ELKHART — Paul Thomas has channeled his love of his hometown and of history into creating a unique museum in downtown Elkhart.
The Time Was historical museum is filled with Thomas’ memorabilia of 90-plus years in Elkhart and donated artifacts dating back to the early-to-mid-nineteenth century.
Thomas was born in Goshen on Oct. 23, 1923, but moved to Elkhart six months later, and has never left.
Thomas was in the shoe business for nearly 50 years and ran his own store in downtown Elkhart before selling it to his son in 1988. It was not long before he began work on his next project above the now-vacant shoe store.
“I went home and told my wife that I was going to retire and sell the store. She said, ‘You’ve never been home for lunch, and you’ve never been home on Saturday, and you’re not going to start now,‘” Thomas told the South Bend Tribune.
Thus Thomas opened the Time Was museum on Feb. 1, 1988. It fills a seven-room apartment on the second floor of Thomas’ Main Street building.
Thomas said he never was a collector, but as a lifelong laborer on Main Street, felt equipped to model his hands-on museum in a way that resembled its business pattern.
Time Was consists of seven rooms: Thomas’ office; a room full of antique books and atlases; a “geneology room” with over a century’s worth of Elkhart school yearbooks, city directories and telephone books; a room featuring old Elkhart restaurants and menus; a room of Elkhart newspaper extras dating back to 1868; a room showcasing vintage clothing, and a bathroom.
Admission to Time Was is free. Thomas maintained that a walk-through of his museum is a simple free-will offering.
Although the museum receives no outside funding to operate, Thomas approximated that 90 percent of materials displayed at Time Was are donated by Elkhart residents and businesses.
“Every time somebody cleans out their attic they think of me,” Thomas chuckled.
In its 26-year history, Time Was has attracted between 2 and 3 thousand visitors annually. Many of those are schoolchildren, travelers and members of reunions, church groups and service groups.
Thomas, who runs the museum entirely by himself, offers tours of Time Was from 10:30 a.m. to noon Monday through Saturday by appointment only.
Thomas said he does not put as much time into the establishment as he previously did, but was quick to assert that he is not retiring from any duties.
“I still do a lot of community work so I’m gone a lot,” Thomas said.
Once serving as an Elkhart City Council member and participating in several mayors’ committees, Thomas proclaimed his unwavering pride in Elkhart.
Thomas has been dubbed “Mr. Elkhart” and the “Mayor of Main Street” because of his activities, and the names have stuck.
Paul Thomas Drive is an honorary title given to a one-block stretch of Main Street extending in front of Thomas’ building.
“I think I’ve accomplished what I set out to do,” Thomas said.
But Time Was will remain open. Paul has tasked his son Brian Thomas, Elkhart’s 2nd District council member, with maintaining the museum when Paul can no longer.
Brian Thomas said he plans to run it under many of the same auspices that his father does. The part-time hours suit the small museum.
“People do like to utilize it,” Brian said.
He added that he has every intention of maintaining Time Was and not letting it die.