Dubois County Historical Museum

I find county museums a little bit quirky but fascinating glimpses into local history and identity. What the museum contains says a lot about what the county values and considers important, and how the county residents see themselves.

As I entered the Dubois County Historical Museum, two people greeted me. One took me around to see the entire museum. This would have thrown me—Why am I being walked through the museum? Aren’t I able to see it on my own?—except that I had encountered this not so long before. Maybe it is a rural museum tradition?

The pride he had in the museum and county was evident. The museum looks deceptively small from the outside. In actuality, the museum is housed in the old Kimball International warehouse. He seemed genuinely surprised that I didn’t instantly recognize Kimball International (oh yeah, they made pianos, right?), and I tried not to be embarrassed—and then annoyed as the minutes dragged on as we walked through the museum together with him pointing out everything.

The museum layout is a bit odd. The front part of it is divided into sections or rooms with different exhibits that focus on the founding of the county, the ethnic identity of the early inhabitants, wars, sports, and furniture companies (remember Kimball?) associated with the county’s history.

And then a doorway opens up into a huge warehouse full of farm equipment (county identity—rural and agricultural), a pioneer log cabin, and miscellaneous large objects. Sections are devoted to silver smelting, bees, butchering, woodworking, and blacksmithing.

He pointed to a small, climate-controlled room to the side of the warehouse. The man giving me a tour of the museum beamed with pride. The room, he explained, contained stuffed exotic animals hunted by someone whose name I was supposed to know. (To those familiar with my blog and love of animals, you won’t be surprised to know that I was horrified.) Clearly, hunting and stuffing are some of those things that make up the county’s identity. I swallowed hard as we thankfully walked by the room without entering.

Eventually I was left to peruse the museum on my own. The exhibits at the front of the museum contain a slew of information that I painstakingly reviewed. The fossil collection contains artifacts older than 200 million years. I learned that the Illinoisan glacier (is that what the glacier was called?) reached as far south as northwestern Dubois County.

The county is named for Toussaint DuBois, a Frenchman born in Montreal. DuBois joined another Frenchman, Lafayette, in fighting for American independence. He was, like many other Frenchmen in the New World, a fur trader. And like other fur traders during skirmishes (Michel Brouillet for example), he managed spies and scouts during the Tippecanoe Campaign (1812). He was a captain (and later major) during the War of 1812. He was the first landowner in what became Dubois County, but alas he never lived on the land. He died crossing the Wabash River in May 1816 and is buried in Vincennes (which is not in the county that bears his name).

The land that makes up Dubois County came from a 1803/1804 treaty that Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison made with the native Americans. In 1817—a year after Indiana became a state—Governor Jennings approved an act creating Dubois County. (Incidentally, Dubois is pronounced Dew-Boys, a decidedly non-French pronunciation.)

People moved in quickly. By 1820, Dubois County contained 202 non-native American families (1,168 people). The Lincolns, as in Abraham Lincoln’s birth family, lived just seven miles south of the county line. Ethnically, the county included Scots-Irish and Germans—lots of Germans. A good portion of space in the museum is devoted to explaining the providence of these German immigrants, their dialects, and their voyage to Indiana from native Prussia.

Another section highlights the religion in the area, but the focus of the museum in large part is on the military experience of inhabitants. Each war has its own exhibit stock full of artifacts. Indiana is a land of war memorials, and in Dubois County, they seem to take their military history very seriously.

The museum contains an impressive array of military artifacts, including such things as a flag from Company K of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry (the flag was carried in the Battle of Antietam, Maryland September 17, 1862), “souvenirs” pilfered from the enemy dead of WWII, and four (not one, four!) Belgian rifles from the Civil War.

At 14 pounds (!), I couldn’t help but think that the soldiers that carried these Belgian rifles were of a hardy stock—and brave. Not the safest rifle, according to E. R. Brown of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Company C, “They were all deadly at the muzzle end, and some of them were next to deadly at both ends. Their kick was like the recoil of a cannon.”

