Laurel Fant is the Rock County Historical Society’s Museum Curator/Collections Manager. She plans to retire in November 2017.
Tell me about your years before coming to Rock County:
I was born in DeKalb, Illinois and lived there until I went off to college. I moved back and later went to graduate school in Museum Studies, and after that I was living in different places.
In college, I studied Home Economics Education, which is now called Family and Consumer Science. Then I went on to graduate school at Eastern Illinois University, where I studied Historical Administration, so that I could be a museum director or any staff member in a museum.
When did you come to Rock County?
After college, I did some traveling and worked jobs in my field. My husband and I had moved to Arizona, and we’d been there 5 years. He passed away, and I decided I wanted to come back to the Midwest where my family was. About a year after my husband’s death, I started doing some job hunting and interviews. This position was open and I was very excited about it. I got the job! That was 1992. I lived in Janesville during that time from 1992 until 2001, for those 9 years.
Tell me about your early years at the Rock County Historical Society:
I was full-time in my position and busy with the job. When I came here, they were just starting Project 640, which was a major restoration of the Lincoln-Tallman House. We had an anonymous donor give $250,000, the City of Janesville matched it, and then we had to raise the rest of it, which was $640,000, to complete it, hence the name of the campaign. I think it ended up being a $1.1 million restoration on the house.
So, I came here to that, which was big stuff! There was a lot going on and I was pretty wrapped up in my work. The community was good to support what was going on here at the Rock County Historical Society. The community has always been great, and we’ve had several donors of items as well as people loaning items to us.
Initially, when I first started, the museum was located in the the Armory, that’s where the offices were. Storage was in the basement. The big Drill Hall, with the wood floors and beautiful brick and where they had the USO dances, was our exhibit space. Plus, we had some storage of bigger items back in the corners. So, that was a lot to fill! We had a large staff, including a director, staff running the marketing and education areas and an exhibits person, who was dedicated to exhibits, and a very talented person.
We had grand exhibits, and we brought in national artists. We hosted Eric Carle and Jan Brett, as well as a couple of quilt exhibits that were rented from other museums.
Tell me about moving to the current location of the RCHS campus:
After the restoration was complete, we ended up buying the current property at 426 N. Jackson Street. Again, the community helped us to raise money to restore it and add on to it. I was involved with that, and while we moved out of the Armory, the collections had to be moved.
At that time, the archives were operating out of the Stone House. The collections were on the second floor of the Carriage Barn. There were bits and pieces here and there, and some things were stored in the Helen Jeffris Museum Center, as well.
From where did you acquire the collections at RCHS?
We operate the Lincoln-Tallman House and a lot of the furnishings and accessories in LTH are actually Tallman family items. Some of them may have come later from Charles Norton Tallman. George was the grandson of William Morrison Tallman. He and his wife donated the Tallman House to the City including lot of the furniture.
Charles Norton Tallman had much of the furniture, including the Lincoln bed, at his home.
Abraham Lincoln visited the Tallman family during his campaign in 1857 and slept in that very bed. And in 1991 it came back to the museum. The bed was then placed in the house. That was cool. Then we had rooms where we had Tallman furniture, but we’d be missing something. So, we filled it in with something from established Rock County residents.
If we were still missing something, we might accept something from the period, but not necessarily with a Rock County association. Those were collected back in the 1950s. The pieces that guests are able to use or sit on in one particular room are pieces that we received that were not from significant Rock County residents. So, we have a space where we can actually sit.
The idea was that we would accept non-Rock County furniture with the intention of replacing it with Rock County furniture or Tallman furniture when it came in. And that’s what we’ve done.
What is the procedure of collecting like?
When someone donates, we like them to call us first to make sure we need it. For example, we’re not going to accept another piano. We don’t have the space for it. We have two in the house now, which is not appropriate. We try to head that off and suggest they go elsewhere.
When we agree to accept something, they have to bring it in and we want a signed Deed of Gift, so that we have legal ownership, and then it gets accessioned, receives a number. The next step is to catalogue all the items and finally to put them on exhibit or display at the Tallman House or possibly place them in storage. We have to keep maintaining a record where all of these items are.
What types of items are in the collections?
We have about 150 boxes of clothing and textiles, which includes clothing and shoes, and another 100 boxes of hats. Some boxes only have 1 hat, and some have several, like sleeping caps that can lay flat. Sometimes we can stack a couple large hats in one.
We have 162 boxes of smaller items, which include things like Parker Pens and toys, donated items from the Tallman era. Of course, we have the Tallman furniture in the home. We do have some other furniture that’s stored on the 3rd floor, as well as in the Museum Center basement.
We also received George Kempt Tallman’s weapon collection, which contains guns and edged weapons. We have his ethnological collections from his travels, as well. He collected Eskimo, Native American, South American and African pieces.
What are some interesting local collections you’ve seen over the years?
When some of the big businesses left town here, Parker Pen, General Motors, Jatco (Janesville Auto Transport Co.), or when Gilman Engineering downsized, they gave us some of their collections. We had pens from Parker Pen, they gave us old photos. One of the biggest things is the port hole from a ship. They’d use the metal from the port holes to make the pens. General Motors gave us a lot of photographs, and Jatco did as well.
