This post is about the Wood County (Ohio) Historical Center and Museum. A couple of years ago I wrote this story for a magazine writing class. It was this time of year, and I’ve been waiting and waiting for October to arrive so that I could post this story here. October is necessary because this is a fall-themed story, about ghosts and fall activities at the museum.
The events I mention here, along with others, are happening again at the museum this year. Check them out because the ghost stories are quite convincing and the jar of fingers is pretty sweet. Plus, you can learn a lot about the oil boom in Bowling Green and other regional history. Below the story you can find this year’s events.
More than fingers
It’s an imposing house with 60-some rooms. It’s surrounded by woods on the back and cornfields on the front. You take a winding road to get there, to the museum that used to be a lunatic asylum.
You may already know two things about this museum: It houses a glass jar with three chopped-off fingers and ghosts.
But if you take the time to drive south on Dunbridge Road – the road perpendicular to Meijer – to the Wood County Historical Center and Museum, you’ll find that the museum offers more than a jar of shriveled fingers.
For instance, you could come to a curator series event. Led by Randy Brown, the museum’s curator, these events are about a topic related to preserving history or history that has already been preserved, such as protecting heirlooms and the dress of Northwest Ohio’s Native Americans.
I went on the full moon tour. Brown led the group through the grounds, and at each stop, he explained the history of the building or equipment.
Built in 1868, the main building housed the county’s poor and unwanted. The home’s inmates, as they were called, were there because they were out of work. So work was provided.
They raised dairy cattle, chickens, sheep, hogs and horses. They tended to the fields and gardens. They did all the work necessary to keep the house from falling to disrepair. And they kept a self-sufficient farm.
The home was for people with mental illnesses, too. People like Bert Gifford.
He is in photographs hanging throughout the museum. Gifford was short and frequently was pulling a wagon, and regardless of everything else going on in the world, he was always smiling.
He is Edie Olds’ inspiration for volunteering at the museum because of his smiling.
Olds is not from Wood County, so she has adopted the history here as her own. Since she is a decorator, she was asked to decorate one of the museum’s smaller rooms for the holiday tours. She completed a room that first year, then the Victorian Parlor the next year, and shortly after, was asked to take over and is now in charge of the holiday decorations.
“I never thought I would be doing this after I retired,” Olds said. She had always considered the building as just the county home until she began volunteering. “It’s more than that,” she said.
It is more than just the county home because of the learning opportunities at the museum.
“I feel like when people come here, I feel like they learn something,” Brown said. He wants visitors to take home something they did not know, in order to fulfill the museum’s purpose.
The museum is in many travel books, Brown said, including numerous books featuring strange and out-of-the-ordinary items and places. One of those books is “Oddball Ohio: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places” by Jerome Pohlen, which is how I first heard of the museum about eight years ago.
The strange item?
“We try to deemphasize that,” Brown said, which is accomplished by visitors having to walk through most of the museum to get to them.
One of the other exhibits – Brown’s favorite “by far” – is the American Indian exhibit. It is about their culture, not the battles. The exhibit tracks how the American Indians’ lives changed as the Europeans moved west. Tools used before and after the European influence, which brought horses and metal and drastically altered their lives, are displayed, along with jewelry, furs, a teepee and cookware.
Brown likes the museum because it “tells people about their own history,” he said. For instance, he learned that the Wood County area produced more oil than Pennsylvania or Texas for 20 years. The first well was drilled in 1884.
“I grew up here and didn’t know about the oil boom,” he said.
Other parts of history are controversial.
The museum has a KKK robe from the early 1900s, which is currently not on display. There are complaints if it is up and complaints if it is down, Brown said.
“We can’t pretend it didn’t happen,” he said, referring to complaints that the robe should not be on display.
Those fingers are controversial, too.
The display is about the last man to be executed in Wood County in 1883 – Carl Bach. He murdered his wife, Mary, with a corn knife. He cut off her fingers and they were saved as evidence for the trial. Next to the fingers are the knife, the rope, the noose and the hood from the execution, and some letters, a Bible and a pipe.
The fingers were on display in the Wood County Court House until they were moved to the museum.
Ann Householder, a volunteer who helps with the monthly tea series, said it was a right of passage to see the fingers at the court house when she was a child.
People would be in an uproar if they were taken off the display, Brown said.
The ghost stories are part of the county’s history, too.
Even though the pursuit of ghosts does not connect with the museum’s purpose, museum director Christie Raber said, “The ghost stories are a part of folklore. First-hand stories are chronicled for the museum, in addition to common themes that are heard from second- and third-hand sources.
“I think you can use the ghost stories that surround the place to study the place,” Raber said. “It’s about what people really believe, and that as a historian is what I’m interested in.”
The museum, when it was the county home, was a place of last resort for hundreds of people. Those people found a home there and did not want to leave, as evident by the sadness felt by many of the home’s last residents when they were moved into the new county nursing home in 1971, said Dorsey Sergent, who took medicine to the patients at the county home from the mid 1950s until the museum closed and was the staff pharmacist for the home (and then the new nursing home) from 1965 until 1987.
The stories frequently told involve hearing noises such as a girl crying in the halls, footsteps, notes from a piano and a music box. Other people claim to have seen Bert Gifford pulling his wagon around the grounds.