Dubois County was heavily wooded and historically had a large lumber industry with sawmills and furniture factories. Many different desks, pianos, and even a complete kitchen with real AristOKraft cabinets are on display. (The museum considered getting a hold of the AristOKraft cabinets a minor coup. AristOKraft later became MasterBrand.) The furniture makers are a litany of past local companies: Jasper Desk, Indiana Cabinet Co., Jasper Office Furniture, Indiana Furniture Industries, and Jasper Corporation (which later became, you guessed it, Kimball International).

As if proving my point about the quirkiness that is a county museum, immediately next to the furniture is a glass exhibit case about Bill Schroeder, an inhabitant of the county who received the first mechanical heart on December 25, 1984. Unfortunately, after the procedure, Schroeder only lived 620 days; he suffered a series of strokes and died on August 6, 1986.

I moved through the doorway to the warehouse portion of the museum. I looked over the various mini-exhibits for different trades, such as silver smelting, blacksmithing, and woodworking. The warehouse section contains many farming implements and machines: buggies, wagons, threshers, water pumps, a 1923 Kitten steam engine, and even a restored 1924 Maxwell.

I found myself face-to-face with that small room, the recently opened Wildlife Adventure Exhibit.

I took a deep breath and steeled myself before entering. The room was full of stuffed animals (not the type of stuffed animals I like!): bears, moose, elk, panthers, cougars, etc. You name it, it had been hunted, stuffed, and put on display here. A section contains trophies from the numerous trips local businessman Frank Fromme Jr. made to Africa starting in 1968. I found myself staring at two elephant feet—the native tribes got the meat, Frank was allowed to take two feet. I breathed easier as I stepped back into the warehouse proper.

Out of the myriad of items, the mechanical item that caught my fancy though was the dog-powered butter churn (yes, really!). A dog would walk (run?) on a slanted treadmill that powered an arm attached to a butter churn. I suppose all members of the family in the early 1900s had to earn their keep. (It reminded me another out-of-the-ordinary butter churn with a side crank that I saw in the childhood home of Ernie Pyle in Dana, IN.)

The centerpiece of the large warehouse room, not dwarfed by the large mechanical equipment around it, is a huge German log cabin. The cabin was built in the 1880s near Patoka Lake at Celestine. In 2004, the cabin was taken apart, moved to the museum, and rebuilt inside the building. In fact, the cabin is too large for the warehouse; they ran out of room to rebuild the second story of the cabin. The logs are incredibly well preserved thanks to weatherboards that covered them from almost immediately after the cabin was built.

The cabin came from the Welp Homestead, which is still farmed by the family today. It housed Gerhard Welp (1823-1897), his parents, and four siblings who came to the US to avoid fighting in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

The warehouse ends with murals depicting important buildings in each city in the county, such as Ferdinand and Celestine. As I exited, I passed through a reconstructed downtown from the early 1900s. On display are a variety of shops and services: shoe repair, jail, photographer, barber, millinery, saloon, bank, doctor, store, school, hotel, undertaker, kitchen, news office, surveyor, and church.

As I left, I felt as though I had a better feel for Dew-Boys County, learned a few things, and discovered a few things I wanted to follow up on. County museums—they are a great way to get a feel for a place and learn about local history.

Grouseland

Immediately next to the central campus of the Vincennes State Historic Sites lies the historic home of William Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1812. The house is incredibly well-preserved, especially considering what it has been through.

The house was built between 1802 and 1804, just a few years into Harrison’s assignment as territorial governor and just a couple of decades after George Rogers Clark captured Vincennes (1779). In 1812 Harrison left Grouseland and Indiana to fight in the War of 1812.

The 4,000 square feet of Grouseland became a hotel during the days of railroad construction. Then it was used as a barn. (Yes, a barn.) In 1909 the Daughters of the Revolution saved Grouseland from being torn down and began renovations. In 1960 Grouseland was designated a National Historic Landmark.