We have 3 big pieces from Janesville. We have a Samson tractor from 1919 that preceded GM and the production of the automobiles. Our truck was from 1922, also a Janesville production. The car was made in Janesville, and the serial number indicates it came off the line the same year GM began production in 1923. We also have carriages and sleighs that were made by the Wisconsin Carriage Company. We have products from the Janesville Products Company, the breweries and mills; we have bottles, bags and sacks from them.
How are some of the big things displayed?
The carriage is in the Helen Jeffris Museum Center basement and out for viewing. We have vehicles in the Transportation Room, which we hope to open up to the public. We have carriages, sleighs, the truck and tractor, Janesville coaster wagons. It’s our big stuff. Unfortunately, the room also serves as our large storage unit, so it’s a work in progress.
The car and tractor have been out on exhibit, such as when we had the antique car out at the Lincoln Tallman Fest.
How do you keep track of everything in your collections?
Fortunately, way back in the beginning, they began cataloguing and accessioning the collections correctly, so we have good records of everything. They kept records of who gave it, when it came in, what was in it. Some of our collections have one or two or several hundred pieces in it.
Everything has a unique catalogue number and it can be traced back to their donor. We’ve been working the past several years doing inventory and keeping lists of where everything is. We have 2 wonderful volunteers here. One added all the accessions, and another has been entering all the catalogue cards we’ve had since the 1950s.
That’s Naomi Hackbarth. She has been working for a few years on getting the catalogue cards and data into the system. Now she’s going back and making sure we have the locations if possible. She’s done a LOT of work, it’s wonderful. We’ve also had some great interns doing some cataloguing and getting us caught up and things.
The Archives runs parallel to that. When I started, we had an archivist and those archives and collections were maintained separately. There’s a ton of archives, and it’s important, because we need to know where things are. We need finding aids and ways to search tags for things. It’s wonderful to have year books and city directories, but unless you know where they’re stored and which ones you have, then they’re not very helpful.
How do you go about caring for these items?
I oversee the care of the furniture that’s in the home. Our Operations Manager, Keighton Klos, oversees the cleaning of the home, air conditioning, the lighting and things.
We have ways that we do it. For example, we don’t spray on common furniture polish, we have different ways. We have rules for vacuuming and things. Over the course of the years in cleaning, I’m aware of two items that have been broken, unintentionally of course. That happens, you know.
But, I think we’ve done a pretty outstanding job to not have any more damage through the years. Especially with the tours … sometimes I hold my breath!
As this chapter in your life nears its end, how long have you worked at RCHS?
I was here from 1992 until 2001, then left for a while, and came back around 2006. So, 11 years and 9 years, a total of 20+ years! Retirement is around the corner, at the end of November, so just a couple more months.
The reason I’m working so hard to get these inventory lists updated on the computer is so that the next person who steps in can find things. Yah, I can tell you that this box has textiles and where you’d find a pincushion or a needle, but they’re going to have to rely on some written records, unless they want to go over and paw through 150 boxes!
What are your thoughts on how RCHS is moving, on our relationship with the community?
With Mike Reuter as director, the campus is growing, and I think we’re moving forward quickly in the community. There was a series of interim directors, including a time of 18 months when I served. I had said, “I’m not going to be innovative, but I’ll hold it together.” Unfortunately, we went through a run of directors. It’s not that they were bad or good or anything, but they just didn’t have the momentum that Mike has brought to the museum.
I think it will keep growing. It’s nice to see the campus continue to expand, and hopefully the plans for the buildings will continue to grow and bring us more exhibit space and such. Personally, I’d like to see more of the collections displayed for the public to view. We’ve had some people donate things and say, “well, if you’re not going to display it, I want it back.” But, we just can’t put everything out all of the time. We just can’t.
We have different catalogues; objects, library, archives and photographs. With what our volunteer, Naomi, has put on the computer, I believe we have a total of over 60,000 pieces! And we’re still cataloguing things. It’s an ever growing number.
How has this job been rewarding for you?
Way back in 8th grade, I was interested in a career in textiles. Well, I realized I didn’t have the talent to be a fashion designer, so I went the other way and did the historic care and preservation. I really like clothing and textiles, hence the degree in Home Economics.
I started volunteering in a museum and I helped with cataloguing and organizing the collections. I like historical objects, the objects as opposed to the archives, especially the textiles. It’s been a joy. I have also sewn a few things, period outfits and costumes for the collection.
However, this position is perfect because I don’t have to collect things of my own, and take up my own space, since I have this big collection right here. And someone else gets to pay for the storage! Ha ha.
What are you going to miss about your work at the Rock County Historical Society?
The people, that’s probably the biggest thing. And the collection … there are some beautiful pieces in there, and knowing the history of it makes it very special to me.
Of course, I will still be able to answer questions, so if you call and say, “Hey, do you know where such and such is?” I’ll be there to help.
Note from RCHS: The Rock County Historical Society will miss you a great deal, Laurel, and we wish you all the best in your retirement!