Visit Your Local Historical Society

Historical Society of MichiganHistorical museums in small communities often display treasures that are uniquely specific to the region where you reside. If you happen to live in a place where your family has called home for a lengthy period of time, it isn’t uncommon to find aspects of your personal family history on display.

I visit a lot of museums. Most of them are small town historical museums featuring the accumulated treasures and debris of the founding families of whatever given region I happen to be wandering through. Over the years I’ve found unexpected gems in such places and really wish I’d kept better records of what I’d seen and where.

Wilson County Historical Society

For instance, on a trip through southern Oregon, I visited a museum with a wonderful display of pioneer undergarments. Who knew that women had to wear so many layers? At a different museum, this one in Virginia City in California, there were the “special” undergarments for the ladies who worked as soiled doves. You can guess these models offered a certain type of easy access. Ahem.

Civil War era bulletOn another occasion, this time in a small community outside Reno, I found myself in a small room at the end of a hall that was filled with a disturbing collection of bullets, allegedly featuring human bite marks. The context was the Civil War, when men were reputedly told to “bite the bullet” while a surgeon amputated a limb. At the time bullet slugs were made of lead, a relatively soft metal and the tooth marks were clearly visible. In more than one case, the metal was almost severed. In recent years I’ve read articles that suggested this claim has been overly dramatized and that so-called bitten bullets are primarily false representations. Regardless, what made this particular collection extra strange was the fact the objects had supposedly been collected by a field surgeon who recovered them after the procedures and kept them as mementos. Yeah, I didn’t care for that too much either. The sense of suffering was darn near palpable.

the elusive jackalope

One of the more entertaining and bizarre displays I’ve run across was a collection of taxidermied animals at a small historical society somewhere in Idaho (I think). Whoever the enterprising taxidermist was, he’d managed to hybridize various animal parts into creatures which existed only in imagination. They were old enough to have been responsible for some of the more interesting urban legends that still make the rounds today. Mothman anybody?

family treeOften the museums offer snapshots of the local history, insight into the founding families and the social dynamics that still emanate from those long-ago marriage alliances. Even today, many of the homesteads where we live are referred to by the names of the families who settled in the area and built those homes a century ago. You don’t so much move in as feel like you’re a long-term guest of some unseen landlord.

Collections usually display a ragtag assortment of flotsam and jetsam that includes reminders of other generations. I’m always intrigued by the Victorian boots that once graced a lady’s tiny foot. Or the black mourning cape from the 1920s, fitted with elaborately sewn jet beads the length of the shattered lace sleeves. There are almost always examples of the local environment – pressed flowers, dried fern leaves, and exotic butterflies cruelly pinned to wooden plaques. Freeze-dried birds, their wings outspread as though ready to take flight, and mounted deer heads, their antlers festooned with cobwebs.

Wakulla Hsitorical Society

Victorian shoes

The photographs always make me a little sad. Boxes and trays of treasured stills, men with thick beards and women with dour faces, grim children who were told to sit still for the two-minute exposures, cautioned against smiling as the engravures recorded their frozen stiff faces. Treasured keepsakes lost to the generations. I wonder if their family line has died out, if there are descendents somewhere wondering if their ancestors shared a square chin or the same high cheekbones. There’s a wealth of inspiration in these small museums, especially for people as observant as writers.

Clatskanie Historical MuseumWhen was the last time you visited a local historical society? Can’t remember the last time you entered a museum and smelled the scent of dust and old leather, the must of decaying books and rotted cloth? You should go. Tomorrow. The next weekend at the latest. Pack up the family and go – you’ll be surprised at what you find. You’ll never know if you don’t try.




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  1. #1 by Marquita Herald (@martyinmaui) on June 17, 2013 - 7:22 pm

    Lesann I love your article! I am a life long fan of regional museums. I’ve been blessed to have had a career in travel where I was able to visit many areas around the world, and every chance I got I poked around in out of the way museums and historic sites. Right here in my own backyard in Maui, there is the Bailey House Museum with amazing treasures. Thank you so much for the inspiration and reminder,

    • #2 by Lesann Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 18, 2013 - 10:22 am

      Thanks, Marquita! It sounds like your work has taken you into some wonderful museum environs. I have actually visited the Bailey House Museum! I was fortunate to visit Maui several years ago and got to see the exhibits. There was a wonderful young woman who escorted us through the house. She knew so much of the local history and being Native Hawaiian, incorporated dual perspectives in the context. It was wonderful – definitely one of the highlights of our visit. How fun that you live right there! Lucky you….

  2. #3 by Stacey Laatsch (@StaceyLaatsch) on June 19, 2013 - 12:12 pm

    Great post, Lesann! I live in the “middle of nowhere” (worse, the middle of Illinois) and yet there are many fun and quirky museums in my area, from Shea’s Gas Station on Route 66 in Springfield to the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum in Atlanta.

    On a different topic: This is my first visit to your blog. Your book covers are beautiful! May I ask who designed them?

    I just downloaded The Estate Appraiser. From the description, it looked like a story I would enjoy. If I like it, I’ll leave a review on Amazon.

    • #4 by Lesann Berry/ @LesannBerry on June 19, 2013 - 7:26 pm

      Hi Stacey! I got all excited when I saw the Grain Elevator Museum because I visited a tiny museum in a corn silo (no kidding!) somewhere back in the midwest. It could have been Illinois but I think it was more toward Nebraska. After looking up your museum, it was definitely not the same place. The one I visited was in a round metal container (probably stored feed corn?). At any rate, I’d never seen so much corn-related kitsch before. I love those little museums because they showcase stuff nobody else puts on display. I’m going to add your two museums to my list of places to visit – thanks for the ideas!

      Thanks for checking out my book! That’s awesome! I hope you like it. 🙂

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