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50 States of Preservation: Muhlenberg County Public Libraries, Greenville, Kentucky

September 27, 2017
Exterior of Thistle Cottage
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Thistle Cottage in summer.

Image courtesy of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries.

This feature is part of a series we call “50 States of Preservation,” in which we are touring small and mid-sized museums, libraries, historical societies, and other repositories across the country to show how they are helping to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.  Read other entries in the series here.

There was a time, in the mountains of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, when nearly everybody was involved in some way in the coal industry.  Muhlenberg had the first coal mine in the state, and for a century and a half afterward coal was king.  Mine owner William Graham Duncan built his Spanish mission-style house in the town of Greenville in 1912, naming it Thistle Cottage.  The Duncan family donated the house to the city in 1986 for use as a museum, and it continues to operate as part of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries.  Its collections show not only the deep roots of coal in this part of Kentucky but also depict over 150 years of the state’s history.

Coal Handcar
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This late 19th-century handcar built by the Sheffield Car Company was used originally by the Illinois Central Railroad Company in Muhlenberg County and later by local coal mine owner William Graham Duncan, the builder of Thistle Cottage, to move between his office and his mines. The car was given to longtime company employee William "Lat" Raymer Sr. when the Duncan Coal Company ceased operations in 1957. Raymer's sons restored the handcar, and it was subsequently donated to Thistle Cottage.

Image courtesy of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries.
Wedding Dress
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This taffeta and crepe de chine wedding dress was worn by Ethelwyn Richardson at her May 31, 1905 wedding to Andrew Duncan of Greenville, Ky. Duncan was the son of Thistle Cottage builder William G. Duncan. This piece is of great interest to our visitors and has ties to the home, but because of the age and delicate fabric, it was at risk of becoming unusable. Our textile consultant, Jennifer Hein, helped us move this dress to a better-fitting form and gave us suggestions for more appropriate storage and exhibit practices. We will use her suggestions as we try to find funding for further conservation of this item, as well as a better way to store and exhibit this piece.

The museum’s contents date back to the 1840s.  Household furniture and décor transport visitors to a past time, as does an antique coal handcar.  A 1905 Bride’s Book depicts the wedding of Duncan’s son, while ledgers, payroll records, and financial documents illustrate the development of Duncan’s company and the coal industry in general in the first half of the 20th century.  Postcards and letters show ordinary life and travel dating back to the 19th century.  The museum’s textiles and clothing collection include wedding dresses from multiple periods, tuxedo coats and pants, Victorian mourning dresses and mink stoles, a jockey’s racing silks, and a “Nudie suit” worn by country music star and Muhlenberg County native Merle Travis at the Grand Ole Opry (1960s-70s).  The Thistle Cottage collection also contains a number of full military uniforms from different eras, school apparel, and locally pieced quilts.

Brides Book
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This Bride's Book contains information and memorabilia relating to the wedding of Ethelwyn Richardson and Andrew Duncan, son of Thistle Cottage builder William G. Duncan. It is a challenging piece because it is a type of scrapbook and includes newspaper clippings, photographs and even fabric samples, but our consultants, Annie Peterson and Jennifer Hein, worked together to provide suggestions for how we can better preserve this item.

Image courtesy of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries.
Travis Suit
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This suit and guitar belonged to the late country musician Merle Travis. Travis was born in Rosewood, Ky., in the southern part of Muhlenberg County, in 1917. Travis is known in the music world for his unique style of guitar thumbpicking, often called "Travis picking," which was later emulated by guitarists including Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel. Travis is also known for penning such songs as "Sixteen Tons" (later made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford) and "Dark as a Dungeon." Travis is honored in both the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. The suit jacket and pants were designed and created by famous tailor Nudie Cohn. This suit was worn by Travis during one of his appearances at the Grand Ole Opry.

With a recent NEH grant, the library hopes to preserve and provide better access to these materials.  “Thistle Cottage is a historic home that operates as a branch of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries,” explains Amie Waltrip, Thistle Cottage Branch Archivist.  “We simply do not have much money, but that doesn’t make our collections any less important or less worthy of preservation.  Our community’s identity is, in many ways, tied to the items housed within these walls.  Our goal is to preserve our community’s history, and our collection includes many items that are crucial to fulfilling that mission.”

