In 2017, the Matheson History Museum celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Alachua County Historical Society, which merged with the Matheson after the museum opened in 1994. In addition, the museum marked the sesquicentennial of the 1867 Matheson House. In 1977, Sarah Hamilton Matheson—a founding member and past president of the Alachua County Historical Society—established a trust to donate the Matheson House to the Society. Sarah Matheson was also a founder of the Matheson Historical Center, which later changed its name to the Matheson History Museum.

The roots of the Matheson History Museum can be traced to the Alachua County Historical Society, which was born on May 16, 1967 in the old U.S. Post Office and Federal Building (now the Hippodrome State Theatre). According to Ben Pickard’s book, Thirty Years of Making History: The Alachua County Historical Society 1967-1997, the Alachua County Historical Society “owes its founding to the vision and determination of just one person, Helen Cubberly Ellerbe.” Ellerbe, a librarian, served as chair of the Alachua County Historical Commission and was the founding president of the Alachua County Historical Society.

Helen Ellerbe
Helen Cubberly Ellerbe

Before the museum opened, monthly meetings of the Society were held at members’ homes and featured programs by speakers such as University of Florida history professors Samuel Proctor, John Mahon and Michael Gannon; Thelma Boltin; U. S. “Preacher” Gordon; Sarah Matheson; Helen Ellerbe; John Paul Jones; Mark Barrow; Jerald Milanich; Sigsbee Scruggs; J. Wayne Reitz; Ted Crom; Kathleen Deagan; Kevin McCarthy; and Joel Buchanan.

The Alachua County Historical Society worked to preserve and interpret the history of the area by erecting historical markers and hosting regular programs and field trips to historic sites. In addition, the Society petitioned to save the old City Hall, assisted in the preservation of the Hotel Thomas and Haile Plantation, and campaigned to preserve historic buildings on the University of Florida campus. After a fire at the Matheson House in 1985, the Society financed its restoration and worked to transform it into a house museum.

“In the late 1980s,” Ben Pickard wrote, “Society members led by Mark Barrow, Marinus Latour, Helen Ellerbe, Sarah Matheson, Les May, John Paul Jones, Sam Proctor, Ben Pickard and Murray Laurie formed the Matheson Historical Center, which created the present-day museum and library and soon to be opened home museum. In fact, nearly every person on the Matheson Board had been an active member, board participant or president of the Society.” Together, the founders developed the museum’s library and collections and recruited architect Jay Reeves to transform the former American Legion Hall into a history museum.

Black and white image of the American Legion Hall in 1933
The American Legion Hall in 1933, image by Elmer Harvey Bone

Today, the Matheson History Museum interprets and preserves the history of Alachua County and its environs through historic preservation, including restoring the former Gainesville Gospel Tabernacle and Melting Pot building, which is now the Matheson Library & Archives; offering innovative exhibitions and programs on a variety of topics in local and Florida history; and promoting new scholarship, including the history of Alachua County as seen through the eyes of the twin copper lion statues that once guarded the 1885 Alachua County Courthouse. The Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) published this book, written by Matheson board member Mae Clark, and it is available for purchase in the museum’s gift shop.

Book cover of What the Lions Saw