COLUMN: Warden’s House Museum has served the public for decades | Government
In almost every community, stories from the past are preserved and told to the next generation and to visitors. Washington County and the community of Stillwater is a place rich in history, and to keep those stories around there is a museum on North Main Street that has been around for 80 years.
The former prison director’s house has now been a museum for eight decades. Many school children remember walking through the museum when they were in elementary school, learning about the past and the people who once lived in the house.
The Warden’s House was built for the warden of the prison in 1853. Over the next 61 years, there were 13 different wardens living there – looking after the affairs of the prison and overseeing the care of convicts. In 1914 the prison and warden moved to the new South Stillwater prison, now known as Bayport.
After the last principal, Principal Henry Wolfer, left the house, Assistant Superintendent Thomas E. Ross and his family moved into the house and lived there until the house was sold.
In 1940, discussions with the State of Minnesota regarding the availability of the former principal’s house on North Main Street for purchase from the Washington County Historical Society. With the help of State Senator Karl Neumeier, the company bought the house from the State Director for $ 100.
In order to own and operate the Guardian’s House as a museum, WCHS was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1941. Lawyer Albert J. Lemicke drafted the incorporation documents and five directors were elected. and were given the power to manage the property.
An old-fashioned tea party was held for the official opening of the museum on June 20, 1941. An artifact from the new museum, the bell that Reverend William T. Boutwell used to call parishioners to worship in the early days of Stillwater , was rung to open the dedication.
Dr. AJ Larson of the Minnesota Historical Society gave the keynote address and Senator Karl J. Neumeier, representing Governor Harold Stassen, formally presented the building to the Historical Society. When the Director’s House opened as a museum, it became the second public house museum in the state.
Mr. and Mrs. George Buckley were installed as caretakers. They occupied an apartment at the back of the building and served as hosts for visitors. According to a memorandum, they were to use the first floor kitchen, pantry, upstairs back bedroom, upper bathroom, and upper porch without rent.
The Director’s House Museum is said to be a popular attraction among visitors and schoolchildren. The old house would need constant maintenance, from re-roofing the main part of the building in 1948 to necessary building improvements in 1952. Work took place on the upper and lower porches in 1957 and 1958.
In March 1978, WCHS received a grant of $ 6,110 from the Minnesota Historical Society to make repairs to the roof, windows and doors of the museum.
In the 1970s, the Museum welcomed more than 3,000 visitors each year. In 1979 alone, the Warden’s House Museum had more than 4,300 patrons. Built like a house, foot traffic passing through the museum caused damage that WCHS continues to repair to this day.
In 1980, the Warden’s House Museum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places through the Home Office.
In 1985, a new front porch was installed on the director’s house. This porch was a replica of the one that stood on the house in the mid-1880s. Stillwater architect Maurice Stenerson drew up the plans and the project costs over $ 60,000.
Interior work on the rooms in the National Register house continued when funds became available. The room on the northeast level was completed in 2006 and was the last room to be renovated in a 25-year period.
Today, 80 years after the keeper’s house became a museum; it is one of the finest museums in Minnesota and the upper Midwest. It carries the history of the first pioneers of the region as well as the history of the first peoples who lived here. It also carries on the tradition of collecting the history of today for those of the future.
The museum is open from Thursday to Sunday, in the afternoon. The Guardian’s House is only open between May and October, for more information call 651-439-5956.
Brent Peterson is the executive director of the Washington County Historical Society