A Little Insight Into How We Decide What to Accept Into Our Museums’ Collections

Old pill bottles from the 1960s? Yes, we want them! Your family’s antique sewing machine? No, unfortunately, we don’t. When people think they have an item that might be a good addition to our museums’ collections and contact us to see if we want it, they are often surprised at the items we are interested in and the items we turn away. At Superior Public Museums, these decisions are guided by a document called a collections policy. This document was developed and approved by our board of directors and defines what items we are looking to acquire, and to a certain extent, what we do not want. When a potential donor brings an item in, we ask a series of questions to determine if it is something we should accept.

The White Machine currently in the Pattison sewing room.

The Singer machine in the children’s home exhibit

Does it have a direct relationship to one of our sites? If it relates to the career of a local firefighter or police officer, someone who lived in the children’s home at Fairlawn, or belonged to a member of the McDougall or Pattison families, it clearly relates to our collections and will definitely be considered.

Does it help us tell our story? Our three sites have unique histories. Does this item help us to tell one of these stories? In the case of the old pill bottles, we exhibit the SS Meteor as if it was sailing in the 1960s. The sailors probably had pill bottles, razors and other toiletries, and setting them on the shelf in their quarters will help to tell the story of a crew person’s life on the ship. Although not what most people think of as a museum quality piece, we would consider them.

Is it redundant? Do we already have one like it? This question is often the easiest question to answer. For example, although you might have a beautiful antique sewing machine, we already have three. We can only use two in our exhibits, so we would probably not want to accept another unless it helped tell our story in a way that our current sewing machines could not.

What are we looking for? The answer is, quite a bit and often not what you think we need. If after reading this you have something that might help us to tell the story of our sites, give us a call. If it isn’t something that makes sense for us, we will try to help you connect with another institution that might benefit from your donation. We enjoy helping people find new homes for items and we always appreciate your thoughtfulness.

New Exhibits Aboard the SS Meteor

Have you heard the story about how Captain Alexander McDougall navigated the waters to the Atlantic in his whaleback the Charles W. Wetmore?

Launched in 1891, the Wetmore was the first whaleback steamer to touch salt water. Since the steamer was 264 feet in length, it could not fit through the canals along the St. Lawrence Seaway. McDougall decided that he would run what is currently the St. Lawrence River rapids to get to the Atlantic Ocean. He took her safely through. Visitors can learn how he did it when they visit the SS Meteor’s new exhibits this summer.

SS Meteor Whaleback Ship Museum, the world’s last remaining above-water Whaleback ship.

Stories like this, about McDougall, the whalebacks he built, the American Barge Company and more, are depicted on the seven new exhibit panels that were revealed in May. The stories in this exhibit are unique to Superior, to McDougall and to the whalebacks he created, and they cannot be found on Google. It’s simply not available outside of the museum itself.

Prior to this installation, the exhibits have not had a major update since the early 1980s. The new panels bring the museum’s focus back to McDougall and all things whaleback, instead of a general maritime approach.

Development of the new exhibits has been two years in the making. Countless hours of research, writing, design and proofing, not to mention the gathering of photos and artifacts, have gone into the project.

Part of the research the team conducted in preparation for the exhibits was to ask the friends of the museum what they wanted to see. The overwhelming response was for more whaleback, more McDougall and more of Superior’s harbor history. That’s exactly what visitors will find in the Meteor’s cargo hold.

The new and revised information is something that whaleback enthusiasts can be proud of. The exhibit tells our story.

For more information on world’s last remaining above-water Whaleback ship and tours visit our SS Meteor page.

Historic Wedding at Fairlawn Mansion

Imagine Fairlawn Mansion’s decorated interior as two couples were married in the parlor on an early June day in 1896. Two of Martin Pattison’s nieces, Mary Ann Gowling and Eva Irene Thayer, married men from Superior – Ralph Pope and Frank Hamen. “Fairlawn never looked so beautiful as when its spacious apartments were decked with flowers and foliage” wrote a reporter for the June 4th edition of the Superior Telegram. “The parlor is decorated with pink and white roses and smilax [leafy vines] in festoons over the mantle, the music room with white and yellow flowers while the reception room and library beyond present a most effective picture with American beauties and other beautiful flowers amidst the green foliage of potted plants.” Weddings like this made the news during the Pattisons’ day, and the article in the newspaper was filled with information that locals wanted to read.


An early photo of Fairlawn’s family parlor.

