But Willis quickly found the top reason people stopped in wasn’t to marvel at copies of century-old newsletters once put out by Champion Papermill for its employees — which was Willis’ personal favorite.
Instead, the top reason visitors walked through the doors was to use the bathroom or get directions. They would browse through the museum for a few minutes at best before getting on their way.
The town hopes to change that, however, and has begun looking at ways to get more people coming through the doors of the historical museum and staying longer.
The first step has been expanding its hours from three to six days a week. The town has also added a bonafide new visitors’ center station inside with more tourist literature and trip planning materials in hopes of attracting people downtown. The town has landed an annual contribution from the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority to help make that happen.
But the museum side could use some work, too.
“With more resources the museum could be its own attraction to bring people downtown, but it is still a pretty far way away from that,” said Willis, who now serves on the town board.
A historical museum is definitely a niche that needs filling in Haywood County.
“There really isn’t a museum in Haywood County that focuses on local history. Being a history person, that would be great,” Willis said. “The facility here can definitely serve both roles as a museum and a visitor center.”
The museum contains artifacts and information germane to Canton’s long history, and walking tours of the town and museum are available. Among the prized artifacts on display there are old inventions from a prominent Canton native, Fillmore Christopher, whose creations ranged from ditch diggers to fruit and vegetable scales.
The monetary support from the county tourism agency could help with more advertising for the museum.
“It would be nice to get some marketing for the museum,” Willis said. “Not that many people are even aware that it’s there.”
The museum needs more exhibits for starters. It could possibly partner with an area art association to show off works created by local artists or host rotating collections like the historic photo exhibit that has been on display at the Canton library, Willis suggested.
The museum could house the additional displays on its lower level, which is mostly used by a local bridge club.
“It would be nice to get that space utilized more,” Willis said.
Mayor Mike Ray agreed with Willis and chimed in with his own unique possibilities for the museum.
“I want more things happening and going on there,” Ray said.
The mayor proposed providing demonstrations of heritage crafts such as whittling, quilting and caning chairs. Heritage tourism is a growing market as more people are interested in learning about an area’s culture, which might be different from their own.
Now doubling as a visitors center, the historical museum will fill a void left by closure of another visitor center near the Canton exit off Interstate 40. The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority had operated that visitor center, but said visitiation was too low to justify keeping it open.
The TDA will reallocate some of what it spent there to the downtown museum operation, providing $16,000 to help pay for a staff position.
That has allowed the museum to open more days during the week. Previously, it was only open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. But, the additional help means the museum and visitors’ center operate six days a week for visitors who find their way downtown.
Travelers may be more prone to hang around Haywood County, visit its stores and eat in its restaurants if directed downtown to see the museum.
“People who are seeking visitors’ information might stumble across the museum and find out some interesting information about the area,” said Town Manager Al Matthews. “Both have the potential to help each other out.”
However, Willis questioned whether it offers enough in its current form to lure passersby from the interstate into downtown.
“I don’t think moving the visitors’ center to downtown will help improve the visitation figures, but it can only help the museum for those who do come,” Willis said. “If TDA wants the visitor center to succeed in downtown, they will have to make sure that there are enough directional signs to point travelers to the center, especially from the interstate.”
The TDA decided to move the center this year after seeing a continued decline in visitation numbers at the Interstate 40 location. The tourism agency was also renting the building near the interstate and could save money by switching to the town-owned museum location.
Correspondent Peggy Manning contributed to this story.
Visit the museum and visitors’ center
The visitors’ center and museum on Park Street in Canton are staffed from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tours can be scheduled anytime with curator Wayne Carson. 828.646.3412