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Phillips puts love of history to work at museum

On Wednesdays and Saturdays or really whatever day you would like a tour, Wyner Phillips can be found curating the Randolph County Historical Museum in downtown Roanoke.

For the past 11 years, Phillips has devoted his energy and passion to keeping history alive by directing Roanoke’s museum. A life-long history lover, Phillips said he believes he fills an important role in the community.

“If people don’t know the history of something, they don’t know how it got to be the way it is and why it’s not something else,” said Phillips.

One of the things that stoked his passion for history was learning about it in college. While at the University of Alabama, Phillips took every elective class he could in history.

The old museum building Phillips curates, formerly a post office, contains thousands of artifacts dating from the mid 1800s to modernity. Many of the artifacts are donated, and some are purchased using Phillips’ personal funds, a testament to his love of history.

A Nazi flag captured from Nazi Germany rests folded on a table next to the picture of an American soldier who fought in World War II.

In a different part of the museum, a chair that used to belong to Dr. Tom Clack, an Alabama doctor famous for being the country’s only blind doctor in the 1940s, sits next to some old newspapers that detail his story.

Unlike most museums, patrons can touch most of the artifacts here. This intimate setting makes the Roanoke museum a guilty pleasure of sorts.

Not only does the museum hold U.S. and Alabama history, it also holds history specific to Randolph County and Roanoke. An entire room is dedicated to the famous “indestructible” Ella Smith dolls. Genuine Ella Smith dolls sit behind glass for patrons to examine. Some of these dolls were purchased by Phillips to help preserve this significant artifact of Roanoke’s past.

A piece of Roanoke history is right next to the entrance of the museum, an artifact from Phillips’ own life: the old cash register from his family’s closed business, Phillip’s Hardware.

Phillip’s Hardware opened in 1937, two years before Wyner Phillips was born, and closed in 2007. Phillips explained how downtown Roanoke lost a bit of its economic vitality when Wal-Mart came to town, and his family’s business was among those harmed.

Phillip’s Hardware started closing at 4 p.m., then 3 p.m., then noon. “Then it got to where people weren’t coming even Saturday morning so we decided it was time to close,” said Phillips.  

But Phillips treats life like the continuum it is. He moved onto curating the museum, allowing himself to immerse himself in his passion. He gives tours to anyone who wishes to see bits of the past, and he always has interesting things to say about each artifact.

With someone like him preserving Roanoke’s history, the town will never have to worry about having an identity crisis.