These days Grouseland is a museum, open for tours. A backroom by the kitchen serves as the gift shop. Adjacent rooms serve as a museum of sorts with exhibits of artifacts and information about Harrison’s life. Docents start the tours in these adjacent rooms and take you through the entire house, upstairs and downstairs, pointing out important pieces of furniture, relating stories, and answering questions.

Grouseland is built of brick and was constructed as a fortress to withstand attacks by Native Americans. (A real issue…the last big skirmish was the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 near Lafayette where Harrison slaughtered Native Americans.)

The front door is separated into panels, which form a cross, with a half window above it, which symbolizes the rising sun and Christ’s resurrection. The door signals to passers-by that Christians dwell within. The staircase in the foyer mirrors one at Mt. Vernon. The foyer contains a painting of Mrs. Harrison—alas, a replica. The original lives in the White House. (When the painting came up in an auction, Barbara Bush outbid the foundation.)

The basement houses a wine cellar (though Harrison didn’t drink.) The warming kitchen is down in the basement. Other exhibits with artifacts—such as looms—fill the rest of the basement.

As territorial governor, Harrison’s main duty was acquiring land for Western expansion. Land acquisition consisted of making treaties with the Native Americans. He elicited the help of former fur traders (such as Michel Brouillet) to interpret during the negotiations and later spy during conflicts with the Native Americas. Harrison also administered the district of Louisiana from the Louisiana Purchase during 1804 and 1805. Unsurprisingly, land speculation was rampant. Harrison paid for Grouseland ($20,000) from land sales he made. (No corruption there!)

Harrison hosted visitors who stayed for extended periods in what is referred to as “the dependency” section of the house. This section was a back addition to the house, made of lathe and plaster, much different from the grander front of the house. (Interestingly, damage still exists in the dependency from the 1811 earthquake.)

Who did Harrison entertain? Aaron Burr, Zachary Taylor, Lewis and Clark. Zachary Taylor was stationed at Fort Knox in Vincennes in 1811 during his time as a captain in the army. Lewis and Clark stopped by in 1806 on their way back to Washington DC after their famous expedition. (They explored the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and the Northwest Territory from 1803 to 1806.)

The dependency was also where the servants worked (not lived). Forty to fifty servants worked at Grouseland. If you are thinking that “servants” is code for “slaves”, I suspect you are probably correct. I questioned this. The docent clearly wanted to portray Harrison in a good light. When Harrison was young, I was told, his sister tried to give him a slave, which he refused.

However, Harrison was actually a slave owner (and possibly fathered children with a slave). In 1803 he lobbied Congress to alter the Northwest Ordinance to allow slavery in the Northwest Territory. (Congress decided to change the Ordinance to allow the territories to decide for themselves whether to admit slaves or not.)

Harrison also succeeded in persuading the territorial legislature to allow indentured servitude and tried to make slavery legal in the Indiana Territory. (He ultimately failed in getting slavery legalized.) By then an abolitionist movement was coalescing, which came to power in the 1809 legislature. The legislature was able to thwart Harrison’s plans to make the Indiana Territory more attractive to settlers and more economically viable by allowing slavery. (It was all about money, not morals, for Harrison.)

After Harrison’s time as territorial governor and then as an officer in the War of 1812, he returned to Ohio. In 1836 he ran for President (against Van Buren) and lost. In 1840 he again ran for President (against Van Buren) and won.

His 1840 campaign is seen as the first modern campaign, when a candidate actually sought the vote and campaigned. He had buttons, coins, and of course a slogan touting his military past: Tippecanoe (as a reference to the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811) and Tyler too (his running mate).

He was depicted as a man of the frontier who had lived in a log cabin. (Grouseland was anything but a log cabin!) He was belittled and called an “imbecile and dotard”. However, he won. To prove his vigor (in his late 60s), he attended his inauguration without a hat or coat…and died 32 days later from pneumonia.

Regardless of Harrison’s politics, a tour of Grouseland is a great way to spend a couple of hours learning about Indiana history before Indiana became a state in 1816. The building is beautiful and the docents extremely knowledgeable. And it is literally a stone’s throw from other historical sites in Vincennes.

