Sarah Eames: On the Bright Side: Afton historians use downtime to upgrade museum

·3 min read

May 15—Members of the Afton Historical Association took advantage of the many long, slow months of the coronavirus pandemic to make some much-needed upgrades and improvements on the Afton Museum, which reopens to the public after more than a yearlong closure Memorial Day weekend.

The museum has been housed at 116 Main St. since 1985, according to Afton historian Kathy Ouimet. Built in 1866, the house was named for its most recent occupant, Isabelle Seely Jennings, an Afton resident known for her extensive collections of dolls and elephant figurines.

"A lot of places I know don't have an actual, dedicated museum," Ouimet said. "We're fortunate that we have this house and that we own it. It was donated to us, so we don't have to pay rent on it at all."

The downstairs features exhibits on the town's many doctors, dentists and druggists, many of whom are featured in the Historical Society's 2021 calendar, one of its primary fundraising efforts, Ouimet said.

During a pandemic deep-clean of Dr. Philateus Hayes' secretary-style drop-desk, Ouimet said she found a patient logbook, long believed to have been lost, hidden in a drawer. The book details many of the home births Hayes attended, Ouimet said, providing a valuable tool for local genealogists and residents interested in tracing their local ancestry.

The upstairs rooms of the house now contain the war room, filled with artifacts dating back to the country's earliest conflicts, Ouimet said. A special exhibit details the life of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, an Afton resident who served in the Civil War from 1862 to 1864 disguised as a male soldier by the name of Lyons. Her secret was not discovered until her death from disease in Louisiana, where she is buried.

The Historical Association is actively seeking donations and contributions from local veterans of more recent wars, including those in Iraq in Afghanistan, Ouimet said.

The children's room upstairs contains all manner of dolls and toys, many of which came from the collection of Isabelle Seely Jennings.

Historical Association members have long been friendly with several local members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who maintain and oversee the Josiah Stowell home about three miles south of the village, Ouimet said. The Stowell home is one of many stops on an annual upstate pilgrimage for Mormons interested in tracing the steps of the church's founder, Joseph Smith.

Born in Vermont in 1805, Smith moved with his family to western New York, an area deeply entrenched in religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening. He grew up largely in Palmyra, another stop on the Mormon pilgrimage, and met and married his first wife, Emma Hale, while working with Stowell in January 1827. The site, no longer in existence, stood on what is now the fairgrounds, Ouimet said.

"We have all these people coming through on the bus every year, ready to see the Mormon house," Ouimet said. "This is a ready-made opportunity and we have got to do something."

The pilgrimage inspired the production of a series of commemorative mugs, which are in high demand every summer, Ouimet said.

Local artist Linda DeVona was commissioned to sketch out the Mormon houses on the first one three years ago, Ouimet said, followed by a tribute to the 130th Afton Fair in 2019. Last year's mug, featuring the local schoolhouses past and present, missed its debut amid the pandemic, but Ouimet said she hopes it's a hot commodity at this year's Alumni Day and Afton Sidewalk Sale.

Since their debut, Ouimet said, she has been busy shipping mugs across the country to those with ties to Afton.

"People that grew up here and lived here and have moved away, they all want to have a piece of Afton," she said.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays from May through October.

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