The Mill Farm House is the centerpiece of the Humboldt County Historical Museum along the East Fork of the Des Moines River at Dakota City.
The two forks of the northern Des Moines River embrace the twin towns of Humboldt and Dakota City in northwest Iowa’s Humboldt County. Five miles south, the forks join at Frank A. Gotch State Park. That park was named for a Humboldt County native who was the world champion heavyweight wrestler from 1908 to1913. And this is Iowa’s great river, continuing south through Fort Dodge and Des Moines before beginning its southeasterly sweep though southern Iowa to the Mississippi.
Another of Humboldt County’s native sons is the late CBS newsman and “60 Minutes” founder Harry Reasoner, born and raised at Dakota City. Like Gotch, he is buried in Humboldt’s Union Cemetery.
We visited the grave of neither Saturday, so will have to return another day for that. The Humboldt County Historical Association’s beautiful museum campus on Dakota City’s east edge kept us fully occupied from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. --- and then it was time to head home, arriving just in time to greet all those trick-or-treaters.
Four of us left Chariton before sunrise to drive north through a perfect late-October morning for the fall meeting of the Iowa Local History Museum Association --- LCHS curator Marilyn Johnson, curator emeritus Betty Cross and myself, joined for the trip for Jan Winslow of the Wayne County Historical Society (Prairie Trails Museum), who is association treasurer.
Of the two towns, Humboldt is by far the largest (perhaps 4,400 people), and a right turn off U.S. Highway 169 takes you down its broad and prosperous-looking main street. But Dakota City, with about 900 people, is the county seat and by continuing east on Humboldt’s main street you pass the invisible line dividing it from Dakota City’s main street, and the courthouse, before reaching the edge of town. Here, broad loops descend into the valley of the East Fork and just beyond the bridge over the river is the museum .
The attraction here along the river in the 1860s was the power of its water. Although the last mill here, a three-story two part structure, was destroyed by fire in 1943 and the dam across the river went out during the same year, the remains of the mill are on museum property (below) with the ruined dam visible beyond. The association's dream is to rebuild the mill. For now, a deck equipped with interpretive panels is planned.
The centerpiece of the museum complex is a grand rambling Italianate home southeast of the mill site known as the Mill Farm House. It was built in 1878 by Corydon Brown for his wife, Lucelia, and their family. Reportedly, she declined to move to Iowa until it was complete.
The house has many typical Italianate features, including the rambling roofline --- on three levels. The main block of the house contains seven rooms --- the “ballroom” occupying the full length of its western end with the bay-windowed parlor across the central hall to the east and a room used as the museum office behind it. The dining room wing, which projects to the east, is lower than the main block (creating the need for a mighty step up from the bedroom over the dining room to the bedroom over the parlor); and the kitchen wing, which projects to the north, even lower. A frame summer kitchen extends north from the kitchen block and a broad enclosed porch, now a gift shop, conceals the east fronts of both these section of the house.
The interior is welcoming and pleasant, but not especially grand. Large arched pocket doors open to join the parlor, central hall and ballroom, an area that reportedly was the location of many social gatherings during the home’s heyday. The central hallway is surprisingly narrow, however, and the stairway steep. Many expect fireplaces in a home of this age and type, but our ancestors were far smarter than we sometimes give them credit for and north Iowa winters were cold. So the home always was heated by far more efficient stoves.
Museum director Connie Overby told us that the house was in many ways a ruin when donated to the historical association in 1966. Divided into apartments after the Browns moved to Des Moines, it eventually was simply abandoned --- livestock and wildlife wandered in and out through open doors and broken windows, cows peered out of parlor windows at passers by.
After two years of exhaustive restoration carried out primarily by volunteers, the home opened as a museum in 1968. Everything else on the campus has been added since.
The log cabin, added during the 1970s, is a replica of a one-room pioneer home from Renwick that was moved to the museum grounds but proved to be too badly deteriorated to be salvaged. Immediately to the north is the Kettle Shed, built to house a vast kettle with built-in firebox once used to boil fresh water clams from the river for hog feed, make soap, heat wash water, scald hogs during the butchering process and for other purposes.
Willow School, built in 1883, was moved to the museum grounds in 1966 from Humboldt County’s Norway Township.
Since the current project at the Lucas County Historical Society Museum is a blacksmith shop, I was especially interested in the interior of the Humboldt County shop.
The Clancy Building, the latest addition to the museum campus, is about six years old --- and could well be the envy of any local history museum. It houses a variety of display areas in its west end, including a military room and a research library; and a huge gallery in its east end housing among other things a fantastic display of antique cars and a big red fire truck.
The projection to the south, originally an open porch, has now been enclosed and is nearing the end of the process of being converted into a classroom.
The Hardy Methodist Church, built in 1882, was moved to the museum grounds from Hardy in 1997. Although the shell of the building is old, no attempt has been made to restore it to its original form. The current interior is a nicely done adaption for modern church use by its original congregation. The stained glass is especially lovely and the building remains in use on a rental basis for church services and special occasions, such as weddings. The full basement complete with kitchen and restrooms looks and functions very much as church basements do. So the Hardy Church carries forward into the 21st century an example of how a late 20th century church building with deep roots functioned.
All of us involved with local history museums are justifiably proud of our own. But visits such as ours Saturday give us a chance to exchange ideas and dream up outlandish schemes guaranteed to scare the dickens out of our boards of directors when we get home. If you'd like to spend more time at the Humboldt County museum, visit the Historical Association's excellent Web site, which is here. You can plan a visit in person next spring when it reopens for the 2011 season.