Vincennes State Historic Sites: Old French House and Indian Museum

Vincennes State Historic Sites include several buildings on a central campus just south of Vincennes University, as well as a few sites downtown and a few sites in outlying areas. The Old French House and Indian Museum are located downtown, just a few blocks walk from the visitor center on the central campus.

Vincennes State Historic Sites recently took possession of the Old French House and Indian Museum in Vincennes. (Both were previously administered by a non-profit.) During my recent visit, a docent chockfull of historical tidbits about the buildings and Vincennes gave me a private showing of the buildings.

The Old French House was the last of its kind in Vincennes. Over the decades (if not centuries), houses built in the French style had all been demolished, or so it was thought, until people rediscovered that Michel Brouillet’s house was built in the French style.

Brouillet was born in 1774, a few years before George Rogers Clark captured Fort Sackville in Vincennes. In fact, Michel’s father was an officer in the Vincennes militia and served under Clark.

Michel himself was a successful fur trader, trading with the Miami and Kickapoo on the Vermilion River. Typical of the time and custom of coureurs de bois, he married a Native American woman. (Their son became a Miami chief.) However, also typical of the changing times, as Indiana became more settled and the economy changed from fur trading to land speculation, Brouillet changed with it. And he changed wives.

He worked for Territorial Governor Harrison as an interpreter during the negotiations of several treaties with Native Americans. Out with the old (the Native Americans) and in with the new (white settlers)! Along with the old went his Native American wife. In 1806, he married Marie Louise Drouet de Richerville. In 1809 (or 1806…sources vary), they moved into what is now the Old French House. In total they had 10 (yes, 10…others say 8) children.

In 1807, Brouillet became a captain in the Indiana Territory militia. From 1809 to 1811 he worked as a spy for Harrison against the Native Americans. During the War of 1812, he was a scout and messenger between Vincennes and Fort Harrison in Terra Haute.

By 1819, Native Americans had been pushed west of the Mississippi River. Brouillet’s transformation from working with the Native Americans to working against them was at an end. He became a tavern owner. In 1838, he died and is buried in the cemetery by the Old Cathedral. (His headstone still exists in the cemetery.)

So what makes the Old French House an old French house besides the fact that it is old and was built by a Frenchman? The construction. A portion of one wall of the house is cut away to show the post-and-sill construction common in French houses of early Vincennes (and I’d guess early Indiana wherever there was a French settlement). In some ways, the construction reminded me of a modern frame construction: horizontal beam (sill) on which vertical beams are attached. In between the beams is filled with bousillage, a mixture of clay, earth, and straw.

The current furniture in the house is a collection of odds and ends. Some not of the time period. The museum plans to remedy this. Two period items stood out to me: the kitchen table and a hat.

The wooden top of the kitchen table lifts off to reveal an inner storage area. The storage area is a perfect place to store bread as it rises—out of the way but close to the warmth of the hearth. Totally cool!

The hat is made of beaver fur—the staple of the fur trade in the New World—and super soft, the kind of hat you see smartly dressed gentlemen in paintings from the late 1700s and early 1800s wearing. Super soft? No thanks to the beaver but rather the mercury used by hatters. (Think the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. There’s a reason for his madness. It’s called mercury poisoning.)

The second story of the house contains some artifacts and exhibits showing the dress of the time and an actual pirogue, or French-style of canoe.

The Indian Museum is in a separate building behind the Old French House. Exhibit cases house artifacts and displays about the Native Americans through the ages in the area.

Check out the Old French House and Indian Museum to learn more about early Indiana, the French fur traders, and French culture in the New World. The Vincennes State Historic Sites will likely be refreshing both with period appropriate interiors in ways that the non-profit that ran it for decades couldn’t.

Vincennes State Historic Sites: the Red House, Jefferson Academy, Elihu Stout Print Shop, and Maurice Thompson home

I strode up to the log cabin visitor center about the same time that a docent dressed in period clothes unlocked the door and removed the out for lunch sign. What luck!

