Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Trip Report: Southwest Ohio History part 1

Last Friday I decided to go on a road trip and tour a couple of regional museums that I’d been meaning to visit for a while.
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The Warren County Historical Society, in the Warren Co. seat of Lebanon, Ohio, is situated near the main crossroads of the town. It’s just down the street from the Golden Lamb, a tavern dating back to 1803. The museum is in some ways a typical local history exhibit and archive, but with three levels of displays and an emphasis on the county’s early settlers and large Shaker population, it surpasses what most roadside museums have to offer.
The visitor enters the old public building that houses the museum, and after dispensing with a five dollar entrance fee is ushered into the basement to file through the displays.

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One of the first exhibits is a large room full of farming equipment. It’s amazing what people were able to accomplish with their hands in the 19th century.
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A statue of Lucifer in limestone broods over this room. Next to him there is a door leading into a small chapel. Its dark inside, and apparently under renovation. At the opposite end of the agriculture room from the “Morning Star” is the printing office of the Western Star, Lebanon’s first paper.
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Inside the glassed-in shop, you can see the implements of the early printers. Hauling a press into the frontier settlements was an arduous process, since before the railroads, canals, and turnpikes, everything had to be carried overland in large Conestoga –style freight wagons.
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Down a nearby corridor, another room has been dressed up to look like the interior of an early log cabin.
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The stone hearth is enormous, and would have been kept smoldering all day. A sole fashion mannequin  in a prairie-style dress keeps watch over the pots.
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Within a larger room have been parked all sorts of early horse-drawn vehicles. This is a carriage dating from 1827.
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In another room enclosed by old-fashioned glass windows, a mannequin drills a slightly creepy-looking doll in grammar.
 
The centerpiece of the museum is on the main floor, where the open atrium of the building is occupied by a mock town square called the “village green”.  Here you can browse through the tradespeople’s shops and see their products and the tools of the trade. The daguerreotype  shop sports a gallery of 1850s and 60s portraits on the wall. If that weren’t ghostly enough, on a table in the center of the shop sit three or four momento mori photographs. In the Victorian era, when sudden death from Cholera or Yellow Fever weren’t uncommon, posing the recently deceased for portraits became a popular use of the new photographic medium.
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Upstairs, there’s another example of a death souvenir. Two hair wreaths decorate the walls. In the 19th century, people collected locks of hair from their loved ones, especially the deceased. When one had enough hair from living or dead people, it was popular to weave the stuff into picture frames, decorations, or even wreathes like this one.
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A still-weirder object to our modern sensibilities is this gossamer wreath made from the delicate skins of cicadas.
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As I looked through the upstairs exhibits, a friendly cat who inhabits the museum quietly tailed me, perhaps to ensure that I was up to no mischief.
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The upstairs exhibits mainly showcased the ingenuity and industry of the local Shakers. The sect itself is nearly gone, but they left a lot of artifacts behind. Above is a small washing machine made for socks.
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The label on this device explains that it was a static electricity generator. What it doesn’t tell us is what the Shakers were doing experimenting with electricity. Alas, we may never know, since the Shakers themselves cannot tell us…
In conclusion, I spent a fine two hours or so on a Friday afternoon in this sleepy museum, looking through the “shipwreck of time” as I call any sizeable collection of personal artifacts.
Next: Part 2, the Cincinnati History Museum.