackwell have progressive plans on getting youth more involved with the organization.

They’ll do it through volunteerism, internships, and classroom learning. Age doesn’t necessarily dictate interests, they said.

“A lot of people of the older generation say, ‘Well, kids don’t care about history nowadays.’ I don’t see that as true,” Blackwell said.

“History has been evolving over time, and it’s being professed to kids in a way that just isn’t engaging anymore. You have to update and evolve to get them.”

Robin Schneiderman was the previous executive director for the historical society, though the organization has been without a director since the end of April. Historical society president LaVon Worley and vice president Don Weiss have been filling in for the position.

Colton Neely

Neely is more than a historian. He’s a professional piano player fostering an obsession with ragtime music and has amassed over 30,000 musical scores that date back as far as the Civil War.

“My history is more ragtime history. I scour antique stores and everything just to try to find every Iowa-published piece of music. Now, it’s got to the point, instead of a hobby, it’s a hoarding problem,” he said.

A Des Moines native, Neely previously worked at the Vinton Public Library and several museums before that, including the Old Capitol Museum and the Museum of Natural History at the University of Iowa, as well as Living History Farms in Urbandale.

He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in American history and a certificate in museum studies from the University of Iowa.

“I came here because one of my big goals was to be a museum director. I thought this was a perfect opportunity,” Neely said.

Already Neely has fallen for Burlington. Much to his delight, Burlington has bent over backward for him.

“This town is very welcoming, and I absolutely love it. Everyone has been super nice,” he said.

For Neely, Burlington is akin to ripe fruit, bursting with river and railroad history previously unknown to him. He can’t wait to start digging into it.

“I’m a big fan of the Mississippi (River). I’ve always liked this side of the state,” he said. “There’s a lot of railroad history that came through Burlington, and I’m a big fan of trains.”

Tim Blackwell

A native of Columbus, Ohio, who has spent most of his life in Florida, Blackwell ended up at Illinois College on an Esports scholarship. Esports, a sports-like competition that pits teams of professional video game players against each other, isn’t for everyone.

Blackwell was able to snag a scholarship because he’s in the top .5 percent of “League of Legend” players, but he had to practice at least two hours a day, every day, to perform that well.

“I don’t play it anymore, but I did play competitively for about seven years. I was with Illinois College at the peak of their team so far. We’ve been through three head coaches,” he said.

Blackwell didn’t just play video games in college. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and had his hands in a lot of different, history-related projects at Illinois College. He spent a year as an education intern for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. He also worked on a project called

“Forever Blighted,” a virtual presentation about the World War II history of Congressman Paul Findley.

Coming to Burlington seemed like an obvious choice.

“I’ve always had an affinity for smaller museums,” Blackwell said.

Much like Neely, Blackwell is hesitant to pigeonhole himself as a certain kind of history expert. Both men are too fascinated by the past to choose a favorite discipline.

“When people ask me what my favorite subject of history is, I don’t have one. My favorite is whatever I’m working on. And then, that becomes my passion,” Blackwell said.

Working together

Blackwell and Neely met each other for the first time at an open house hosted by the Des Moines County Historical Society in June and just started working together a few days ago.

But they’re already starting to gel, homing in on each other’s specialties. Neely has spent most of his museum career promoting natural history, like fossils.

He’s more than a bit eager to start working on the Hall of Crinoids exhibit, which will be comprised of more than 3,000 crinoid and blastoid fossils.

“I can’t wait to get my hands on those (crinoids),” he said.

Blackwell is more accustomed to public history and enjoys detailing the lives and pasts of significant people and structures. He enjoys drawing in patrons who might not be that familiar with museums.

“I don’t want to do the work of a natural, traditional historian. I want to do the work of a public historian who is always looking for ways to get people engaged,” Blackwell said.

By working together, Blackwell and Neely plan to bring locals into all three of Des Moines County’s museums, reinvigorating their connection to local history.