Johnson County Historical Society celebrates 50 years, looks ahead to new location

Organization began to commemorate Mormon Handcart Expeditions

Alexandra Drehman, Executive Director/Curator, at the Johnson County Historical Society in Coralville on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Alexandra Drehman, Executive Director/Curator, at the Johnson County Historical Society in Coralville on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CORALVILLE — On display at the back of the Johnson County Historical Society Museum is a small, black Underwood typewriter and a wooden desk in varying shades of brown.

Rex Brandstatter, a member of the not-for-profit society’s board of directors, said the “innocent” looking workspace is one of his favorite pieces in the museum right now. The items belonged to Johanna Beers, an Iowa City Press-Citizen reporter who started at the newspaper in 1937 — a time that saw few women in such a position, according to the exhibit.

“Through that little typewriter came all these stories, all her columns, came all her recipes, came all her reporting,” said Branstatter, a longtime board member. “She kept, we’ll say Iowa City and Johnson County, informed of everything going on just through that little dinky old typewriter down there. I think that’s kind of a neat little deal.”

The historical society has been collecting local artifacts such as Beers’s typewriter in an effort to preserve the community’s history for 50 years. Through its collection of more than 12,000 artifacts, its programming, its role as a research facility and its management of historic properties, the historical society has been working to teach Johnson County residents about their history since its days half a century ago, as the Mormon Trek Memorial Foundation in 1967.

“People don’t realize the significance some of their things, that grandpa’s old tool set, would have,” Branstatter said. “But the old tools that he had could tell a story about what carpentry was at the time ... .”

The historical society has grown significantly from its original purpose, to honor the Mormon Handcart Expeditions of 1856 and 1857. In the 1850s, railroads ended in Iowa City, so Mormons on their way to Salt Lake City would camp in Coralville while they constructed handcarts to carry their belongings.

The early foundation worked to identify the campground site, establish a park to commemorate the expeditions and rename the street Mormon Trek Boulevard. And in 1981, after members thought about just what they wanted the organization’s identity to be, they changed its name to the Johnson County Historical Society.

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“I always say, ‘once it’s gone, it’s gone.’ So if you don’t save the history, if you don’t preserve it, if you don’t teach your community about it or allow them opportunities to learn about it, they’re not going to know how we got started,” said Alexandra Drehman, executive director of the historical society. “It always makes everything so much richer when you know a little bit more about maybe the house you live in or the park that you’re visiting.”

The society has a staff of two, and it relies heavily on volunteers.

“It’s tough when you’ve got all these great things that you want to share so you really have to rely on your community involvement and passionate folks out there who want to help us do that,” Drehman said.

Now that it’s a half-century old, the society faces a big move in the near future. While it’ll remain in the Iowa River Landing development, the museum will move into its new space in the Iowa Arena in 2019.

In June 2016, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved $200,000 to help with the relocation of the historical society museum as well as the Antique Car Museum of Iowa.

Drehman said that while new location isn’t significantly larger, the space will be laid out more efficiently.

“The stronger the JCHS gets, with the facility we have now and the proposed new facility, we think we’ll bring in a lot more visitors and a lot more items,” Brandstatter said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

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