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Wayne County Historical Society marks 75th year
By Jason W. Selby
May 15, 2017, 08:39

Ortha and Altha Green with the violin and the standup base in 1918.
FOUNDED IN 1942 BY WARREN BURTON AND ROY GRIMES, ORGANIZATION EVENTUALLY LED TO PRAIRIE TRAILS MUSEUM

On Aug. 7, the evening before the 1942 Corydon Old Settlers celebration, former Iowa State Representative Warren H. Burton and Roy Grimes founded the Wayne County Historical Society. In truth, Prairie Trails Museum was also dedicated that day, as its construction was the goal of this organization from the beginning. This summer marks the 75th anniversary of an association that over the decades has worked diligently to preserve the past for future generations.

“Very interesting guy,” museum manager Brenda DeVore said of Burton, who was Wayne County Engineer, while Grimes was an employee of the department. Burton was also one of a long line of columnists for the Times- Republican.

Grimes became the first president of the Historical Society. Burton was curator. Over 75 years, it has had only seven presidents: Grimes, Amy Robertson, Jan Winslow’s mother Mildred Fry, Winslow, Hal Greenlee, Marilyn Goughnour and current president Warren Lunsford.

Grimes was an Allerton High School graduate who taught in country schools for eight years and carried rural mail, before working for the State Highway Commission. He served in the Wayne County Engineer’s office until his death in 1966.

“They began talking about the fact some of those early pioneers were dying off rather quickly,” DeVore said of the Historical Society’s inception.

Burton and Grimes set up a booth at Old Settlers that attracted 74 charter members. Annual membership dues cost 50 cents, and lifetime membership cost one dollar. By the 1950s, it was one of the largest historical societies in Iowa with over 1,000 members.

Museum

“When they first started it, what they really wanted to do was get those oral histories and writings from people,” DeVore said. “The first artifacts were donated in 1947. It came from Hiram Evans and the Dr. George Hinkle estate.”

Hinkle’s daughter Jessie had provided $1,000 as the first donation the year prior.

In 1947, the Society received permission from the Board of Supervisors to store the artifacts in cases in the basement of the old Wayne County Courthouse. Those cases are still in use at the museum today. The courthouse clock sits in the back, its hands frozen in time.

Much of the Main Street area of the museum was built from reclaimed wood from around the area. One door comes from Amy Robertson’s family’s general store that once stood in Promise City.

In 1964, work began on both a new courthouse and Corydon’s museum. The original archival building consisted of three rooms of 6,800 square feet. Today, the total is over 38,000 square feet.

“When the museum opened here in 1966, there were hundreds and hundreds of people donating things,” DeVore said. “That’s why we have such a wonderful collection. Everything in the museum is a donated artifact, and has to have a connection to Wayne County.

“Many museums around wish they had started that long ago—that’s why we have such an amazing collection.”

Until 1996, the museum had been run completely by volunteers. Joyce Dicks was its first official employee as director.

In 2002, DeVore stepped down from the Board of Directors to become manager. The museum is a non-profit institution. All donations are tax-deductible.

“I’m proud to be part of the historical society,” DeVore said. “I was born in the Wayne County Hospital. I’ve always lived here, so I have a very strong interest in the history.”

For almost a decade, DeVore was also on the Board of Directors for the Iowa Museum Association.

“That has helped keep our museum known within the state,” DeVore said.

There are now over 50,000 items in the museum, from the chair Clell Miller sat in while on trial for robbing the bank as a member of the James Gang, to a taxidermy skunk preserved by poet and musician Ortha Green.

Ortha and Altha

Just beyond the front room of the museum, Ortha’s work is encased in glass. There are snakes, fish, birds and an assortment of species native to Wayne County. She was also an author. She published two books of historical nonfiction, Mines of Wayne County and Mills of Wayne County, as well as compiling scrapbooks as early as the 1940s.

“That’s why we have all the information we do,” DeVore said, “is that those people many years ago knew it would be important for us tot be able to look back and see where we came from and how we got here.”

Though Ortha and her sister Altha Green never married, they lived diverse and full lives.

