Tuesday, March 10, 2009
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Mount Pulaski museum a treasure trove of local content

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[March 10, 2009]  MOUNT PULASKI -- The Mount Pulaski Township Historical Museum and Research Center, located at 102-104 E. Cooke St. in Mount Pulaski, offers a treasure trove of town memorabilia and historical artifacts and is an extensive resource for local genealogy.

InsuranceThe historical society, formed in 1994, was the end result of an effort by Waneta Stephens to save the town's train depot. When the Canadian National Railway took over in Mount Pulaski, she approached them about the depot, and it was given to her, providing that she move it off railroad property.

Stephens worked hard to find a location and the funds for the move but was not able to accomplish it before the railroad demolished the depot. It was a huge disappointment, but it spurred her to move forward in forming the historical society and preserving the history and genealogy of the township. Referred to by local residents as the society's "founding mother," Stephens was its first president and is now one of the volunteer tour guides.

Originally in a smaller building on the other side of the square, the museum moved to East Cooke in 1998, and is now in two adjoining buildings that were donated to the society by attorneys Thomas and Homer Harris Jr. after they moved their offices to Lincoln.

Stephens says that both buildings were in much need of repair. The condition they are in today is mostly thanks to the hard work of volunteer efforts and was completed with very little money.

During the busiest times, the museum offers three to four volunteer tour guides, who divide the museum into sections and speak on their section as the tour goes through.

Most of the financial support for the museum comes from memberships to the society, including several people who no longer live in the area but still contribute annually.

The society also has a small gift shop, and in the past they have done some fundraisers, including selling blocks for memorial quilts that are on display in the upstairs of the museum.

Visitors enter the museum through what was originally the Romer Brothers Saloon. This area features an account of the Mount Pulaski Courthouse history, collections of souvenirs from past town celebrations, an area dedicated to the Capp family who founded the town in 1836 and a memorial to Casimir Pulaski for whom the town is named.

Other items in this portion of the building include 19th- and early 20th-century artifacts donated or on loan from various organizations and citizens of the community. There are also plat maps of the town from 1893, 1900 and 1910 and other items that define the community's beginnings.

The second building was originally the town bank and still has in place the tellers' windows and the bank safe.

The old bank also houses the research center for local genealogy, including a large number of books on individual family names, a collection of hard-bound books that consist of all the newspapers published in Mount Pulaski, and an index card file of local obituaries.

Among other items on the bank side of the museum is a tribute to the late Harry Hahn, Mount Pulaski's "Mr. Lincoln." Hahn, who traveled extensively in his Lincoln role, was once recognized in Washington, D.C., as being the man who most resembled our 16th president, and he was greatly loved by the people of Mount Pulaski.


This room also offers a collection of military uniforms, many worn by natives of the area, along with photographs of that person in the uniform; drawings and art featuring Abraham Lincoln; and many other pieces significant to Mount Pulaski.

The tour then returns to the old saloon and the steep, narrow stairwell at the back of the room. As the stairs ascend, one travels through time back to a late 1800s or early 1900s-era home, beautifully decorated and furnished.

The kitchen features items such as an early electric refrigerator with the top-mounted compressor, an old cream separator, butter churns, Hoosier cabinet and a "pantry" stocked with what would have then been modern-day gadgets

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Pass from the kitchen into the sewing and children's room, which shows off period pieces such as toys, dolls and buggies, and other items representative of the early 1900s, and move into the Victorian dining room, then the parlor, both with antique furnishings, dishes, lamps and wall hangings.

Stephens credits Jim Irish of Elkhart for the authentic-looking decor upstairs, saying he is responsible for the period-style wallpapering, the detailed painting on the ceilings and some of the hanging light fixtures that are showcased.

The home also touts a period-style bedroom, complete with feather bed, and features a small collection of ladies' hats from the late 1800s to 1920s.

Another prized portion of the upstairs is the "South Side Poker Club," which was active until the late 1970s. Stephens explains that a bare bulb hanging in the window was the men's signal that a game was in the making. As merchants closed up shop for the day, they would see the light and go up for a friendly game or two.

The last two rooms of the upstairs are dedicated to music, sports and education. The music room has pictures of Mount Pulaski High School bands, the school ball teams and the town's baseball team from 1902.

In addition, there is an area dedicated to Vaughn De Leath, a native of Mount Pulaski. She was born Leonore Elizabeth Vonderlieth in 1894 and was a niece to the Vonderlieth for whom the local nursing home is named.

In 1920 she took the stage name of Vaughn De Leath, hoping to disguise her German heritage, as the First World War had just ended, and there was still great animosity toward those of German ancestry.

Visitors can view her albums, as well as music she wrote, and take with them a flier that offers her biography and claim to fame as the first woman crooner on the radio.

The last room upstairs is a late 1800s schoolroom. Stephens says that this is attributable to Margaret Lanterman, a 92-year-old retired teacher who taught in Mount Pulaski and set up the room. Among the many period details, there are writings on the original-style blackboard that would have been common to that era, including 1867 math problems focused on figuring the value of acreage and animals.

The museum is only open afternoons Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 4. During the coldest winter months it is closed to save money with lower heating costs.

Stephens says she is proud to have been a part of forming the historical society and is pleased that so many have taken an interest in keeping it going, including the current leaders of the organization. She says that they never have enough volunteers and welcomes anyone who is willing to give of their time to contact the society.

Looking to the future, she says that Mount Pulaski will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2011. The last official history of the township was written in 1986, and she is hoping that a new one will be published in 2011 and that the historical society will play a part in its writing.


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