About 50 guests were invited to the wedding ceremony – mostly close friends and family. The details of the double wedding included music and decoration, refreshments and dinner. “The brides will be given away by their uncle, Mayor Pattison, and they will look beautiful in their gowns of Gloria silk. Miss Gowling’s dress is trimmed with pearl ornaments and she will carry a handkerchief of lace, one hundred and fifty years old.” At the end of the ceremony, guests were sent up to the ballroom on the third floor of the mansion, where they ate a wonderful supper. The ballroom tables were decorated with pink candles and apple blossoms.

The menu included croquettes, salads, olives, almonds, meats and chips, with ice cream and strawberries to top off the meal. Once the wedding cake was cut by the brides, the billiards room was opened up to allow the wedding guests to admire wedding gifts that included “silver, cut glass, rare china, pictures, beautiful embroidery, linen” and more. The evening reception included refreshments for nearly 400 well-wishers in the dining room under a canopy of climbing asparagus, with carnations decorating the table. Once guests chose coffee, chocolates, cake or ices, they could wander through the conservatory, greenhouse, lawns, and outdoor gardens.

Fairlawn, with its beautiful interior and cheerful gardens, lends itself perfectly as a backdrop for weddings. Whether a small wedding in the parlor or a larger gathering near the landing, many couples have celebrated their marriage at Fairlawn.

Planning a wedding? Call our Events Coordinator at 715-394-5712 or email events@superiorpublicmuseums.org to schedule a private tour.


Winter on the Lakes


Men wave from the frosted nose of a whaleback ship.

As the snow begins to fall, many of us have already turned up the heat in our homes. But what if you had to wait for a tanker ship to bring fuel to your town before you could turn on the heat? That’s what happened in many  towns along the edge of the Great Lakes during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

Sailing as the SS South Park and later as the SS Meteor, the last surviving whaleback ran as an oil tanker and spent many cold seasons traveling the lakes while carrying home-heating fuels and other fuels meant for machinery in her 16 tanks. The good thing about the whaleback was that she could last long into the cold weather without getting stuck in ice that frequently trapped other ships. With her round nose, it was said that the whaleback could slide up on the ice and crush it so she could continue traveling to the towns that needed oil.


Crewmen pose near equipment coated in inches of ice.

Imagine walking on the rounded decks in November, December, or January wind and snow storms! Nowadays Great Lakes ships are often built with storm tunnels, or tunnels that run between the front and back of the ship underneath the deck, so that the crew can move around the ship without much worry about the weather. The whalebacks weren’t built with interior storm tunnels, so the deck hands and other crewmembers had to walk the icy deck to get to the machinery in the forward end of the ship. Owned by the Cleveland Tankers Company, the tanker Meteor often ran the lakes well past the usual closing date in early December.


The Meteor sits encrusted in ice at a dock.

Sometimes the fleet moved cargo around the lakes well into February. Once the ice was too thick, the ships would be docked until the ice had broken up before being refilled and sent out to deliver fuel again in the spring. Many stories would come out about daring rescues as ships became stranded in the ice. The Coast Guard would remove buoys, and other aids used for navigation, during the fall so that the items wouldn’t be destroyed by the ice and winds on the lakes. That meant that the Meteor and other ships still traveling the lakes in the off-season didn’t have all of the options that they usually had for knowing their location.


An early whaleback encounter with ice.

The Meteor’s deck log (record book) from February 1961 shows that she ran 87 extra miles during the month in order to avoid ice fields. At times she would try to back out and turn to move the ice from around her hull if it got too thick to make any headway toward her destination. However, she still got stuck in ice fields on a number of occasions, which often required sitting in the ice waiting for the US Coast Guard vessel Mackinaw to make her way to the whaleback in an attempt to get her out of her frozen mooring. The Meteor would then follow a path created by the Mackinaw or other ships to steer clear the icier portions of the lakes and make progress.

On February 3, 1961, loaded with a cargo of gasoline and fuel oil, the Meteor headed out from East Chicago. A note written in the log explains what happened: “From 6:50 AM to 4:15 PM working in ice fields at various courses and speeds making approximately 11.5 miles headway – lost time 9 hours, 25 minutes. Ran approximately 10 extra miles to east shore to avoid ice fields.” That month, the ship’s route included East Chicago, Indiana, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Ferrysburg, Michigan. She logged nearly 3,000 miles traveling between docks that February. The Meteor’s crew made 14 trips during that time, hauling liquid cargoes around the lakes to keep cities fueled and warm throughout the cold winter.

