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Wakefield House

By Staff | Jan 5, 2009

Lorraine Arends shares background information about the Wakefield’s ‘what not’ shelf.

Stepping through the doorway of the side hall of the Italianate-styled home at 405 East 6th Street, one is immediately transported to a different era.

Built in 1868 of locally-made brick, the Wakefield House is the oldest home in the city and was considered a mansion at one time. It consists of six rooms, plus an entry hall and stairway. In 1872, owner James B. Wakefield added a wing, providing a kitchen and a maid’s quarters to the imposing structure.

Wakefield was the first judge of probate in Faribault County as well as the first chairman of the county commissioners. He also held the office of register of deeds before becoming the county attorney in 1857 and again in 1860-1861. In 1857, he was also elected to the House of Representatives in the last Territorial and first State legislature. He served as Speaker of the House during the 1866 session. From 1867-1868, he served as State senator. Wakefield was elected lieutenant governor of Minnesota in 1875 serving two terms. He presided in the State Senate from 1876-1879. In the fall of 1882, he was elected representative in congress, for this district, an office he held until 1886.

After Wakefield’s retirement from political office in 1887, he returned to his home in Blue Earth and looked after his farming interests. His home, the Wakefield House, remains the most visible link with the founding of Faribault County and the city of Blue Earth.

Wakefield died in 1910 and ownership of the house was passed to Edward Viebahn who lived in it until 1946. In 1948, the house was purchased by the newly founded Faribault County Historical Society for their headquarters and museum.

“Every township assigned someone to the first Board of Directors of the Faribault County Historical Society,” explains Vernice Mensing, vice-president of the local historical society since 2003. “The organizers wanted it to totally be a Faribault County thing,” she adds.

Celebrating their 60th Anniversary in 2008, the local historical society members, their spouses and countless volunteers, continue to keep the ‘spirit’ of James B. Wakefield alive in the home.

“We’re trying to keep this a home filled with appropriate items,” says Mensing.

A few pieces of furniture in the parlor are believed to have belonged to the Wakefields. In fact, the walnut desk between the west wall windows may have been Mrs. Wakefields. The ‘what-not’ shelf in the parlor’s corner is definitely theirs, as are the pictures, one displayed prominently over the piano.

Some of the display articles Mensing is particularly fond of are the Blue Earth city map from 1896, which hangs in the office and the 1848 autograph book Wakefield kept. The prize item, however, is Wakefield’s desk, donated to the museum by Henry Frundt.

Entering through the 21st century office, complete with computer, one crosses the threshold into another world – a 1930s era kitchen. Alta and Marvin Olson’s beautiful wood burning cook stove, complete with warming ovens on the top, is the first item to catch one’s attention. Period dishes are housed in the cupboards. In the kitchen drawers are family genealogy files. Scrapbooks are lined up on the kitchen counters with information about local men and women who served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.

“One thing Randall Pemberton told us we needed for our 1930s kitchen was the Windsor kitchen style chair to go with our table,” says Mensing. “We looked for some of these for a long time and suddenly we were finding them everywhere,” she adds with a smile.

Leaving the kitchen, a person then enters the dining room. Taking center stage is the dining room table which is in the Renaissance-Revival style of furniture. Although it did not belong to Wakefield, the piece is appropriate to the period. Above the table is a restored chandelier. Guides Arends and Mensing explain electricity did not come to Blue Earth until 20 years after the house had been built.

Next to the dining area is a small room, its original purpose unknown by Mensing and Arends. The Faribault County Historical Society has converted it into ‘Wakefield’s home office.’ This room houses the large desk believed to have belonged to Wakefield and used in his main street law office. It features an elaborate set of pigeon holes and the entire top section folds over giving the closed piece the appearance of a chest of drawers. Another item of the period housed in the room is the student lamp with the burner on one arm and the fuel tank on the other. The ‘attorney’ bookcase and the arts-and-crafts-table are also donated items dating from the 1920s.

As one enters the front parlor, a decorator’s touch is quite evident.

In 1990-1991, it was suggested to the local group, by the Minnesota Historical Society, to redecorate the home in period wallpaper and window treatments.

With this advice in mind, the Faribault County Historical Society members papered the walls of the entire house in the style befitting an 1890s home. The ceilings were also papered. Redecorating included the drapes, which seem too long for the windows in the front parlor because they are ‘puddled’ on the floors, again a feature of the 1890s.

Walking through the front parlor, one then ascends a steep staircase to the second floor of the beautifully restored home. At the top of the staircase is a display of many heirloom quilts. The arrangement of rooms is somewhat unusual and their original use is still under study by the local historians.