Raber said she has gotten used to the noises. She thinks the building has also gotten used to her by accepting her presence. She also does not mind if the ghost stories are what gets people in the museum. “If that’s the hook, then that’s OK,” she said, just as long as the visitors look at everything else, too.
One of the museum’s most famous ghost stories happened to Sergent.
Because of his science background, it is hard for him to comprehend what he’s seen. “Science can be repeated, explained and analyzed,” he said, which cannot be done with ghosts.
Sergent said most people are reluctant to talk about encounters with ghosts, including himself. People bring stories to him because they know he saw Agnes, and they know that he won’t judge. He enjoys hearing the stories, and with permission, retelling them.
“I’m more or less a story teller,” he said. “People find it entertaining, and that’s good enough for me.”
In 1969 Sergent was taking a medicine delivery to the home just like he always did. He was with a student intern. They entered the west wing and were walking to the nurse’s station in the east wing when a lady stepped out of a doorway, Sergent said.
She was short, elderly and smiling. Sergent and the intern said hello, and she smiled and nodded in return.
“As we stepped around her, she was gone,” Sergent said.
He and the intern told a nurse about their encounter, and she said all the doors were locked and no one was out. The area was searched and no one was found.
Sergent recalled some of the nurses did not laugh when he told their story, because he knew they had witnessed strange events, too. The woman, at the time, was unidentifiable, so she was called Agnes.
At the October tea at the museum, when Sergent was telling these stories, he said he often says goodbye to Agnes when he leaves the museum, and occasionally the lights flicker in response. Also at the tea, Sergent said he happened to see a new picture that was hung in the museum. When he stopped to look at it, he realized the woman in the photograph looked familiar. He said, “‘Oh, my God. That’s the ghost I saw.’”
The photograph is of Charlotte Farmer, a former matron of the infirmary.
Then when renovations were being done on the home after it was turned over to the Wood County Park Commission – some time between 1971 and 1975 – bare-foot footprints were found inside on the second floor. The prints were never photographed or recorded, so Sergent cannot remember exactly when this happened, but he saw them with his own eyes.
Sergent said a maintenance man was varnishing the floors and blocked off the upstairs and locked the building after he finished his job. When the worker returned on Monday morning, the prints were found.
They led from a doorway halfway across the hall. There were only nine toes.
Sergent saw the prints and said there is no way someone could have gotten into the room without leaving tracks, nor is there a way the person could have stopped leaving tracks in the middle of the hallway.
“It’s easily explained with other means,” he said.
But he does not want to focus on the hauntings. “We don’t want to become a ghost museum. We don’t want to distract from the true purpose,” Sergent said.
The “true purpose” is to preserve history, which is why Herman and Eileen Aufdencamp are involved. Both spent about nine years on the Wood County Historical Society Board and now both are committee members. Eileen Aufdencamp is on the collections committee and Herman Aufdencamp is on the facilities and property committee. They love preserving history and even have their own museum in their garage at their house.
Herman Aufdencamp started his collection with butter churns. He also has tools, baskets, immigrant trunks, an 1846 sleigh, a buggy and a 1922 Model T. Nearly all of his artifacts are from Wood County and a good portion belonged to his relatives.
“That’s my interest. I want to preserve things,” Herman Aufdencamp said, who wants to preserve so he can show his children and grandchildren “how things used to be.”
By coming to the museum, people can see what life was like. In addition to the home, there are many other buildings on the property from the same time period. There’s a lunatic house, herb garden, horse barn, hog barn, ice house and ice ponds, a pauper’s cemetery, power house – which heated the home – and pest house – for men with communicable diseases.
Eileen Aufdencamp is always spreading the word about the museum, carrying brochures in her purse to give to people interested in the museum. Herman Aufdencamp said getting people to the museum is necessary for its success.
“What good is it to preserve things if you can’t show it to people?” he said.
The location and structures make the museum all the more appealing to Householder. “There’s that nice, sleepy, old place out there,” she said.
To Householder, what the museum does is immeasurable. “The preserving of the history of the area … I don’t know how you could put a value on it,” she said.
Events at the museum:
TEA: FOLKLORE TEA
Thursday, October 14, 2010 — 7:00 PM
Be chilled to the bone by some eerie folklore stories from around Northwest Ohio. Reservation and Fee Info
FOLKLORE FRIDAYS AT THE INFIRMARY
Friday, October 22, and 29, 2010.
Two-hour guided folklore tour includes the Infirmary (now the Wood County Museum) and select locations such as the Paupers’ Cemetery, Lunatic Asylum, and Oil Derrick. Tours start at 7 PM, 8 PM, and 9 PM and reservations are required. [more]
Volunteer to be a folklore tour guide : If interested, call 419-352-0967 or firstname.lastname@example.org
BE A TOURIST IN YOUR OWN TOWN / BGSU Family Weekend
October 23 & 24, 2010. 1:00 – 4:00 PM
Tour your own community through the eyes of a tourist. It’s Demo Day at the Museum featuring demonstration of the blacksmith shop (Saturday only), Oil Derrick, and old-fashioned treats like apple cider pressing, popcorn, and butter churning. Museum and Barns open for self-guided tours.