McDougall’s Dream 2016

Check out the brochure below for more information about our upcoming McDougall’s Dream event!13996306_1318768378140877_2936128342079023397_o13908985_1318768481474200_5000631179682144981_o

Tea Parties in the Parlor


Photo courtesy of Lucas Jensen

Parlor games were entertaining activities for both children and adults during the age of the Victorians. Whether Blind Man’s Bluff, Balderdash, or anything in between, games in the parlor were something to look forward to when visiting with siblings, cousins or friends.

Afternoon tea, in contrast, was often a quieter time for polite conversation and good manners. The snacks were sweet and the sugar cubes were hopefully plentiful. Does this sound like a relaxing way to spend an afternoon?

Fairlawn Mansion offers tea parties that can be part of a birthday get-together, a club meeting, or just about any occasion. For younger party-goers, there is a two-hour party that includes dressing up in hats, feather boas and gloves, ending with a fashion show in the grand hall. The kids also enjoy parlor games, making tussie-mussies (flower bouquets), and a tea party with pink lemonade and sweet frosting-covered wafers. These tea parties start at $120 for a group of eight little party-goers.

For the still young at heart but slightly older crowd, catered luncheons and a private tour of the mansion are often the interest. These parties work well as bridal showers, baby showers, or other celebrations, but you won’t need any excuse to enjoy Fairlawn’s beautiful interior as you spend time with loved ones and friends! These parties, which include a tasty catered meal for a minimum of 10 people, start at $25 per person. If a tea party sounds like a delightful event for your next occasion, give us a call to chat about options for designing a party at Fairlawn that can easily include your personal touch.


Photo courtesy of Lucas Jensen

Want Fairlawn to be the setting for your next party?
Call our Museums Administrator at 715-394-5712 for more information.

They’re Trying to Sink a Whaleback!

They’re Trying to Sink a Whaleback!

The year 2015 marked the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the passenger steamship Eastland. The disaster took the lives of 844 people. The ship had been built tall and narrow, and most of its weight was held on its upper decks. Previous incidents had shown that the ship would list when too many people stood on one side. Passenger ships like the Eastland were owned by various companies and had specific regular routes that allowed the public to get to work and move about the lakes and rivers in the area, along with affording these passengers the opportunity to take excursions.

Whaleback ship designer Alexander McDougall built one whaleback that was meant for the transportation of people instead of cargo. The whaleback steamship Christopher Columbus, after being used as a passenger ferry for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, continued its life as a passenger ship owned by the Goodrich Transportation Company, traveling a route between Milwaukee and Chicago. After the World’s Fair, another row of staterooms and an additional deck was added, making the ship very tall. Having boasted 7,000 passengers on her first voyage, the Columbus was allowed to transport 4,000 at a time on her route in Lake Michigan. After the sinking of the Eastland, the public became wary of traveling by ship, and it may be that the strange configuration of the whaleback, along with its height, made them particularly nervous about getting on board.

The spectacle as the Columbus was towed through the channel with volunteers and sandbags on board. (Photo courtesy of Superior Public Museums)

The spectacle as the Columbus was towed through the channel with volunteers and sandbags on board.
(Photo courtesy of Superior Public Museums)

A few years after the Eastland disaster, McDougall wrote about how it affected the use of the Columbus. He wrote: “About three years ago, a passenger ship in Chicago harbor rolled and drowned many people, which caused distrust in excursion steamers. To show her stability, the owners of the Christopher Columbus invited the public [to watch] on many other steamers and boats out in Lake Michigan opposite Chicago, where the Columbus, with 4,000 sacks of sand and 300 men were placed all on one side, and on the different decks, where passengers on one side would stand; then with a large tow line from her bow and a powerful tug, she was whirled about in the lake and there much satisfied the public for her patronage continued.” Captain Alexander McDougall also wrote that though the additional deck made the Columbus much taller than she had been previously, she was still “as steady as a church.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune, on August 6, 1915, printed an article about the stability test that the Columbus underwent. “Three hundred lives, the steamship worth $400,000, and the reputation of the Goodrich Transit Company were risked in the undertaking. Experts declared the test satisfactory.” The Columbus continued on as a passenger ferry until she was ultimately scrapped in 1936.

A Visit with Pandora in the Parlor


Detail of Pandora.

If you have been to Fairlawn Mansion, you have likely seen the marble statue that resides in the alcove in Grace’s parlor. The bright white sculpture sits on a brown pedestal that makes the figure prominent against the curtained windows. Draped in a soft-looking shroud made of marble, she leans slightly forward with her hair gathered just above her neck. Pandora stands gazing at her little decorative jar, seemingly contemplating whether she should open it or not. As the story goes, Pandora chooses to open the mysterious box, and, in so doing, unleashes all the evils of the world. In her haste to close the box after she realizes what is happening, she shuts the lid in time to trap one last thing: hope.


