Big Well museum ends up a big hit

09/08/2012 7:17 AM

09/08/2012 7:18 AM

The Big Well Museum & Visitors Center wrapped up its first summer, averaging 75 to 100 visitors daily, before schoolchildren recently returned to the classroom.

“To me, the summer has been exactly what I wished it to be,” said Stacy Barnes, Greensburg’s Convention and Tourism director and manager of the Big Well.

The “World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well,” which descends 109 feet and is 32 feet in diameter, was finished in 1888. It became a tourist attraction in 1937.

The 2007 tornado that destroyed most of Greensburg shut down the attraction and led to the new Big Well Museum & Visitors Center that opened last May.

Visitors from as many as 30 different states stop at the museum weekly, Barnes said. Foreign countries appearing in the visitor registry include Russia, Norway, Japan, Israel, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.

“I’m so impressed with it,” said Denise Stout, of Bucklin, who has visited the Big Well four times, bringing visiting children and grandchildren with her.

Stout admires the museum’s architecture and likes the center’s display of scenes of Greensburg.

“I grew up south of Mullinville,” Stout said, and she remembered walking down “the scary stairs” at the old site.

Claudine Cassidy, of Pratt, said the new museum has “very nice steps,” but her family was “very, very disappointed” with the Big Well.

“It just isn’t like it used to be,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy said the steps went down only 50 feet, and she regarded the adult admission price of $8 as “kind of high.”

The old steps went down about 80 feet, Barnes said, and the old admission was $2.

There are three reasons, Barnes said, why visitors go down just 50 feet: budgetary constraints; insurance, and the fire code.

Fire code limits the travel distance to an exit, Barnes said. There’s only one way up and down from the well, she said, so a second exit was not an option.

The Big Well previously was “grandfathered in” under the old fire code, but the new construction met compliance with current codes, she explained.

“Yes, it would be great if the stairs could go farther,” Barnes said, but she likes the effect of the spiral stairs.

“To me, it feels much more open and you get a much better feel of the space,” she said.

A lot of people want to compare the new museum to the old one, Barnes said, but the old site was “just the well and gift shop.”

Some visitors say, “ ‘It’s nothing like I remembered it,’ but in a good way,” Barnes said.

“We have so much more of a story to tell,” she said, and the tornado is part of that story at the center.

The old Big Well drew about 40,000 visitors yearly. Barnes considers it too early to predict the new site’s numbers for the year, but it should be on track or better.

Visitors include those who remember the old site; those who have heard about the Greensburg tornado; and still others who “happen upon us and have no idea we had a tornado here,” Barnes said.

When they learn about the twister, Barnes said, they say, “ ‘Oh yes, you’re that town.’ ”

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