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Preserving history: Prospect House & Civil War Museum a treasure trove

Jay Johnson points out a splotch of his great-grandfather's blood on a document on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum2 / 28
Jay Johnson points to his mother's wedding dress in a second-floor bedroom of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum3 / 28
An Abraham Lincoln campaign poster is on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum4 / 28
The living room of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn., features original furniture. David Samson / The Forum5 / 28
Toiletries and cosmetics, including a Mickey Mouse toothbrush holder, are on display at the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum6 / 28
A violin and Civil War-era paper money are on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum7 / 28
Child-sized chairs, a child-sized table and a tea set are on display in the toy room on the third floor of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum8 / 28
A photo of James Allison "Cap" Colehour with his Civil War rifle is on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum9 / 28
Cap's brother's Civil War sword with shark-skin handle is on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum10 / 28
The staircase to the second floor of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum11 / 28
Cap's Civil War repeating-action rifle is on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum12 / 28
A complete outfit is on display in a second-floor bedroom of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum13 / 28
A second-floor bedroom of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum14 / 28
Postcards, books and trinkets are on display on the second floor of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum15 / 28
The battle flag of the 92nd Regiment of the Illinois Volunteers Mounted Infantry is on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum16 / 28
Late-19th- and early-20th-century toys are on display in the third-floor toy room of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum17 / 28
An 1895 advertisement for suits, complete with paper dolls and swatches, is on display at the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum18 / 28
A 148-year-old valentine still in its original box is on display at the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum19 / 28
Campaign and advertising buttons are on display at the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum20 / 28
The dining room at the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum21 / 28
A banana-shaped harmonica is on display in the third-floor toy room of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum22 / 28
Jay Johnson preserved and displayed his family's paper doll collection in the toy room on the third floor of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum23 / 28
Civil War memorabilia is on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum24 / 28
A couple of Cap's Civil War buddies are depicted in a glass type negative photograph on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum25 / 28
Abraham Lincoln memorabilia is on display in the basement of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn. David Samson / The Forum26 / 28
The telephone number for the Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn., was "5." David Samson / The Forum27 / 28
The Prospect House & Civil War Museum in Battle Lake, Minn., is on the National Register of Historic Places. David Samson / The Forum28 / 28

BATTLE LAKE, Minn. – When Jay Johnson was a little boy, he dreamed there were hidden passages in the walls of his grandparents' house here just 10 miles south of his own.

Given all the treasures hidden in the Georgian-style home built in 1882 by Johnson's great-grandfather, Civil War vet James Allison "Cap" Colehour, it wouldn't be surprising.

While caring for his mother toward the end of her life, Johnson, now 67, started sorting through the 200 years worth of family documentation, memorabilia and possessions kept in the house, a former resort (the area's first). "It was my mother's lifelong passion to preserve it, and that's what we're trying to do," he says.

Johnson painstakingly organized his findings, doing his best to restore the home to its state in 1929, when Cap's daughter and her husband remodeled it. In 2010, he founded the three-story, 18-room home as the Prospect House & Civil War Museum. Three years later, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

"This is an unusual museum because 99.9 percent of everything you see in here was found right on this property and holds family memories," he explains.

Stepping inside the building is like stepping back in time. The dining room is carefully set with Wedgwood and gold-edged Lenox china. ("This bowl is worth more than my car," Johnson jokes.) An ornate pair of "grape scissors" is neatly set near a well-worn recipe for coffee cake.

There's not a bare wall in sight. Johnson's mom, Kay Wilkins Johnson, was an artist who did oil, charcoal, pen-and-ink and watercolor work. Her childhood room on the second floor is filled with a collection of her paintings, along with her wedding dress, hanging from a Murphy bed used as an armoire that came from Chicago in 1875.

Everywhere you turn, there are oddities to behold, and Johnson knows the story behind each. The house is a collector's dream, filled with exciting "Antiques Roadshow" finds, such as British paper dolls, an advertisement for $11 suits from 1895, a 148-year-old valentine still in its original box and much, much more.

Down in the basement is an impressive cache of Civil War paraphernalia. Cap saved whatever he could from his three years of service, including his Spencer lever-action repeating rifle, a uniform with bullet holes where he was shot, paper Confederate money, Abraham Lincoln campaign materials and tintype photographs of his war buddies.

Johnson estimates that as a whole, the Prospect House & Civil War Museum contains a million items and artifacts, and he's not exaggerating. "I've got over 200 Civil War letters and documents alone. That doesn't count any of the rest of this stuff," he says.

But don't ask him to sell any of it.

"Jay is a man of very limited means," says Johnson's wife, Abby, his high school sweetheart whom he reconnected with later in life. "He could sell all of it, and we could live really, really well, but he wants to preserve it for the community and for history. I commend anybody who does things like that."

If you go

What: Prospect House & Civil War Museum

Where: 403 Lake Ave. N., Battle Lake, Minn.

When: Spring and summer hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Fall and winter hours (after Labor Day through May 1): 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Guided tours only: 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.; half-tours available after 4 p.m. Call (218) 864-4008 to schedule a tour.

Info: Admission costs $8 for adults, $5 for students ages 13 to 18, free for children 12 and younger (when accompanied by an adult); a group rate is available.

Online: www.prospecthousemuseum.org

Meredith Holt

Meredith Holt is a features/business reporter for The Forum who covers topics in health, mental health, social issues, women's issues, arts and entertainment, food and more. She also writes a column on health and wellness, body image and media representationShe was a copy editor/page designer for six years prior to joining the features team in March 2012.

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