Helena museum items tell community’s story

A country store display at the Helena Museum. (Contributed)

By LAURA BROOKHART / Community Columnist

An amazing transformation has now revealed itself both inside and out the old Masonic Lodge building.

The new exterior paint job is crisp, but the real treasure lies upstairs where the long-unused meeting room now houses some 30+ old photographs, enlarged and framed, and historical objects assembled by local historian Ken Penhale.

Penhale has organized the artifacts into sections/vignettes reflecting their usage.

“The oldest item,” he said, “is a candle mold from the late 1700s once belonging to Needham Lee.”

A rough-hewn wall displays old tools and gear from the coal-mining and railroad industry.

There is a representative country store counter with large register and scale from Mullins Grocery and a schoolroom of yesteryear, with a desk donated by Irene Mullins, former Helena teacher.

A showcase holds several items from the original Helena High School, including two ‘Monthly Report’ cards from 1887 and a ‘Souvenir Graduation Program’ from the Class of 1919.

There is an essential ‘Pencil Pointer’ pad (early sharpener) and a Latin textbook belonging to teacher James H. B. Hall. A weathered copy of McGuffey’s Sixth Eclectic Reader lies near a Helena P.T.A. program given out at a school auditorium presentation of ‘The Red-Headed Stepchild’ dated 1932.

Representing the home front, a selection of wooden rolling pins of various sizes from the collection of Frances Hinds hang nearby a beautiful old wood-fired ‘High Class’ model cook stove donated by Pam McGraw.

Adjacent sits an early model sewing machine once belonging to Molly Harris and donated by her son, Billy Dean Harris. Harris remembers his mother sewing for all the local folks.

“People would send her their measurements, and she would make patterns from newspaper. When a garment was finished, she would send me and my sister Jean out to deliver it. As a widow and single mother, this was her livelihood.

“Many clothing items were made from feed or flour sacks,” he added. “Women would get together and exchange sack designs along with a gossip session.”

Molly Harris also kept a quilt frame set up — she charged $3 for a quilt.

A column of post office boxes stands by photos of two of the early post office locations. Prior to these dedicated buildings, the post office around 1918 was inside the Helena Drug Company.

Penhale also points out a sheet of USPS stationary circa 1879. It was an efficient use of paper, where the letter, once written, folded up to become the stamped envelope.

“We even have a mystery object,” Penhale says. “We don’t have a clue what this lidded copper tin is that looks sort of like a canteen. It has a lining and there is the outline where an instrument of some sort would have been encased. It has hooks to strap it onto the body.”

Penhale would like to hear from anyone who might know its identity and use.

Open house at Helena History Museum is set for Sunday, Sept. 11 from 2-5 p.m.