“They were musicians from north of Promise City,” DeVore said. “They were interesting people. There have been a lot of interesting people [from Wayne County]. I did not know the sisters. I wish I had.

“They were multitalented. All these quilt pieces on display, [Ortha] and her sister did those. There have been a lot of talented people involved with this museum.”

Ortha was listed in the Who’s Who of the International Poets of London, England, as well.

Freedom Ring

Burton’s son Edgar was killed in action during World War II, and that history is preserved by the society his father helped found. His Purple Heart sits in the Armed Forces section.

While serving in the U.S. Navy, Edgar Burton’s vessel was torpedoed and sunk. He was wounded and survived in shark-infested waters for hours before being rescued.

Though he was honorably discharged, he reenlisted, this time in the Air Force, and he died when his plane was shot down in combat over the Atlantic Ocean.

One winter, Jeanie Jackson, Jackie Greenlee and DeVore designed the Armed Forces exhibit. On display are the shirt and shoes worn by Colonel Dwight E. Sullivan during his five-and-a-half year captivity in North Vietnam.

“That hat there,” DeVore said. “He called that his ‘Go to Hell’ hat. It’s got slash marks for all the flights he took. He felt like that’s where he was going when he flew.

“He gave us a bar of soap, and he told me the soap was given to him when he was released from prison. He said that in all those years, they didn’t give him any soap. He said, ‘I’ll be damned if I was going to use it that day.’ So he didn’t use it.”

That bar of soap now sits in the Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County.

The Times-Republican recently published an article about Col. Sullivan’s service during the Vietnam War.

In addition, a crossbow from the Hmong tribesmen hangs in the west display case. It was in Don Lammers’ possession when he was killed in action during Vietnam. Its trigger is made of animal bone.

At the Gold Star Museum in Johnston, Carl Holiday’s gun is exhibited. Holiday was killed in World War II while on anti-submarine patrol. His son, Bob Holiday, is president of the board in Johnston.

On the Fourth of July, during the Freedom Ring, the museum will use the occasion to celebrate its 75th year and the men and women who made it all possible.

“We’re going to try to make a splash out of it,” DeVore said. “Seventy-five years is a big deal. It’s a long time. It shows you the longevity of our historical society.”

Preparing for the future

“We’ve got this wonderful museum with all these artifacts and beautiful displays,” DeVore said. “But the real treasure of the museum is this library. We have records from the courthouse given the Historical Society by the order of Judge Thomas Selby Bown.”

The earliest document on file is from 1851.

“It’s a wealth of information,” DeVore said. “It’s invaluable. We’ve archived all the photos; we’ve got them in boxes and in files so you can find family photos. We’ve got all the different towns archived and one-room school records. We’ve actually had people come into this museum wanting to find their father’s or their grandfather’s school record. If we know what township they were in, many times we can find those people’s names when they were a student.”

Wilma West helped start the library in 1977. She sought information through a questionnaire given to one-room schoolteachers.

In October of 2016, with assistance from a grant from Wayne Community Foundation, the museum installed a state-of-the-art security system to keep up with the threat of theft.

“We’re trying to protect Wayne County history,” DeVore said. “And that’s one way to do it.”

Over the years, a few items have disappeared, but there has never been a major break-in. DeVore hopes thinking ahead by investing in security will ensure nothing like that ever happens. There are cameras in each room of both barns and the museum, and a system of alarms.

In addition, throughout the year dehumidifiers are kept running to help preserve artifacts.

“Every part of this museum is handicapped accessible,” DeVore said. “You can come in and tour this place no matter what condition you’re in—most people who tour the museum are older folks.”

The Historical Society started out with five board members. Currently there are 16, plus over 30 volunteers, which include high school students, as well as civic organizations that help. One of the Seymour students that volunteered, Jason Roberts, would go on to study history in college.

“I think the museum helped spur his interest in history,” DeVore said of Roberts, who gave a speech on C-Span in Washington, D.C., a few years ago.

The Lions Club cleans. Bill Gode tends the garden. Every inch of space is utilized.

“This is a premier museum in Iowa,” DeVore said. “I’m proud to help preserve Wayne County history.”

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