January 21, 2010

Downing House Museum – a Scotland County Treasure

by Colleen Shelley

Wilma June Kapfer was a charter member of the Historical Society of Scotland County and it was that affiliation that led her to her present position as curator of the Downing House Museum on South Main Street in Memphis, Missouri.  Its present beautiful home is quite different from the location of an earlier location - a small basement room in the court house.  Legene Padgett was the moving force behind acquiring the space and collecting the first articles for the museum; Wilma June helped clean the room and get things organized.

It was only a short time before it became obvious that a larger space was needed.  Members of the general community were engaged to send out a newsletter to just about every address in the Memphis telephone book, as well as others - over 5000 newsletters in all - addressed by volunteers.  A meeting was held at which the question of whether to build or buy a facility was discussed. Some wanted to buy the old high school building, which has since been torn down, and others suggested the Mulch house, across from what was the Time theater.  The Downing house, which was on the market for $35,000, was also suggested.

It was determined that the high school building was too big, that the Mulch house was too small, and that the Downing house was just right.  Once the decision was made, the group had one year in which to raise the money for the purchase.  The goal was achieved in six months, which was, considering the small size of the community, quite amazing.

Before the Downing house was purchased, an architect from St. Louis was hired at considerable expense to determine the condition of the house.  He was duly impressed by the fact that, though the house was built in 1858, the pocket doors all worked smoothly with no binding whatsoever.  His judgment was that the house had been there for 120 years and that there was no reason to think that it wouldn’t last another 100.  With that assurance, the purchase was made on September 1, 1978.

Discussions were held with the St. Louis architect about what he would do in terms of preparing the property to serve as a museum.  His primary interest was in upgrading the wiring in the building and landscaping.  Wilma June, et al., wanted to begin on the inside so that people could see the artifacts they had donated in the new facility.  Money was another factor; the architect was very expensive, so other options were explored. 

Most fortunately, the Green Thumbs, a non-profit organization that provides community service jobs to older workers with limited incomes, could work for non-profits.  The museum officials quickly acquired a tax number, obtained placement on the National Register of Historic Places, and engaged the Green Thumbs to work.

The intention had been to work on one room at a time, returning each, as nearly as possible, to its original condition.  The Green Thumbs had other ideas and ripped out the added material from each room, which meant that there would be no rooms ready for viewing for quite some time.

The museum officials agreed with the architect that replacing the wiring was of greatest importance.  So, again at great expense, electricians were hired and the work proceeded. 

Sadly, most of the people who were so enthusiastic about purchasing the building and helping get the museum started are gone and have not been fully replaced.  In addition, the Green Thumbs were phased out; they were no longer permitted to work for museums unless there was a paid supervisor.  That being the case, Wilma June was given a small monthly stipend, but Green Thumb workers could not be found in Scotland County.

At one time there was a summer youth program in which young people could apply to work. This was a wonderful program, not only because it was hoped that the youngsters later would become museum volunteers, but for their work, which was immensely helpful.  Unfortunately, the young people did not return as volunteers.  There is still hope that, as their children finish school and the parents aren’t so busy, they will take up the Downing House Museum cause.

In addition to volunteering time, many people over the years have made bequests to the museum, and several have donated $5000, which entitles the donor to have a room named after them.  There is one room left - the kitchen.  Going once, going twice . . .

Wilma June, who conducts most of the tours of the house, appreciates the many positive comments that people have made as they roam about the museum, comments such as “This place is beautiful,” “This is extraordinary; there’s nothing else like it around here”, “This is thrilling”, “You’re fortunate to have received so many artifacts”.

Wilma June Kapfer poses for a photo in front of the mantle in the main entrance room of the Downing House Museum.

Wilma June is understandably passionate about the museum and, having devoted such a large portion of her life to its creation and growth, is justifiably proud of what has been accomplished and extremely concerned about what will happen when she can no longer carry the great load she has carried for so many years.  She also recognizes the fact that she has made the museum such a huge part of her life that she is reluctant to entrust it to anyone else, yet she knows she must and strongly encourages others to become involved.

One of Wilma June’s strong desires is that the schools in northeast Missouri take advantage of the treasure trove of offerings at the museum. Teaching of Missouri history and, especially, local history could be greatly enhanced by making use of the entire museum campus. Those who become involved in this way might also become museum volunteers.

It’s obvious that people really appreciate the museum and want it to continue to exist. If you would like to volunteer, contact Wilma June at 660-465-2275.  She will be delighted to hear from you.

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