Washington Court House museum offers a peek into the past
Story and photos by Jennifer Woods
The Fayette County Museum provides travelers of all kinds a peek into different historical aspects of Fayette County and surrounding areas.
The Washington Court House museum is housed in the history-rich Morris Sharp House that was constructed in 1865.
Morris Sharp, for whom the house is named, was born Aug. 30, 1838, and died Feb. 11, 1905. He moved to Washington Court House in 1873 with his wife, Madeline (Baker) Sharp, who was from Jamestown.
The museum is maintained and operated by volunteers of the Fayette County Historical Society. The society and its board has numerous members who provide tours during the open season.
One of those members is Don Moore. Don is a locally retired history teacher who has been a member of the society for about 50 years and volunteered on the board as secretary for 30 years prior to stepping down.
“I live right across the street — I’m too convenient,” Moore said, laughing. “I’m here, I answer when the burglar alarm goes off, I pick up the mail quite often, although (Treasurer) Bob Russell also picks up the mail. I’m just too convenient.”
Moore, Archivist Polly Dean and President Glenn Rankin recently gave a tour of the home to Salt magazine.
Typically, the museum can be visited from 1 to 4 p.m. weekends May through September, although they have kept the museum closed this season due to the pandemic. That has not halted planning for next season, however.
Each season, a different theme is created for visitors to learn and experience something a little different than the usual exhibits. The 2019 season theme was history of the 10 townships located within Fayette County.
Next year’s theme is currently being considered and will likely highlight important women from the county who are both living and deceased.
“We have a large roster of those, beginning with authors, and politicians and leaders,” Moore said.
While it is closed to the public this year, the museum is using its time wisely. Recently, the museum obtained a grant to help with remodeling and updating. Projects include a new roof, repainting of the exterior and adding an accessible research area.
The research area is planned in an separate air conditioned building and will include bound books of older Record-Herald newspapers, which is the local newspaper in Fayette County.
The remodels are planned to be ready by next season for travelers ready to get out and explore after staying home this year.
History on display
The basement of the home showcases walls of historic tools and machinery including a washing machine that had to be operated by hand.
The first floor includes parlors, a kitchen, a bathroom, two dining rooms and more.
One of the rooms is a music room. In this room is an 85-key piano, two types of phonograms, a record player (that plays metal records rather than vinyl) and an organ. The “organ” pipes on it are purely aesthetic. This item came from the United Methodist Church in Jeffersonville.
Just outside the music room is a collection of all sorts of canes including handmade, glass and one that sheaths a hidden sword.
The kitchen, while a bit smaller than other rooms, has a lot to offer for historical perspective including an older stove, two types of butter-churners, and various miscellaneous kitchen items.
Of those miscellaneous items, one particularly interesting piece is a glass soda bottle that has a little piece on the inside that has to be “popped” to drink it. According to historical society members, this is where the term “pop” came from as a replacement for the word “soda.”
Off the kitchen is a bathroom. In that bathroom is the older style of tub where water had to be drawn separately then dumped into the tub, and to drain the tub, it had to be lifted upward. It is easy to imagine those who had to lift it as quite strong due to the size and weight along with the weight of the water that would have needed to be lifted.
Also featured downstairs are many pieces of local literature, old phone directories that can be used to explore past businesses and locally written texts.
From the first floor, visitors can walk up a carpeted stairway to the second floor to explore a bedroom with historical clothes hung in the closet and a bed with an interesting little tale. The bed rests on rope support and is stylistic of what mattresses once were — stuffed with whatever was handy, including straw and corn husks.
According to the historical society, this is where the saying, “sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite,” came from. Essentially, the rope support was the “sleep tight” part as the rope would need to be tight to offer adequate support for the sleeping person. The “don’t let the bed bugs bite” came from the issue of the stuffed mattresses being a breeding ground for bugs to hide in.
Also in the room is a blanket that was made from the hide of a horse. The horse was once a well-known racing horse by the name of Major Mallow.
After the horse died, its owner had a blanket and a muff made from it as a way to memorialize Major Mallow. A photo of the horse with his rider can be found hanging on one of the walls in the museum.
Across the hall is another room that contains items from past wars including flags, helmets, weaponry, etc. There are also various arrowheads and fossils on display.
The historical society’s archivist, Polly Dean, majored in history in college and finds it close to her heart. Her favorite items in this room are fossils of mastodon teeth that were said to have been found inside the city limits near Paint Creek.
Items in the room that the historical society’s president, Glenn Rankin, finds the most memorable are two veterans’ flags along with a case of the casings from one of the veteran’s 21-Gun Salute. On top of being involved in the historical society, Rankin is a member of the local American Legion Post 25 and a township trustee.
In the back of the second floor is an area that was once a trunk room. Connected to it is the area that once acted as the servants’ quarters.
Something unique in this house are the closets — it was abnormal for houses from the same time period to have closets at all and, if they did, the closets would be relatively small. The closets in the Sharp House are much larger in comparison in bedrooms and in the servants’ quarters.
In the hall is a unique and popular feature — a spiral iron staircase.
This staircase leads from the second story into a small tower area on the third level. Although this level is empty, there is a porthole that can be peeked out of.
From this tower area on the third level is a narrow stairway leading to an even smaller tower area on the fourth level. On this fourth level are windows that allows a wide view of downtown Washington Court House. This area is a popular spot for visiting children.
From there is a ladder leading to the fifth level, although it isn’t visited. Both the fourth and fifth levels are said to have the original gaslight fixtures.
These towers could allow heat to travel upward through the home, allowing cooler air to be in the lower area where the family actively lived.
“We survive on the generosity of our friends,” Moore said. “We do not have a curator. We do not pay anybody. We are 15 volunteers. We are not beholden to anybody accept to our friends who have been so generous over time.”
Fayette County Museum
Morris Sharp House
517 Columbus Ave., Washington Court House
Closed for 2020 due to the pandemic.
The museum is typically open 1 to 4 p.m. weekends May through September.
Admission is free; donations are encouraged.