Yesterday's Magazette

8 – Small Town Museum Holds Family History


Town Museum Holds Family History

The author’s sister explores family heirlooms.



By Madonna Dries Christensen

Most people, I suppose, can’t walk into a museum and find artifacts from their family’s past on display. It happened to me when I visited Brunson Heritage House in my hometown in Iowa.

Because the museum was closed for the season, I had arranged for a special tour. The Brunson Heritage House is a wing of the McCallum Museum, located in the town park. The addition was opened in 1991 to hold an entire household of family memorabilia and antiques that had belonged to my cousin Dorthea Brunson.

Dorthea’s maternal grandparents, Zebulon Eugene Guertin and his wife Mathilda, were my maternal great-grandparents. Farmers and the parents of fifteen children, the Guertins emigrated to northwest Iowa from Canada in 1879. One of the daughters, Edna, was Dorthea’s mother. One of the sons, Edgar, was my grandfather.

Dorthea never married, so when she died in January 1984, she left her house and its furnishings to the Osceola County Historical Society. Her parents, George and Edna Brunson, were charter members of the society when it was formed in 1936. Dorthea also left $60,000 for upkeep on her home, which she wanted open for public viewing of her collectibles. The society did this for several years, but it became difficult maintaining both the residence and the McCallum Museum. They did the next best thing; they sold Dorthea’s house and built an addition to the museum to hold the entire household.

When moving time came, the furnishings were not packed up willy-nilly. The committee first took pictures of every room in the house and made detailed lists of the location of every object. After the move, they tried to place each piece where it had been in the house. Adjustments had to be made because room sizes and wall space varied from the house. The Brunson Heritage House was dedicated and opened to the public on June 15, 1991.

The house is divided into a bedroom, parlor, and kitchen. The rooms look as inviting as Dorthea’s modest home must have been. The kitchen is stocked with dishes and utensils from earlier eras, ready for preparing a family meal to be eaten around the oak table. In the bedroom, there’s a ceiling high wooden wardrobe, and a huge, ornately carved oak bed made up with a quilt and plump pillows. The parlor has comfortable stuffed chairs with reading lamps beside them. And there’s Dorthea’s father’s desk from when he taught country school in the early years of the 20th century.

On the walls are framed portraits of my ancestors, most of which I’d never seen. Other small photos and albums and hundreds of antiques are stored in display cases.

Not everything is family related. Dorthea collected antiques while she lived in California, where she worked as an interior designer for many years. Also on display is her framed needlepoint, petit point, and tapestries. She fashioned lamp shades and other objects from tin and copper, using the old pioneer craft of making designs by poking holes in the metal. Open for viewing are scrapbooks filled with souvenirs from Dorthea’s 1920’s school days.

Another surprise awaited me that day–a display featuring artifacts and photos representing Sibley’s business district in the 1950s. Two of the photos show four teenaged girls–me, my sister, and two friends, standing on a downtown corner. Oh, dear, I’m an antique, my photo displayed in a museum along with my long-deceased ancestors.

I would like to have some of the items that were placed in the Brunson House, especially the ancestral portraits and photos, but that wasn’t Dorthea’s plan. So I must be satisfied with her choice to see to it that family treasures did not fall into strangers’ hands.

Kept together in her Heritage House they’ll be protected and preserved in this new century and beyond. Because of my cousin’s legacy I can visit my family’s past–and mine–whenever I return to my hometown.


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