An early photo of Pandora.

Martin and Grace Pattison brought the statue of Pandora home after one of their trips overseas. The figurine was created by Chauncey B. Ives in Italy around the year 1864. Ives was an American artist who moved to Florence, Italy in the 1840s. Known for his sculpting of figures, Ives was popular for many years because of his classical depictions of women such as Frances M. Pearce, Sans Souci, and Undine Receiving Her Soul. When the family moved out in 1920, they took the statue with them. She was donated back to Fairlawn when it opened as the Douglas County Historical Society in 1965.

In 1999, Pandora was sent to the Twin Cities for conservation – cleaning of the whole statue, and repair of Pandora’s broken marble fingers, happened at that time. After the conservation project was finished, the statue was shipped back to Superior and set up in the parlor once again. During the Christmas season, Pandora seems to glow in the light of the decorated trees as she stares at the jar in her hand. Be sure to visit Fairlawn during December to see Pandora standing where she has for most of the past century.

Superior’s Firefighting Horses

Superior’s Firefighting Horses

Before engine-powered fire trucks were seen speeding from Superior’s fire halls toward plumes of smoke, galloping horses pulled fire hose and ladder wagons toward blazes. Horses naturally fear flames and often become nervous when they catch a whiff of smoke. But because horses were necessary in getting to and fighting fires, the horses working in fire halls were trained to gallop directly to a fire, pulling fire-extinguishing equipment in their wake. Log book records kept by Superior fire fighters provide a wealth of information about the maintenance and care of fire-fighting horses.

A cart and harness prepared for a fire run.

A cart and harness prepared for a fire run.

The East End Fire Hall was built in 1898. In August of the previous year, Superior’s Evening Telegram printed an article about how the fire hall plans were drawn up. The building itself was two stories high and the dimensions were 60 feet by 65 feet. The first floor had space for nine horse stalls. According to the article, “These stalls are not arranged in the rear of the building as in the present system, but are so arranged that the horses after being released by the automatic action of the drop box, have only to go twelve feet to get in harness and ready for the start.” The horses were trained to leave their stalls and run directly to their places in front of the firefighting equipment and underneath the harnesses when the alarm bell rang. The harnesses were hung from the ceiling in such a way that only one or two buckles were required in order to hook the horse to the wagon and head toward the fire.

Note how the team of horses is very close to the burning building.

Note how the team of horses is very close to the burning building.

On May 4, 1898, a firefighter at the Connor’s Point Fire Hall wrote in the log book about the shoeing process. He penciled: “1:45 p.m. – Love brought extra team and took the regular team to shop to be shoed.” At 4:30 that afternoon, the firefighter wrote that the “regular team was returned and the extra team was taken away.” To keep the horses ready for a fire run, metal shoes were attached to their hooves. This was so that the horses would not easily bruise their hooves as they sprinted. If a horse’s foot was injured during a fire run, the horse would have to be taken out of use – even for months at a time – to allow the hoof to grow beyond the injury.

The shoeing process occurred every other month, and the fire hall logs include other horse-related notations such as new planks for stalls, as well as bags of oats and bales of hay for the hungry horses. The weight of the fire suppression apparatus meant that some of the fire horses had to be large and strong; draft horses were trained for this equipment while lighter horses were used for the fire chief’s wagon and sleigh. Two of the large draft horses stabled at the Connor’s Point Fire Hall were named Sandy and Prince. A log book note from the year 1900 stated that Sandy weighed 1310 pounds while Prince weighed in at 1297 pounds.

Horses remained an integral part of Superior’s fire halls until new engines and equipment were powerful enough to replace the horses’ speed and strength.

Moose Antlers?

We are pleased to announce that we will be adding a new room to the Fairlawn guided tour this year. After several years of restoration, Martin Pattison’s office will be shown to visitors. In preparation for this addition we have stabilized the original painted ceiling and installed a new window that is period appropriate in construction. For many years we have been collecting artifacts for display in this room, including snowshoes and rock samples. We could use a few more. We are in need of very old items with a distinctly north woods feel. Specifically we could use a pair of moose antlers. We would prefer just the antlers and not the whole moose head. If you have antlers or other items you think might be a good addition, give us a call at 715-394-5712.

Martin Pattison's office in the early 1900s

Martin Pattison’s office in the early 1900s