Unsung Heroes: Small-Town Museums and County Historical Associations

             Very recently, I wrote a blog about an original section of the Lincoln Highway in Clinton County, Iowa. One of my readers had a question about it, so I told them that I would get in touch with the Lincoln Highway Association and get an answer. 

               I wrote them an e-mail introducing myself and asked them the question on behalf of my reader. I am very pleased to say that they got back in touch with me and answered my question beyond all of my expectations.   

                This led into conversations with a few of their members, and I found out just some of the efforts that they’re taking to preserve the original section of the highway, as well as some of the landmarks associated with it. But most of all, I was reminded of the immense and important role that the everyday volunteer and amateur historian have in the preservation and collection of the history of our nation.

                The Little Guys

                As I’ve stated in previous entries, history is everywhere. If something was born, built, or invented, then it has a past. And so it is that while you have a lot of big museums located throughout the world, many of them in larger urban centers, you also have dozens and dozens of small town museums dedicated to the preservation of local town or regional history.

                Some of the people that run these small-time operations have degrees, but many don’t. They come from all walks of life and careers, but they are united by their shared love of their common past.  And rest assured that their knowledge in their field is impressive.

                The Little Museum down the Block

                I lived in Clinton County for nearly twenty years, in the town of DeWitt.  One of these museums, the Central Community Historical Museum, was right down the street from my house. A few years ago, I decided to go up and see if they could use a hand here or there. Luckily for me, they were very happy to let me putt around and help out.

                As I sat and spoke with some of the volunteers, I found out that they had tremendous knowledge of Clinton County. I mean, I was intimidated. They made me – the guy with the degree- feel like a rank beginner; like I hadn’t ever cracked a book. Talking to them was like talking to a magic encyclopedia. Let me give you an example.

                I knew a guy that had moved into a certain area of southern Clinton County that had at one time been a very small town called Buena Vista. I had never heard of the place, but he knew my background and asked me to look into it for him. So I went to my friends at the museum.

                One of the people that I spoke to about it was their longtime president, Ms. Ann Soenksen. She not only told me that she had heard about it, but she knew exactly where it was and produced a giant file folder of materials all about the former town. And for the entire time that I’ve known her now, she continues to do that to me.

                “Hey, Ms. Ann? Have you ever heard of such and such a building?”

                “Why yes, John, I have! It was right here where this thing is now, and these were the people who built it, and they did this for a living, etc, etc….”

                And she’s not the only one like that. I was doing research for one of the first articles I wrote for my column, “Brassard’s Attic.” It was on a building that used to stand along the main north/south drag in DeWitt called Hotel Dell, and I needed a picture of it. So I asked another long-time museum member, Ms. Lois Wessels, if they had one.

                Not only was she able to provide a picture, but she was also able to do the same thing that Ms. Ann always does to me – tell me where it was, who owned it, what happened there; I think you get the idea.

                And neither one of them are professional historians. But I can say with certainty that they could sit and tell you nearly anything that you wanted to know about Clinton County history off the top of their heads. And if they couldn’t, then they most certainly could tell you where to look. They do it to me all the time.

                The Cemetery Men

                Another organization I have also had the opportunity to work with the Clinton County Pioneer Cemetery Association. This organization, like many like it throughout the state of Iowa, is dedicated to the preservation and continual upkeep of the pioneer cemeteries of Clinton County, Iowa.

                I’m a big cemetery preservation advocate. I’ve spent a good portion of my life looking through cemeteries, and I‘ve grown to appreciate them a great deal. So when I found out there was such a group right in my own backyard, I wanted to get involved. And who was the contact? Ms. Ann.

                A few e-mails and a few more phone calls later, I was riding out with some members of the association to help put in a gate at a pioneer cemetery. That was a very educational weekend.

                The men that I went with were, well, senior citizens. Being in my thirties, I figured that I would be doing the brunt of the physical labor. And I was very wrong.

It was a humbling experience being outworked by men that were well old enough to be my grandparents. I mostly watched them as they lifted a twelve foot long steel cattle gate around, dug the hole, set a new post, and hang said gate.

                Like a thirteen year old, I got to do some shoveling and help make sure that the holes they drilled though the new fence post were level. They must have felt sorry for showing me up so bad, because they were nice enough to buy me lunch later. Thanks, guys.

                Afterwards, they took me on a tour of some of the cemeteries that they looked after. Many of them were very remote, and a few of them you would only know they were there because either a sign told you they were  or you had the kind of men I was with giving you directions.

                As we toured, they told me about how the Clinton County Pioneer Cemetery Association had come into existence in 2007. When they had first gone to these cemeteries, most of them were very overgrown, looking more like a farm field that had been allowed to return to native grass. There was a rather large one that was so overgrown that relatives of some people buried there would bring a lawnmower with them to mow a path to the headstones they came to visit. Suffice it to say, these places were in pretty bad shape.

                These men and the other volunteers who were with them weren’t professional landscapers or historians. These men were farmers. But they used what they knew and what they had to clean up these places, which included a lot of clearing brush and cutting down trees, lawn mowing, and fence repair. Now when you go there, these cemeteries are like diamonds in the rough. They’re maintained by regular lawn service and are as easy to get around as any other well-kept urban cemetery.

                The Unsung Heroes

                There are men and women all across the county just like this, who are dedicated to the preservation of their history. They may not have been professional historians or research librarians, but that doesn’t matter.

                Ms. Ann told me that when the Central Community Historical Museum was created, it was originally an idea put forth by a local businessman who thought that they needed to preserve the history in Clinton County. He didn’t want to see things fade away and be forgotten.  

                So this goes out to all of you everyday folks out there who dedicate your time and energy to preserving our history. Thank you, guys, for chipping in and helping to keep our history alive.




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