La Porte County Historical Society Museum: Everything but the cars

Our rationale for going to the museum was to see the Kesling Auto Collection, but of course, I had to see the rest of the museum too.

The museum consists of three levels. Like all county museums, the collections are a bit eclectic, revealing the local character.

As you walk into the museum, you are greeted with lots and lots exhibit cases with a mishmash of items from the 19th and 20th centuries: glassware, old cameras, old currency, dolls (including a collection of replicas of former First Ladies), dishes, toys, etc. The collections are a bit overwhelming.

A couple things in particular jumped out at me. As I was scanning the cases, I spied a Lincoln metal medallion—a profile of President Lincoln that was embedded in the markers for the original Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast highway in the US. I was so excited…until a little later I saw an original marker in its entirety—a concrete marker with a medallion embedded along with a large letter L to mark the highway for travelers. These markers have disappeared over the decades so it was a real joy to see one in the flesh.

The second item in the exhibit cases that stood out to me was the currency. The exhibit included Confederate currency, US currency during the Civil War, and even foreign currency. Before US greenbacks were the legal tender, anyone it seems could create their own currency. I know banks and states routinely did. But there I was looking at the currency for the Plank Road Company. Clearly, companies issued their own currency too.

What also piqued my interest about this particular currency was the name: Plank Road. I had recently learned (in the Jefferson County Historical Society History Center) about the evolution of road construction: first corduroy roads, then plank roads, then gravel and macadam roads. Here was currency from a company named after (and presumably engaged in) the process of building roads made of planks of wood: Plank Road Company currency.

Past these exhibit cases stand replicas of Main Street storefronts from different time periods. In front of each are cars from the corresponding eras. Beyond the storefronts are rooms set up to depict different eras with artifacts from those eras. Each room has so many item; it is hard to soak them all in and a single perusal isn’t be sufficient.

First up in a log cabin (a replica?) inhabited  by the first European resident of La Porte County, Miriam Benedict, who died in 1854. The cabin is chock full of item, but my eyes fell on the pie safe. Really? Would a log cabin contain a pie safe? I am skeptical but squirreled away that fact for later verifying.

The other rooms move through the eras more or less chronologically:

  • Beauty shop/barber shop
  • Victorian law office (Is that a beaver top hat I saw? I first learned about the beaver hat industry, the use of mercury, and the origin of the subsequent phrase “mad as a hatter” at the Old French House and Indian Museum in Vincennes.)
  • Music room with pieces from the old La Porte Theatre (1923-1977)
  • Room of the 1840s-1850s (strangely called the Empire Room…I’m confused because the Empire era was the early 1800s…)
  • Victorian parlor (Oh look! There are stereoscopes that I have been seeing in historical homes everywhere this last year.)
  • Victorian dining room
  • Victorian bedroom (Hey! There is a dresser with an over large first drawer for storing quilts. I first learned about the reasons for these over large top drawers at the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site.)
  • Dentist/doctor office
  • One-room schoolhouse
  • 1920s dining room
  • 1920s kitchen (replete with Hoosier cupboard and a fridge with the compressor on the top…darn if I can remember where I recently learned about fridges with compressors on the top.)
  • 1950s living room
  • General store

A strange collection of items hangs from a wall next to the dentist/doctor office. Invalid cups. I peered closer. Oh! IN-va-lid cups, not in-VALID cups. These ceramic cups with an elongated spout were the 19th century precursor to straws of the 20th century. These cups were meant to be used by people too weak or sick to drink from cups.

The basement contains different collections, one of the largest being the W.A. Jones gun collection. Williams A. Jones willed his extensive collection to the museum, which took possession of it following his death in 1921. Jones collected these 1,000+ antique guns in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is considered to be one of the best collections. I imagine gun enthusiasts would go nuts. (Not being one myself, I couldn’t fully appreciate the collection.)

Nearby are the ubiquitous war exhibits with the Civil War being prominent, though there are war souvenirs from WWII. Police and firefighters have their own exhibits too. As a nod to county museum eccentricities, model trains are within spitting distance.

One corner contains a barn/blacksmith site with all sorts of farming and blacksmith implements. Some items are easily identifiable. (After visiting the Schroeder Saddletree Factory, I have a fledgling knowledge of saddles and hames.) Others stirred vague memories. Still others from a time I am very much removed from. One point of note is the dog-powered butter churn. (Yes, really.) The contraption is missing the connection to the butter churn but the treadmill is fully assembled. (I saw a more complete specimen at the DuBois County Historical Museum.)

(Confession: I honestly walked by the dog-powered butter churn without seeing it. I happened to mention to my dad about seeing one in another county museum, to which he casually mentioned that they had one here. Really? And then off I went to try to find it. I find it hilarious that dogs were put to work to churn butter. Says something about human ingenuity—and the need for all members of the family to contribute.)

Next to the barn/blacksmith site is a room dedicated to Belle Gunness, kind of a macabre claim to fame for the county. Belle was the 19th serial killer of La Porte County. I first learned of Belle through original plays performed by Candlelight Theatre in Indianapolis. And now I was perusing a collection that recounted her gristly practice of advertising for husbands (the reverse of the modern mail-order bride), who “disappeared”, leaving Belle with their money and life insurance.

The rest of the basement houses odds and ends of collections. A corner is devoted to natural history with fossils and other geological artifacts as well as taxidermied animals. Corners call out county schools and sports (nearly as ubiquitous in county museums as war exhibits). A Boy Scouts collection, including a copy of the Order of the Arrow Handbook, inhabits another corner. Exhibit cases contain various musical instruments as well as household items. (Hey, that potato masher from the 1900s looks familiar!) Along one wall is a long bar, the kind you would see in a saloon from days past. (You know, the kind that a bartender in the movie slides a beer down.)

The second floor is mostly devoted to cars from the Kelsing Auto Collection. However, interspersed among the cars are exhibit cases that hold all sorts of toys (including toy cars and vehicles).

Come to the museum for the cars but stay for the other collections. Or vice versa, come for the historical collections about the county but stay for the car collection. Either way, this county museum is a real gem.