The Harlan-Lincoln House, located on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan University, is looking for volunteers.
A quarterly docent — or tour guide — training is being held at the house this Saturday, Jan. 12, from 8 a.m. to noon. Docent training is open to anyone interested in volunteering at the Harlan-Lincoln House.
The Harlan-Lincoln House has been a museum since 1959. It includes artifacts belonging to the family of former U.S. senator and president of IW James Harlan and President Abraham Lincoln. Harlan’s daughter married the son of Lincoln and they brought their children to spend summers at the house in the late 1870s and 1880s.
Volunteers are integral to operating the Harlan-Lincoln House, director Anna Villareal said. In 2018, the museum was open for over 900 hours, gave tours to about 1,160 people and had 250 educational contacts.
Tricia File, who has volunteered with the Harlan-Lincoln House since 2006, said she grew up in “Lincoln country” — central Illinois — before moving to Mt. Pleasant. Having visited many historical sites from an early age related to Lincoln, File was immediately interested to learn about the museum.
“I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about the history of the ‘great emancipator,’” File said in an email to The News. “After getting involved, I was completely captured by the story of Sen. James Harlan, his rise to prominence as a university president, devoted Mt. Pleasant citizen, and the story of his family. Sen. Harlan’s connection to Lincoln’s presidency and to the ... Ann Harlan Lincoln family and children were just the ticket for this history buff.”
File taught elementary art in the Mt. Pleasant Community School District and included a unit for fifth-graders in historical architecture. They would discuss design elements of architecture of 19th- and 20th-Century structures existing in the community, including the Harlan-Lincon House, File said.
“It was great to see these fifth-graders come to appreciate the idea of historic preservation and how places can tell the important stories of people,” File said. “I believe the Harlan-Lincoln House tells an important story to our community about how individuals fueled with a desire to learn and serve can effect momentous change and improvement in their own hometown.”
That love for teaching others about the history in Mt. Pleasant is why File is passionate about serving as a docent today.
File spends about four to six hours a month volunteering with the museum. Her favorite moments as a tour guide are getting to experience the surprise on the part of the visitors as they learn about Harlan and his connection to Lincoln, she said.
Kimn Hassenfritz is another volunteer at the Harlan-Lincon House. Hassenfritz began volunteering just a couple of years ago and loves to see people’s faces light up with interest when she’s giving a tour.
“It’s that feeling of ‘wow, I’ve hit the mark,” Hassenfritz said. “I’d recommend it for anybody.”
Hassenfritz said people are most interested in Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincon’s wife. When Mary died, there were 64 trunks of her clothing and belongings that ended up at the Harlan-Lincoln House, and some of her dresses were made into purses by her grandchildren and are on display at the museum today, Hassenfritz said.
Hassenfritz’s favorite artifact, however, is a piece of wood taken off a closet on the second floor of the Harlan-Lincoln House. On it are the names, dates and height measurements of each of the grandchildren who visited written in Harlan’s own handwriting.
“We did that with our children and it’s still something people do today,” Hassenfritz said, adding it humanizes the history of the house a little.
“I like telling the stories of the people who lived there,” Hassenfritz continued. “It’s the stories of the people who came before us.”
While there is definitely a learning curve involved in being a docent, Hassenfritz said it is not impossible by any means. The director and other docents spend time taking new volunteers through the museum, telling them the stories and working to prepare them to give tours on their own.
At the training this Saturday, potential volunteers will introduce themselves, go on a tour given by Villareal and then sit down and go through reference materials before taking a break. They will then reconvene and have time to ask questions and go through the rooms again. At each training, there are about two to four people, Villareal said.
Docents are able to give tours based on their personal interests and connection to artifacts. While dates and names are still important, Villareal said they aren’t trying to streamline the tour and make each one exactly the same.
“We want people to learn the information at their own pace and present it how they feel comfortable,” Villareal said. “I encourage docents to ask visitors what their interest is in the museum and what background they came from. Are they primarily interested in Lincoln family? Iowa history? Politics? And tailor tours based on how much time visitors are able to spend.”
Before docents are free to do their own tours, they are asked to attend a guided tour and then give a tour with the assistance of a veteran docent. Some docents reference their notes, others carry notecards or a clipboard. Even Villareal said she has to go back to her notes every once in awhile, especially after a long break.
“We don’t expect verbatim memory. Not everyone learns in that style,” Villareal said.
There is no time-requirement for docents at the Harlan-Lincoln House. Villareal sends an email to docents asking if they are available for a tour or event and they can respond based on their schedule.
Other volunteer positions with the Harlan-Lincoln House include collections assistants or being a part of the event committee.
Collections assistants volunteers provide support documenting, researching and maintaining the artifacts for the Harlan-Lincoln House collection. Collections assistants meet once a month. Currently, collections assistants are working on inventory, which includes creating a written description of artifacts, photographing them, taking measurements and reporting on the condition of the artifacts.
Collections assistants also help with maintenance and cleaning artifacts and are working to update the collection storage space this month by putting together new shelves.
To sign up for training to be a Harlan-Lincon House volunteer, call 319-385-6319 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign-up is required.
The Harlan-Lincoln House is free admission and is open Monday through Friday from noon to 4 p.m. Tours can be scheduled on their websote at www.iw.edu/harlan-lincoln-house-tours.