Former Iowa Governor Robert Ray and wife visit the main street exhibit at Corydon's Prairie Trails Museum.
On Aug. 15, 50 years will have passed since the Freemasons laid the cornerstone during a ceremony for what would become Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County in Corydon. On that same date, the cornerstone for the new Wayne County Courthouse was set in place, on the square just east of the old jurisprudence building where a member of the Jesse James gang, Clell Miller, was tried for the robbery of the Ocobock Bank. The defendant’s chair that Miller sat in reposes now in the museum, toward the back of the Main Street display.
Among items included in both cornerstones were copies of the ‘Times-Republican,’ ‘The Humeston New Era’ and the ‘Seymour Herald.’
Museum manager Brenda DeVore said that the old courthouse was deemed beyond repair.
“A few years before the courthouse was torn down, one of the clock weights overnight fell through the floor and landed on the desk in one of the offices,” DeVore said. “So they quickly vacated that office. There was a sign that hung outside the courtroom that said, ‘No more than 15 people in the courtroom by order of the Wayne County Board of Supervisors,’ because they didn’t feel like the floor was strong enough.”
The judge’s and spectators’ benches, the juror’s box and the infamous defendant’s chair—the courtroom where the prosecution could not prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Miller was present with his gang the day the bank was robbed—were all transferred to the new museum, where transcripts of the trial are available to view. Miller was later killed in the final, failed bank robbery at Northfield, Minn.
The Wayne County Historical Society itself was founded Aug. 7, 1942. DeVore believes both dates coincide with Old Settlers, that the annual event served as a good time to organize, to get things started. The Historical Society signed up 75 members during one day of the celebration in 1942.
“By 1955 [the Historical Society] had made an agreement with the Wayne County Board of Supervisors, and they had cases for display in the basement of the [old] courthouse,” DeVore said. “There were some families that had donated some money, and those cases are still in this museum today.
“In 1964, with having a bond election, they decided they were going to build a new courthouse. The Board of Supervisors told the Historical Society, ‘you need to find a new home.’ Fortunately for them, in 1958, from the estate of May Miller King there was some money donated toward a new building fund.”
King donated $26,000, and donations from other citizens grew from there.
“From 1964, as they were building it, until the early 70s, there were hundreds of people that donated every year,” DeVore said. “A tremendous [amount] came in from this county. Not every county is that fortunate. We’re really fortunate to have such a wonderful facility and all these collections here.”
Amy Robertson became president of the Historical Society in 1955, and served in that capacity until 1992. Jan Winslow’s mother, Mildred Fry, served as vice president during that same timeframe.
“There were a few years there where they had a historical society, but they didn’t have a site,” DeVore said. “Once Amy became the president, they reenergized. One of her big things was membership.”
By 1960, DeVore reports there were over a thousand members, and it was the largest historical society in the state of Iowa. They still send out 400 newsletters every quarter, and some of those households have more than one member.
Groundbreaking for what was originally called the Wayne County Historical Museum took place on May 7, 1964. Total cost of that first section of the current building was $60,000.
Not long after the museum opened, Governor Robert D. Ray and his wife visited Corydon to enjoy the display.
When the new exhibit, ‘Prairie to Present’ was installed in the front lobby gallery of the museum in 1996, the name changed to reflect the prairie pioneer heritage of the region, and the importance of the trails that brought the settlers here.
DeVore said that the original plan called for a 4,000 square feet building, but before they even got started, they decided that was not big enough, and went to 6,800 square feet. The museum opened its doors to the public in 1966.
In 1970, the 17,000 square feet east addition was constructed at a cost of $42,957.
In 1973, the Church of Latter Day Saints, by their own request, installed the Mormon exhibit at a cost of $17,500 to commemorate their trek across Wayne County, where William Clayton composed the hymn, ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints.’ It still attracts many Mormon pilgrims.
“This is the only [secular] museum that they have installed any exhibits that were not specifically Mormon,” DeVore said.
The genealogical library was started in 1975. In 1976, the 10,500 square feet west addition was built at a cost of $101,029.
“It is amazing,” DeVore said. “There is so much information in that library—county history, family history. We have people call us all the time just for a genealogy search.
“People who come here from other parts of the country cannot believe we have a museum like this in such a small community. They’re always amazed.”