In addition to the Indiana State Museum in downtown Indianapolis, the museum runs about a dozen historic sites throughout the state. Most buildings administered by the museum in Vincennes—the log cabin visitors center, the Red House, the Jefferson Academy, a replica of the Elihu Stout Print Shop, and Maurice Thompson’s house—are gathered at a single site bordered on the north by Vincennes University. (Other Vincennes State Historic Sites are scattered throughout Vincennes: the Old French House and Indian Museum, the Old State Bank, Fort Knox II, and Sugar Loaf Mounds.)

The log cabin visitors center contains several artifacts from the time period and photos of the buildings through the years. Tours start from here with docents discussing the history of the buildings, Vincennes, and Indiana politics as you wander through the buildings themselves.

The Red House was the unofficial Indiana Territorial Capitol. Sort of. The Red House started out in 1805 as a tailor’s shop and quickly morphed into a tavern. From 1811 (after the Battle of Tippecanoe) to 1813 (when the territorial government moved to Corydon), the Red House was the meeting place of the legislature of the Indiana Territory. Over subsequent years, the Red House has been a boarding house, a Temple of Democracy, and now a historic site.

Docents take you through the building, which is furnished with desks and items from the time period. The seven members of the lower house met downstairs. The five members of the upper house met upstairs. Copies of laws used to circulate through the territory grace the clerk’s desk of the upper house. (Interesting note: one of the laws was signed by G. W. Johnston, a member of the General Assembly and owner of Mary Bateman Clark.)

A one-room cabin housed the Jefferson Academy, the first school of higher learning in Indiana. Territorial Governor Harrison founded the Academy in 1801, whose teachers were the learned people of the area, Catholic priests. Just a few years later, in 1806, the Academy became Vincennes University.

The Jefferson Academy taught Latin, French, and geometry—the first the lingua franca of the religion of the settlers, the second the lingua franca of the settlers, and the third the lingua franca of logical thinking and surveying. A frictional electrical machine, which was popular in studying the natural sciences, sits on a table and appears in the painting of Jefferson in the room.

Side note: Why an emphasis on surveying? Surveying was hugely important during the first several decades of the Indiana Territories, when inhabitants and politicians were obsessed with land acquisition (aka killing and moving Native Americans off of the land) and ownership. Interesting to note the fur traders who moved with the times from the acquisition and selling of furs to the acquisition and selling of land. Think of Michel Brouillet of the Old French House fame or John Conner of Conner Prairie fame.

The next building on the historic site campus is a replica of Elihu Stout’s Printing Shop. Elihu Stout arrived in Vincennes from Kentucky and was commissioned by Territorial Governor Harrison to print the laws of the Indiana territory. (He also printed the laws for the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, which were temporarily under the control of the Indiana Territory.)

The replica printing shop holds an authentic printing press from the early 1800s. Stout not only printed the laws that were distributed in the territory, but started the first newspaper, the Indiana Gazette, which ran for 41 years. Strangely, a first edition of the paper has never been found, but a copy of the second edition exists in the shop. The four-page newspaper was full of laws, ads, news from other papers, poetry, jokes, and literature.

The last building, the home of Maurice Thompson from Fairfield, was not technically open as a part of the museum, but my docent humored me. After a brief re-enactment of Thompson’s most famous novel, Alice of Old Vincennes, on the steps of the house—and mention that the local high school strikes fear in its opponents as the fighting Alices (yes, really), the docent led me into the one-room building to discuss Thompson and the construction of his house.

With the close of the door to Thompson’s house, my tour came to an end. I left much richer in knowledge about Vincennes, early Indiana, and the story behind a school’s mascot. The buildings are but buildings, interesting to see but ultimately is it the docent who makes the places come to life. Stop by the Vincennes State Historic Sites, take a tour, and interact with the docents. I doubt you will be disappointed or walk away without discovering something new.