Guest Columnist

How the Carnegie Historical Museum came to be

PHOTO COURTESY OF STAN PLUM

Mark Shafer of the Carnegie Historical Museum leads students from Pence Elementary School on a tour of the museum.
PHOTO COURTESY OF STAN PLUM Mark Shafer of the Carnegie Historical Museum leads students from Pence Elementary School on a tour of the museum.

Fairfield has a museum! That might not be news to some folks but to others the museum has been hidden away, an unknown gem waiting to be explored.

The Carnegie Historical Museum has been in existence in the library building since its construction, but the idea for a museum to show the children of Fairfield the wonders of the world was conceived nearly twenty years before. In full disclosure, much of this story can be found in Susan Welty’s seminal history of Fairfield, “A Fair Field”.

In November of 1880, the issue of the St. Nicholas Magazine had an article calling children to form an Agassiz Association. Louis Agassiz was a prominent geologist, glaciologist, and naturalist in the late 1800s. Children were encouraged to go out into nature and collect specimens for study. This call was heeded in Fairfield by Walter Slagle who lived on South Main on a lot now occupied by the Fairfield Public Library.

Walter’s family was quite prominent in Fairfield and he had many friends in the neighborhood. Soon Walter had gathered a group of friends for the association, obtained the use of a small brick cottage as a clubhouse and won the approbation of the adults in the community.

The children were resourceful and energetic. They collected botanical, geological, and archaeological specimens and cataloged them separately in handwritten catalogs. Each specimen was identified by type, where it was found, and the collector or donor’s name.

The collections were kept in a cabinet, a cabinet of curiosities. Advice and ideas on keeping such a cabinet came to the kids via a series of children’s books entitled “The Rollo Series.” In particular, “Rollo’s Museum” offered the kids good advice on working together and getting along as demonstrated by Rollo and his friends and their development of a cabinet of curiosities. Walter and his friends took the lessons to heart.

One boy, Cassius Cottle, made a revolving table to set their sole microscope on so that it could be rotated around giving each child a chance to see the marvels under the glass. They spent hours collecting rocks, and flowers, they dug into Indian mounds, which wasn’t a good thing, but it was acceptable at the time. They even found a horse skeleton and assembled it. The parents encouraged the club and the children spent several summers blissfully learning about nature.

While the Agassiz Association was still active, Senator James Wilson convinced his friend Andrew Carnegie to build a library in Fairfield. One room of the library was to be dedicated as the Agassiz Room to hold their small collection including the round table. By the time the museum was built, the association had disbanded, the members had grown, and the room was never used for Agassiz purposes.

Wilson then convinced the Smithsonian National Museum to share with our new library duplicates of objects held in its collection. The objects arrived in several shipments consisting of taxidermy specimens of birds and wildlife as well as a collection of Zuni and Hopi pottery collected in the 1880s by the Bureau of Ethnology.

As summers passed and the Agassiz children matured, a few such as Walter and Flo Lamson got married. Cassius Cottle became a physician in California. All maintained a love of nature. Carrie Lamson eventually willed Lamson’s Woods to the city so that it may educate the children of Fairfield about nature.

The lessons that the Agassiz children learned in “Rollo’s Museum” about sharing the love of nature are preserved in the function of the museum today. Cassius Cottle’s round table still exists. The careful notes taken by young Walter Slagle are preserved as a record of Fairfield’s first museum. It is clear from the Agassiz catalogs that Senator (then Congressman) Wilson took a strong interest in bringing the world to the Agassiz children. Several specimens are listed as having been given to the association by Hon. J.F. Wilson.

Senator Wilson’s generosity and interest in the education of the children of Fairfield has been repeated time and time again. Many artifacts from Europe and Asia came from Charles Parsons of Parsons College. A very large collection of Pima basketry from Arizona was donated by Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Howard. Objects from the Far East were collected by missionaries and wanderers from Fairfield. All of this became the “internet” for the children of Fairfield for parts of three centuries.

Today the Carnegie Museum stands as an institution in Fairfield. It’s role in the education of Fairfield’s children has not diminished since its inception. Today under the direction of Mr. Mark Shafer, the museum functions as Senator Wilson, Walter Slagle, Cassius Cottle and the Lamsons envisioned it.

Mr. Shafer utilizes the collection of birds as still life models for art students. He teaches middle school children about the history and prehistory of their county with explorations of maps, artifacts, and experiences such as a replica of an early 20th Century drug store. Mr. Shafer works closely with school groups to connect the museum experience to Iowa Academic Standards.

The result is an hour-long information packed visit that can cover subjects as wide ranging as how Clovis bison hunters came into Jefferson County, to the role of women in WWII as depicted in war posters.

Cassius Cottle’s wonderous table made for sharing is put away for lack of room, but the spirit of sharing the world with the children of Fairfield lives on in our great community museum.

- Stan Plum is a curator of the Carnegie Historical Museum