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