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Learning Something New at Museums of the Tri States

The 35th Annual International Museum Day is being celebrated on Friday, May 18, 2012. To mark the occasion, the WIUM/WIUW news staff visited some of the museums of the tri states.

The Old Lincoln Courtroom & Museum in Beardstown

This red brick, two-story building can be found at Third and State on Beardstown's downtown square. The museum is part of the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Trail. In fact, Beardstown boasts seven wayside exhibit sites as part of the trail.

The building is next to the current city hall, which is a former Carnegie Library.  The museum building once housed city hall, the fire department, and the police department. One of the exhibits gives visitors a look at what the old jail looked like. The names and artistic creations of some past inmates are carved into the jail's soft metal walls.

The museum has something you cannot find anywhere else: it's home to the only courtroom used by Abraham Lincoln that is still used today.

“There are two floors underneath the one we're standing on,” said Museum Commission Chair Paula Woods. “An architectural historian says probably that the bottom one was the original - one on which Lincoln walked.”

She hopes the two floors over it can eventually be removed.

Sunlight pours through the large, 12 pane windows in the courtroom.  Wooden benches are available for those who come to watch trials, though Woods guesses that chairs were probably set up in Lincoln's day.

“We have no idea what it really looked like when Lincoln was practicing law here. No photographs, of course, and as far as we know no drawings or written descriptions of it,” said Woods.

Even though most court activity in Cass County now takes place at the county courthouse in Virginia, the room is still used for some cases.

Woods said Lincoln frequently practiced law in the courtroom. He argued one of his best-known cases in this room in 1858. It's known as the Almanac trial.

In that trial, Lincoln defended Duff Armstrong, who was the son of a family friend on Lincoln's. Armstrong was accused of a murder at a camp meeting in neighboring Mason County. A witness for the prosecution swore he was the murderous act by the light of the full moon.

“Lincoln questioned him two or three times to make sure he said 'Oh yes,' he saw it by the light of the full moon. Then Lincoln produced the almanac which showed that there was no full moon that night,” Woods said.

Armstrong was acquitted. Afterward, Lincoln was persuaded to sit for a picture.

“It is the only known portrait of Lincoln in a white suit,” Woods said.

A copy of it hangs in the courtroom today.

The museum is divided into about a dozen rooms over its two floors. One of those rooms is dedicated to city founder Thomas Beard (1794 - 1849).

“He settled here in 1819,” said Woods. “Platted the town in 1829.”

Small displays highlight some of the well-known people who came from Beardstown, including US Senator William Dieterich, swing musician Red Norvo, and cancer researcher Stan Korsmeyer.

There is also a display about Francis and Russell Halligan. During the early days of aviation, the brothers tried to invent a vertical lift airplane. Several models of those planes are displayed.

The Old Lincoln Courtroom & Museum in Beardstown is open 10:00 am - 4:00 pm, Monday - Saturday, April through November.

The Log Cabin Museum in Ursa

A hand-painted sign in front of  a log cabin on the south edge of Ursa  proclaims it “The Future  Home of the North Adams Historical Society.”  The cabin will also serve as the group's museum.

Rosemary  Tenvorde worked  for 40 years to generate interest in restoring the  cabin. It was  a labor of love mixed with a bit of family pride. Her  great-grandparents, William and Susan Smith, built the cabin in 1848.

Volunteers  started the restoration by stripping the cabin down to its bare  walls.  The work prepared the cabin for the move to its new “home.”  Its original  location was a quarter-mile west of Highway 96. The  lightened cabin,  which still weighed 50 tons, was lifted onto  a low-boy for transport. It  now sits on a donated one-acre lot  adjacent to the highway.

The cabin is a fitting museum.  Its has its own stories to tell.

Tenvorde has spent most  of her free time working on the interior of the cabin.  She has  pulled out hundreds nails that supported the wood lathe and  plaster. 

She said they are worthy of display in the museum. The old  nails  were hand-made -- no two are exactly alike.

She also found  an unexpected treasure in the kitchen-wallpaper from the 1920s.

“It looks like kind of an art-deco wall in the making right now," Tenvorde said.  "And I don't know if we're going to keep it. I'd hope that  they would,  just because it is art-deco.”

Art-deco wallpaper  is part of the  cabin's own history. Tenvorde says the explanation  is that the cabin was  used as a home until 1963.

The upstairs  served as bedrooms for  the Smith children. The girls bedroom was,  by far, the  larger for the  two. The rooms will be restored  and will be a featured part of the  museum.

An addition  that housed the hired hands will be  re-attached later this year.  One of those hands was named “Jim.” He was a  former slave.

“He must have been very important because he's listed on  the birth page of the family Bible,” Tenvorde said.

Volunteers  expect  to work right up to opening day. Tenvorde said the original goal  was to open the museum this fall. She said the amount of work needed to restore the cabin will delay  the opening until spring of 2013.

The George M. Verity Riverboat  Museum in Keokuk

This is not your typical museum. Instead of being a building filled with displays about riverboats, it is a former steamboat  that has been restored and maintained over the  years.

The George  M. Verity started out as the S. S. Thorpe. It was  built in 1927  by the federal government for use in moving barges up and  down  the Mississippi River.

It was purchased by Armco Steel Corporation  in 1940 and transported to the Ohio River, where it would spend  its next 20 years.

Museum  Commission  Chairman Chuck Pietscher said Armco Steel decided to retire  the  George M. Verity in 1960 to make room for more diesel powered boats.  He said that is when Keokuk residents started working to bring the  steamboat back to the Mississippi River.

“In the end, the  citizens of Keokuk persuaded (the company) to donate the boat to  Keokuk for $1,” said Pietscher.

Pietscher said the citizens wanted to turn it into a museum. He says it was  decided that the easiest way to do that was to dry-dock it at  its  current location in Victory Park.

“During a period of  high water in  1961 or 1962, it was floated into a spot on the  riverfront on concrete  pilings,” Pietscher said, “and it has  been here ever since.”

The  interior  of the George M. Verity Riverboat Museum takes a visitor back  in  time.

Pietscher said you can walk from room to room and see the  equipment used to move the steamboat up and down the river.

“All of the machinery on the main deck is still there,” said Pietscher.  “The engines, the boilers and all of the auxiliary machinery.  On the upper  deck is the living space for the crew.”

There is also a wall of  photographs in the museum’s office area that depicts the history of the  steamboat. Several show the George M. Verity surrounded by water during  the historic Floods of 1993 and 2008.

Pietscher said the damage to the steamboat was substantial.

“Anytime you have a flood on the Mississippi River, you have a lot of mud, as well as paint popping off of steel because water gets behind it. (That lead) to a significant clean-up.”

Visitors come from across the country and around the world.

Volunteers keep the George M. Verity Riverboat Museum open daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It is also open for a few weekends leading up to Memorial Day and following Labor  Day.

However, Pietscher said it is currently closed right now to allow for some repairs to be made to the roof. He hopes to have the  work done in time for upcoming celebrations related to Keokuk’s Lock & Dam.


Rich is TSPR's News Director.