Long ago, a central hub known as “The Bel” to local teens in Belding provided area youths with a place to be with friends and enjoy time together when there wasn’t much else to do outside of school or work.
That time was the mid-1940s, and the location was the Belrockton Museum, which was at the time an area recreation center.
Over the years the 106-year-old building has served many uses, exchanged hands, and today sits as a public museum for members of the community to enjoy.
And this October, after nearly two years of effort from countless volunteers, the Belrockton may once again be referred to as “The Bel” by area youths, as the new Belding Exploration Lab (BEL) Children’s Museum approaches its grand opening.
“When we were teenagers, this building was a teen center and everyone referred to it as the ‘The Bel,’” Belding Museum Advisory Board Director Barb Fagerlin said. “We want kids to once again think of this building as ‘The Bel.’”
Upon opening in October, the new children’s museum will be open at no cost to the public on every Saturday of the week, with additional days available by appointment.
With seven separate themed rooms, focusing on the local history and natural surroundings of the Belding area, the “hands-on” approach that museum board members took with the exhibits is sure to entice the young minds of young children.
“Anything that these kids can touch, we want them to go for it,” said Tom Fagerlin, who has put in countless hours of volunteer work in preparing the museum. “We expect kids 2 to 12 years old to really enjoy this museum and we want it to be as hands on as possible.”
According to Barb Fagerlin, most items in the museum were either donated or built by area volunteers, including students and faculty at both Belding and Lakeview high schools.
“We have visited a lot of different children’s museums looking for ideas,” she said. “But a lot of these items were original ideas, and you wont find some of these things anywhere else.”
With no paid employees and operating strictly by volunteers, Barb Fagerlin said the children’s museum, like the current museum at the Belrockton, will be open to the public for free, which she said is critical in the minds of the museum board members.
“We want the kids who really need this to be able to come,” she said. “By not charging, we know we aren’t limiting this experience to anyone. Sometimes the kids who need this experience the most are those who are not afforded this kind of opportunity.”
Tom Fagerlin said when building and designing the museum, it was very important to include as many items as possible that will keep children engaged and entertained.
“There are items in this museum that even a 2-year-old can do,” he said. “The biggest problem we’ve had in the past, is we had to always tell kids ‘keep your hands off.’ Well now, we’re encouraging kids to touch almost everything. We want this to be a very hands on experience for them.”
Located on the second floor of the Belrockton, the museum is diveded into seven different themed rooms: Adventure on the Flat; In Your Ear; Up, Up and Away; Production Junction; How Things Work; Back in Time; and Can You Dig It?
Tom Fagerlin said the museum has been constructed almost strictly from donations, much of them anonymous, and said any little amount can help.
“The museum will be free, but we hope people will continue to donate when they visit,” he said. “Any little bit helps. I try to tell people, $25 buys a gallon of paint. It goes a very long way.”
Barb Fagerlin said after months of hard work and dedication, she is just very excited to see everyone’s work finally come together for the children.
“There isn’t another children’s museum around for miles,” she said. “I think this will be great place for kids to come and learn and engage, and I can’t wait to see this place used by kids once again.”
Belding Children’s Museum Rooms
Adventure on the Flat
This room, the largest in the museum, will focus children’s attention toward local wildlife found throughout the area. Children will be able to sit in a an old refurbished rowboat, imagining they are floating down the Flat River as they fish for local fish with magnetic fish poles while also learning about boater’s safety.
In Your Ear
A large pipe xylophone that can be operated by slapping various tube lengths to create different notes is the centerpiece of this room, which also features old-fashioned telephones that are sure to amaze an age group now raised in the era of wireless cell phones. A mock emergency 911 call center, where children will learn the inner appropriate methods of calling 911 and talking to emergency responders, based on information provided by Ionia County Central Dispatch Director Jim Valentine and Belding Police Chief Dale Nelson.
Up, Up and Away
A portion of a Cessna 150 airplane for children to sit in and pretend to fly over Montcalm and Ionia counties is sure to be a highlight for the museum. A television visible through the cockpit window will display actual footage recorded of a flyover from an airplane that departed from the Greenville Municipal Airport and flew throughout the area.
Featuring a mock radio broadcast booth, children will learn about the inner workings of how on-air radio is performed, and will be able to create pretend broadcasts of their own as children can listen from another room. A stage for children to dress up and perform on, complete with a disco ball, as well as an area for puppet shows, will keep the imagination flowing.
How Things Work
Complete with a pulley system created by students at Lakeview High School, this room will allow children to experiment with mechanics, working with magnets and an assembly line style of tubing that will allow children to work together to send a ball through a pipe-like obstacle course.
Back in Time
With a focus on Michigan’s early history, a life-size wigwam and other items specific to Native Americans who originally inhabited Michigan will have children learning about the earliest known history of settlers who occupied the land along the Flat River.
Can You Dig It?
Dating into the prehistoric ages, items including a sandbox of dinosaur bones, will allow children to enter the mind of an archeologist. A mastodon bone discovered in Orleans will be on display as well.