Grinnell Historical Museum Looks to Yesterday and Tomorrow
By Michael McAllister
In keeping with its Victorian beginnings, the Grinnell Historical Museum at 1125 Broad Street is dignified, restrained, and confident but polite. However, plans call for broadening the museum’s scope to capture more of Grinnell’s past and, if possible, expansion to a second location to house large items such as machinery.
Meanwhile, though, the museum stands stately and ready to welcome visitors and to, as its website states, “preserve and share the history of Grinnell through artifacts.”
No doubt the peeling-an-onion analogy has been used to the point of cliché when describing historical research, but it fits: one story leads to another that leads to another and so on, and the story of the museum itself is no exception.
In 1950, the Grinnell Herald-Registersponsored a community betterment project. Four women’s organizations—two chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the Women’s History and Literary Society, and the Tuesday Club—proposed a museum.
“Donations flooded in,” reports the current museum’s website, and items were stored above Candyland Station, later Cunningham Drug, at 827 Fourth Avenue, next to the Merchants National Bank. However, in 1954, a fire destroyed the building and most of its contents.
Ann Igoe, present historical society board member, reports that some items were saved and are in possession of the museum, but the items ae in poor condition.
Igoe picks up the narrative following the fire. The community continued to donate materials, which were kept in people’s basements and attics until another location could be found. One of the members of the society was a woman named Ruby Burton. She owned a house that was not large enough to serve as a museum, but she sold the house and donated the funds for the purchase of a larger building.
In 1958, another substantial contribution came from an anonymous donor, and seven years later the society purchased the McMurray house at 1125 Broad Street.
Igoe credits Rose Stoops as the driving force behind the museum in its early decades. Later, Betty Ernst and Lois Meacham were influential society members, and “there was always a group of active women who took care of the house,” Igoe reports.
Grinnell College intern Grace Tsui stands behind one of two new display cabinets now in place in the museum. Another intern, Jasper Cole-Kink, is also helping with museum activities this summer. The board is pleased with both the cabinets and the students. “We’ve been really lucky to have college kids,” Igoe notes.
Today the museum is managed by a 15-member board. Terms last three years. When vacancies occur, a nominating committee submits names and sitting members vote. Igoe characterizes the present board as “very active.”
Dovetailing with that active status, the museum is working to become more of a presence in Grinnell—reaching out with displays, presentations, and materials. For example, Grinnell College’s Summerfest on June 9 included a presentation by Igoe, Dan Kaiser, and Liz Cabelli about Grinnell’s noted photographer Cornelia Clarke (1884-1936). Billed as “Cornelia Clarke—Grinnell’s Beatrix Potter,” the program stressed not only Clarke’s amazing work taking stylized pictures of animals, mainly cats, but also her valuable nature photography.
Research about Clarke will continue, according to Igoe, because “We’re in love with her…. She got under our skin.” Likewise, museum officials plan more displays for city offices and for the Drake Community Library this fall.
Other outreach projects have included a brochure-guided history hike for young people, beginning at the beginning of Grinnell—the railroad crossing just to the east and south of the former train depot at Third and Park—and directing attention to 27 historic downtown locations. (While the brochure promotes a hike “just for kids,” be assured that adults will enjoy it also and will learn much about Grinnell in the process.)
In addition, Igoe points to a pictured text called Grinnell: Our Prairie Town, designed specifically for third graders at Davis Elementary School, which has proven especially successful. Writing in The Des Moines Registerin 2016, Dann Hayes called the book “something of a gem for the community.” The gem was the work of several dedicated individuals according to Hayes. First, there were the teachers who suggested the project, Stella Mann and Christie Hughes; next, there were the ladies who put it together, Karen Groves, Barb Lease, Lynn Cavanagh, Alesia Lacina, and Mary Schuchmann. Several other people assisted with elements such as graphic design and editing.
While in the past the museum has concentrated on the Victorian era, the hope for the future is that the museum might broaden its scope and encompass a century of life in Grinnell—maybe more. However, because the history of Grinnell is strongly forged in manufacturing and deeply rooted in agriculture, to properly tell the city’s story and to fully display its past requires space.
This buggy, a product of the Laros Buggy Company, is one example of a museum item that found a new home due to space shortages. The Laros Buggy Company flourished in Grinnell from 1897 through the early years of the twentieth century. In 1980, Grinnell Rotarians purchased the item and donated it to the Grinnell Historical Museum. In May of 2017, several Rotarians rolled the buggy to a new home at the Spaulding Transportation Museum. “With yellow running boards and a handsome horse,” reads the inscription, “this buggy would make a stylish turnout.”
“We’d like to find more space where we could put together a display of what agricultural implements looked like,” Igoe comments. Board members have discussed a location at the fairgrounds, but such a site is under county rather than city authority. “We’re not at the point of making any decisions,” Igoe clarifies. “We just have lots of dreams.” But plans to move toward expansion are in the discussion phase.
As part of their effort to reach out into the community, museum volunteers displayed the Randolph Header at Grinnell’s Ag Appreciation Day on August 31, 2017. The Randolph Header, a horse-drawn harvesting machine, was manufactured by Craver, Steele, & Austin and marketed internationally from 1877 to 1891. It was one of several inventions that originated in Grinnell. (For a much fuller account of the machine, see “Grinnell Stories,” a fascinating blog by Daniel Kaiser.)
Space limitations can restrict a museum, and so can the shortage of time. The indexing, the record keeping, and the details of digitalization require considerable time, not to mention patience, precision, and passion. Work is underway to submit photos to the Poweshiek History Preservation Project, available through the Drake Community Library website—just one example of the mostly unacknowledged effort needed to maintain the past for those who wish to pursue it.
The museum is staffed by—and all the behind-the-scenes work donated by—volunteers, the only exceptions being the college interns. Funding is also mostly dependent on voluntary contributions. The museum receives some income from an endowment, from an occasional grant, from a membership drive, and from items such as calendars and greeting cards.
Problems with the museum’s air conditioning arose over Memorial Day weekend, so donations will be directed toward replacing the system until that goal can be reached.
A new donation to the museum is a salesman’s sample of a Grinnell Washing and Wringing Machine. It dates from 1905 to 1907. A salesperson would open the case containing the sample, set the sample up for display, and walk away with a sale if all went well. A caption under an early promotional picture in a 1994 Grinnell Herald-Register article reads, “Having purchased the washer, the satisfied homemaker expresses her pleasure in the kind of washing it does for her.”
“A pretty special thing” is Ann Igoe’s assessment of the Wooten Desk owned by J. B. Grinnell. The desk is on loan to the museum from Grinnell College. The ornate piece of furniture could be closed for transportation (or presumably when one wanted to put away one’s work) and could provide spaces for the most fastidious of organizational patterns. Grinnell’s desk’s model name was the Extra—more elaborate than the Ordinary and the Standard, no doubt, but not quite up to the Superior. Museum information notes that such desks were “made with men of affairs in mind,” and such men included Joseph Pulitzer and John D. Rockefeller.
The Grinnell Historical Museum is open from Tuesday through Sunday from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Special tours may also be arranged. The museum maintains a website at www.grinnellhistoricalmuseum.orgas well as a Facebook and Instagram presence.
Visitors, volunteers, and monetary donations are always welcome, especially as the museum seeks to bring yesterday more fully to tomorrow.