The history buff: Ken Penhale preserves city of Helena’s history

By GRAHAM BROOKS / Staff Writer

HELENA–The Helena Museum located at 5260 Helena Road can tell you more than you could ever imagine about the history of Helena with its vast display of pictures, exhibits and artifacts but how exactly did the museum arrive in Helena and who put together the exhibits?

Helena through-and-through

Aside from six months being gone for active duty in the Alabama National Guard, Ken Penhale has never left the town of Helena in his 75 years of being alive.

Penhale’s family roots run deep in the town of Helena where his family arrived more than a century ago.

“My family came here first in about 1875 and one of my grandfathers was born here in 1878 and he left and came back and left again so we’ve been in-and-out since 1875,” Penhale said. “My mother’s family came here in 1912.”

Penhale still has fond memories from growing up in Helena.

“I was fortunate growing up when Helena was small,” Penhale said. “A lot of the older people I learned a lot from that had lived the history so to speak. I was fortunate to have that experience. One guy in particular, Floyd Nash, he was the mayor for a number of years and he told a lot of stories and a lot of history. There was a lady that lived a couple of houses up and she told me a lot of stories about growing up from the 1900s and I just learned a lot from the older residents. Growing up, there was about four or five of us boys and in the summertime, we would stay in the creek down here and swim all summer long or ramble through the woods. I could tell you where all the mines were and you would swim all afternoon. You’d get your chores done in the morning and all afternoon you’d stay in Buck Creek.”

Penhale went to Thompson High School and then the University of Montevallo before joining the Alabama National Guard where he served from 1964-1970.

Ken’s brother, Sonny Penhale, served as the mayor of Helena for more than four decades from 1968 to 2012 and helped Helena reach a number of heights and accomplishments during his time in office.

One of those accomplishments included the creation of the Helena museum.

The opening of the museum

The Helena Museum officially opened in September of 2011 and since that time, has done nothing but grow under the direction of Penhale and a few assistants.

“The city purchased the building and my brother had the idea of putting a museum first upstairs because the boy scouts were downstairs,” Penhale said. “Once they moved out, we took over the downstairs and expanded. It’s still growing all the time.”

Before diving into the history and collecting artifacts for Helena, Penhale held two separate jobs for several decades, but the passion for history has always been inside him.

After the National Guard, Penhale worked for Ingalls Iron Works for about seven years and then went to American Cast Pipe Company and stayed there for about 33 years before retiring.

Before the Helena Museum, Penhale was active in a number of state historic preservation committees.

“I started the Shelby County Historical Society in 1975 and served as president for a number of years,” Penhale said. “I oversaw the restoration of the old courthouse and did a lot of the demolition and restoration. For years, I’ve been active in state historic preservation throughout the state and different boards and things like that. I’ve always just loved history and tried to preserve what we could.”

With help from friends and family, beginning in September 2011, Penhale turned his passion for history into honoring his hometown.

“I gathered the artifacts and set up the displays and all that and of course I had two or three people that helped a lot,” Penhale said. “I had some general family stuff and photographs I had collected over the years.”

Now, the museum makes up the entirety of a two-story building and exhibits ranging from an old Helena drag racing strip, Helena locals who served in the military, a tornado exhibit recalling the 1933 tornado, a redhorse fish exhibit, Indian artifacts and more can be found inside.

Who helped with the museum?

Although Penhale has done the majority of the work to start and build what the Helena Museum is today, he acknowledges several people who have helped it become an impressive display of photographs and exhibits.

“Marty Everse does all the photographs and I couldn’t do it without him,” Penhale said. “Marty lived in Helena one time but is originally from Michigan. He retired and we’ve worked together on a lot of stuff and he does all the photography in here and without him the museum wouldn’t be anything.”

In addition to helping with the Museum, Penhale and Everse also penned a book together that was published in 1998 titled, “Images of America Helena, Alabama.”

The book features several chapters describing the history of Helena that includes plenty of photographs to help tell the story of how the town became what it is today.

“Marty and I put that together in 1998,” Penhale said. “Marty was great on the layout and we both had the idea to put the photos together.”

Other people Penhale mentioned that have helped him with the museum include Bill Harris, Rock McCulley, Brian Hinds and Charles Griffin.

“Harris builds all the displays, Rock McCulley restores a lot of this for us and Brian Hinds helps out a lot,” Penhale said. “Another name is Charles Griffin on the Indian artifacts. Not just that, but he has done a world of stuff like the spinning wheel and the tricycle and he has donated a world of stuff. There’s been a number of people that the museum wouldn’t be possible without that I have to give credit to.”

Giving tours

As the curator and director of the Helena Museum, Penhale spends a lot of time building displays and reviewing new photographs and artifacts, but another important aspect of his job is giving tours to visitors.

Penhale spends most weekends and occasionally weekdays giving visitors a tour of the museum while explaining and answering questions along the way.

Surprisingly, Penhale said those who visit the museum aren’t just Helena residents.

“We have a lot of out of towners,” Penhale said. “Even out of the country. I’ve had people visit from Poland, Ireland, several from Germany and a lot of people will be staying in Hoover and somehow find out about us and come down. Last month after the hurricane, I had several families come up to visit from Florida.”

Penhale said a lot of people find out about the museum through word of mouth or from a news outlet. Anyone wishing to visit the museum, can call Penhale directly and he will set up a time for a tour.

Once in the museum, Penhale can thoroughly explain each exhibit and the details behind them.

“I’ll expand each exhibit as things come in and add to it but I try to have everything in its own era such as the military, the drag strip, the railroad and mining and have it in order instead of having it scattered everywhere,” Penhale said. “You can really see a story I guess you could say. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments with it being that way.”

When it comes to a favorite exhibit, Penhale shared which ones he enjoys the most at the museum.

“I think the coal mining is my favorite and then the military which sort of gives honor to all these guys that served,” Penhale said. “The mining exhibit starts with a few artifacts back to the Civil War that we found below Helena. Then we have a lot of the miners lamps and stuff like that. There’s old lunch buckets, early lamps, oil lamps and one was grandfather’s mining lamp. Three things made Helena back then; Mining, railroad and ironworks. One couldn’t of existed without the other. You couldn’t have the mining without the railroad and the railroad wouldn’t of been any use without the mining and ironworks.”

Future of the museum

The future of the Helena Museum will be very bright as long as Penhale continues at the helm. He credits witnessing the evolution of the city as one of the main reasons he enjoys working at the museum.

“Just enjoying history, you just see so much once you’re in here and the history of the town,” Penhale said. “I witnessed the evolution of the town as you see it now so to speak. I can remember when there were probably five cars per day going down this road. At our house, the bedroom faced what’s Helena Road now and on Sunday afternoons I could lay across my bed and I could just about count the cars on one hand that would pass what’s now Helena Road. Now you couldn’t step across without getting hit. It used to be dirt too and it wasn’t paved.”

As for the future of the museum, Penhale will continue to review photographs and artifacts, give tours and expand the museum.

“In the future, we just want to keep expanding the exhibits and we’re always open to that,” Penhale said. “We get stuff in every day and every now and then we’ll get a few things that don’t pertain to Helena but they’re always interesting. We often have people bring stuff in to us.”

The Helena Museum is located at 5260 Helena Road. To schedule a tour of the museum, Penhale can be reached at 369-1448.