They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but they came anyway. Traveling over a vast prairie they made their way without marked roads or even trails.
“As we could not find any road leading into Shelby County, and that was the place we were really striking for when we left Panora, we struck south from Carroll County, intending to take the old stage road that ran across Iowa…but on the first day we saw a man, who informed us that there was no house on that road from twenty to twenty- five miles.”
The challenges that confronted this traveler, Jacob Stutzman, one of the county’s first residents in 1856, are similar to experiences of other early settlers. Fortunately, the rich history they have shared in writings and artifacts have been preserved for over 50 years at the Shelby County Historical Society and Museum.
Located in Potters Park, the museum encompasses four structures: two exhibit buildings and two log cabins.
Step inside original log cabins
Shelby County pioneers learned that no matter the time of year, they had to persevere. They needed homes. Trees had to be cut, trimmed, and notched.
“My husband was a carpenter and was so busy building houses for other people that we had no place to live for a good many months after we came to Shelby County. Even after we had a house, the floor of which was made of walnut boards, I remember that when an old gentleman, Mr. Dalton, died, my husband, and another man took some of the boards off our floor for the purpose of making a casket.”
This patient carpenter’s wife, Mrs. Christian Goodyear, came to Shelby County in 1860. Her reflections highlight not only the hard work, but also the community bond among the pioneers. They likely would be pleased that two of their architectural wonders have been preserved at the museum.
The cabins are open year-round. The annual event to celebrate the history of the buildings, Log Cabin Day, will take place on June 5. The museum is working with restoration professionals to maintain the cabins for future generations. Dr. Nathan Buman, museum manager, envisions a multitude of learning opportunities for the community once the process is completed.
“That will open us up for various additional programs like cooking classes, various overnight activities for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts to actually be able to live a pioneer life. It would be really amazing to be able to walk in there and get the idea, even though it's below zero and a small place, it’s still warm and comfortable,” said Buman.
Covered wagon and stored wonders in full view
Comfort was one of many things lacking in covered wagon transportation.
The museum’s incredibly preserved wagon from county residents, the Erickson family, gives visitors a sense of how challenging this mode of travel was for pioneers.
Buman described a typical moving day: “Imagine fitting your life into and your whole house into a wagon. No furniture. People wouldn’t take their furniture. For the most part, they would have that made once they got there or make it themselves. The only heavy thing they might take is a stove because that’s something you might want right away for food or for heat.”
It’s not always the big items that capture visitors’ attention.
Sometimes it’s a link to their past in a nondescript drawer that brings the greatest delight. “We created a visible storage facility that allows people to view items on our shelves in a climate-controlled environment,” Buman stated.
Public access to genealogy research
Aside from the unique relics of all shapes and sizes, visitors come to the museum for another reason: to appreciate their personal history.
“Something that kind of surprised me is, in a year’s time, probably 40-50% of our visitors are here for research, said Buman.
A sample of the documents available at the museum’s Genealogy Research Center provides an idea of the depth of information housed here: over 2,500 historic books; military, tax, probate, and cemetery records. “In terms of where we’re able to help make a lasting impression is through helping these families to find their ancestry and helping to find their legacy here in Shelby County,” stated Buman.
Programs for students
For Shelby County students, time spent at the museum may help them develop their own legacy through hands-on training using components of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
“We’re working with the school system here in Harlan to create a program where students can apply their skills and interests in the museum,” Buman said. “Maybe we have a 10’x10’ space and you have shop kids who are interested in fabricating parts of that, design students who want to create the panels, computer science students can do some sort of interactive display, history students can provide research. You have all of these different applications for students. We’re really, really excited about that!”
What defines Shelby County’s history?
Former resident, Edward White, said it best in his 1915 county history book: It’s the “wonderful diversity of peoples, languages, climates and products we have here!”
Come see for yourself!
Find the Shelby County Historical Society and Museum and hundreds of other state historic and cultural sites on the Iowa Culture app!
*Image source: Shelby County Historical Society and Museum