At the head of the stairway is a room currently designated as a sewing room, but it possibly was a second bedroom at one time.

The master bedroom occupies the entire front of the house and includes a walk-in closet. It is furnished in Victorian taste with a Renaissance Revival style bed. Other furnishings in the room include walnut dressers holding many donated items from the Victorian period. A plantation desk against the front wall suggests the possibility of written correspondence being done in this room.

Connected to the master bedroom is another small room in the northwest corner of the home. Although the Wakefields never had children, the local members furnished the room as if it were for a child. It contains many items a child would use from toys to clothing and even shoes.

Victorians liked their homes cluttered, but this is not the case in the Wakefield House. Everything not on display is neatly folded in dresser drawers or stored in safekeeping until it can be identified and placed in the appropriate room of the house.

“If people would volunteer and do just one thing at the museum, a lot could be accomplished.,” says Lorraine Arends, Treasurer since 1984 of the Faribault County Historical Society. “At the rate we are accessioning items, it will take us another lifetime to have items identified and displayed as we would like,” she says.

“We have so much clothing to identify,” says Arends. “It will take us a month of Sundays to complete.”

Mensing adds, “We have a lot of pictures that aren’t identified either.”

“Lots of things are unknown,” explains Arends. “We aren’t sure who donated some of the items.”

Part of this confusion stems from the fact donated items have small pieces of paper attached to them with scotch tape. Each slip of paper contains two numbers – one designating the year the item was donated and the second number who the donor is. Currently, the volunteers, including Mensing and Arends, are working on placing laminated slips of paper with this information on each and every item in the museum.

Moving from room to room, Arends and Mensing occasionally stop, look at an object and say “I haven’t seen this before.” That’s not surprising when each and every room is filled with so many interesting items and the displays are sometimes changed by different volunteers.

Randall Pemberton, local historian, has given the group much advice throughout the years. One such tidbit was to let the displays evolve. He recommended adding new pieces periodically and putting others away, just as people do in their own homes.

“People will send us items saying their mom or dad were married in Faribault County, so because of this connection, they want us to have heirloom, sentimental items such as their mother’s wedding gown,” says Arends.

Though the Wakefield House has an extensive collection of women’s items, it has few for men.

“Erwin Nolte donated lots of men’s and women’s hats to us,” says Mensing. The group also has had a lot of heirloom quilts and pictures donated throughout the years.

Possibly the most unusual items in the home are the two hair wreaths on display. They are a story on their own.

Work at the Wakefield House has a seasonal rhythm.

“In the summer, we get a lot of visitors at the museum,” says Arends. “Many of them seek family genealogy information,” she says. “Wintertime is when we get things done here.”

Even though the historical organization has a membership of 342 members, many of these are not active.

“We try to pull volunteers from within the county and community to help us with different projects,” says Mensing. “Some help with woodworking projects, others help cook omelettes,” she adds.

There are so many different opportunities to put one’s talents to work. Both Arends and Mensing admit a person doesn’t have to have a membership to the historical society in order to find a niche for themselves.

Joyce Gaylord and Bev Teskey have been busy indexing scrapbooks of weddings, social events and of military men and women. Vernice Mensing works with the obituaries, inputting the data of those buried in Faribault County.

“Usually there are two volunteers at the Wakefield House Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.,” says Mensing. “Sometimes there is someone working on a project until 6 p.m.,” she adds. It is not unusual for board members to drop in often, particularly on a Monday in order to get some work done.

As the treasurer, Arends also works on forms at her home dealing with the Faribault County Historical Society’s holdings. While at the museum, she can be found accessioning donated items.

“I can’t think of one main project we’ve been proud of,” reflects Arends. “I would have to say we have been proud of all of them.”

Recent acquisitions to the Wakefield House have included a beautiful nine-piece chamber set and a patterned, bordered, early 1900s rug. These items, donated by Kurt Arends, are presently on display in the master bedroom. Also added is a pre-1900 light fixture which graces the ceiling of the Wakefield House’s master bedroom.

“Nothing is done yet,” summarizes Arends of the historical society’s work.

There is so much work to do in all of the structures maintained by the historical society and so little time to do it, say the dedicated Mensing and Arends.

With regards to the home on East 6th Street, if the walls could only talk, it might help the group to complete it in the true ‘spirit’ of James B. Wakefield.

(Call 507-526-5421 for appointments or inquiries concerning the Wakefield House.)