Autry Letter
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This letter, signed by "singing cowboy" Gene Autry, reflects on his time spent at the home of Greenville, Ky. businessman Howard Dempsey. Autry visited Greenville in 1956 as part of a celebration in honor of Muhlenberg County native Merle Travis. Preservation consultant Annie Peterson helped us learn how to better store and display this unique piece of local history. Based on her recommendations, we are reframing this object to better protect it from damage.

Image courtesy of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries.
Stock Certificate
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This 1866 mortgage bond certificate for the Airdrie Coal and Iron Company was signed by company president D. C. Buell and contains the official company seal. Airdrie was an iron foundry in southern Muhlenberg County near the now-defunct town of Paradise. The ruins of Airdrie still exist but are largely inaccessible, in major disrepair and located on privately owned land.

Major General Don Carlos Buell, who commanded the Army of the Ohio during the first two years of the Civil War, operated the Airdrie Coal and Iron Company after the end of the war. It was he who signed this bond certificate.

Image courtesy of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries.

The NEH grant enabled a visit by preservation experts from LYRASIS who assessed the museum’s 3,000 documents, books, textiles, and clothing.  “Without the grant funding,” says Waltrip, “we would have been unable to receive this important training.”  Consultants advised on a variety of matters including the needs of the historic building, disaster and safety concerns, digitization of collections, and specific collection items.  “Our consultants, Annie Peterson and Jennifer Hein, were incredibly helpful,” Waltrip states, “and affirmed our efforts or corrected us where necessary to make sure we are doing the best we can to protect our collection.”  Waltrip went on to say: “We will use the information we have learned from them to purchase necessary supplies and prepare a better environment for our collection so it may continue to be enjoyed. Our collection items are irreplaceable, and it is our responsibility to make sure we have done everything possible to protect them and preserve them for generations to come.”

Quilt
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This quilt top was sewn by Aurora Jessup of Todd County, Ky. in the late 1800s for her hope chest after she was engaged. As was common, she used fabric scraps from clothing belonging to her family members to piece the quilt together. The quilt also includes embroidered names and initials of Jessup’s family members. Jessup unfortunately became ill with typhoid fever and died in 1905 before she could be married. Her family donated the quilt to the library in Greenville, Ky., who eventually transferred possession to Thistle Cottage.

Image courtesy of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries.
Cheerleader Uniform
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This cheerleading uniform (ca. 1943) was worn by a graduate of Greenville High School in Greenville, Ky. This piece in particular is in excellent condition, despite being nearly 75 years old. Thistle Cottage boasts a large collection of memorabilia such as this from county high schools, most of which are no longer in existence. Greenville High School closed in 1990.

Image courtesy of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries.

“As a small institution that is almost entirely funded by local taxes, being able to receive the Preservation Assistance Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities was incredibly beneficial,” concluded Waltrip.  “I cannot even begin to explain how grateful we were to receive this funding.”  Given the growing public interest in both coal mining and local history, the Muhlenberg County Public Libraries plan to involve more local educators and members of the public in their programs in the coming years.  And with the help of the NEH-funded general preservation assessment, they should be able to preserve these irreplaceable artifacts for all to access.  

Payroll Sheet
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This payroll sheet shows Duncan Coal Company employee pay for the month of July 1912. This document serves as a good jumping off point to explain the scrip system of payment used by many coal companies in the early 20th century.

Image courtesy of Muhlenberg County Public Libraries.

In every state, NEH supports organizations that preserve humanities collections.  Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions (PAGs) fund projects that help safeguard photographs, letters, documents, prints, moving images, sound recordings, maps, drawings, artworks, textiles, furniture, and artifacts, making them available for future generations.  These collections help researchers, educators, and members of the public better understand the complex stories of the various cities, towns, and tribal groups that make up our nation.

Since 2000, NEH has made nearly 2,000 Preservation Assistance Grants to small and mid-sized organizations to preserve and care for their humanities collections.  In all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, PAG awards have funded preservation assessments, purchase of shelving, environmental monitoring equipment, and preservation supplies, and training for staff.  Organizations in all states and U.S. territories are eligible to apply, and the program encourages applications from those new to NEH.  The next application deadline Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions is May 1, 2018.  If you have any questions about this grant program, please contact us at preservation@neh.gov or 202-606-8570.  

Funding information

Muhlenberg County Public Libraries received support through Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions PG-253011-17.