Dresses adorned with crinoline skirts, embellished beading, fur, colorful chiffon, white satin and shiny pearls fill the Delong Room of the Cole County Historical Museum.
These beautiful garments span more than 100 years and are part of a quarterly rotating exhibit, making the institution the only private, nonprofit museum in the country to publicly display inaugural gowns from first ladies.
In each piece of fabric is a story of a wife, a mother, an advocate, a leader. The fabric the first ladies wore keeps them connected to the Governor’s Mansion just across the street.
Information from former first lady Jean Carnahan’s popular book, “If Walls Could Talk: The Story of Missouri’s First Families” and comments from Cole County Historical Society Board Member Fern Ward offer a glimpse into three first ladies’ stories.
First lady Jeanette Gardner’s portrait hangs by her inaugural gown that she wore when her husband, Frederick, took his oath of office in 1917.
“You can tell Mrs. Gardner was a lady in the ’20s,” Ward said. “Her hair was bobbed off, she sported bare shoulders and, oh the pearls.”
Even though wealthy Mrs. Gardner treated her husband and family with many fine things, Frederick’s hard work and determination led him to become president of a coffin factory by age 25. His fervor eventually landed
him in the governor’s seat.
Three months after Gardner became governor, the U.S. declared war, and the Gardner’s oldest son, William, convinced his father to let him fight. Mrs. Gardner wanted to support troops and their families, and did so by hosting weekly knitting sessions for soldiers abroad, helping to recruit for the Navy, joining the Red Cross in making bandages, and corresponding with mothers and families of soldiers, occasionally enclosing a small gift with letters, according to Carnahan’s book.
A beautiful gown colored in French lace and accented with pearls sits near one of the front windows of the Delong Room. This inaugural ball gown of Katherine Perkins Stark, wife of Governor Lloyd C. Stark, was also her wedding dress, Ward said.
Serving as first lady from 1937-1941, Mrs. Stark brought many new things to the Governor’s Mansion. Her 3-year-old Molly and 2-year-old “Kaffie” were the first children to live at the mansion in 16 years, according to Carnahan’s book. Mrs. Stark also had her portrait done when she was pregnant, the book said, making her the first governor’s wife to give birth while serving in the mansion. However, the baby died 11 days later.
Outside of Mrs. Stark leading one of the most drastic renovations to the Victorian-era mansion itself, the Starks’ love of horticulture prompted them to donate thousands of trees, shrubs and flowers to the grounds, Carnahan said in her book.
Two of first lady Carolyn Bond’s gowns are on display at the Cole County Historical Society, including a red silk crepe gown she wore while pregnant with their son, Sam, during husband Christopher “Kit” Bond’s second term inauguration in the early ‘80s.
During Bond’s first term from 1973-1977, Ward recalls getting her son out of bed to attend the inauguration with about 6,000 spectators. She also watched as Gov. Bond made political strides and Mrs. Bond completed many important projects, including establishing the Missouri Mansion Preservation Incorporated (MMPI). This nonprofit group raises funds for ongoing restoration of the Governor’s Mansion and promotion of Missouri heritage programs.
Mrs. Bond began regular guided tours of the house, using 25 women in period costumes as volunteer docents to assist her. MMPI carries on this program and hosts special events, which attract more than 50,000 visitors to the home annually, according to Carnahan’s Book.
Stop by the Cole County Historical Museum at 109 Madison St. for a guided tour from 1-3 p.m. Monday through Saturday in February through November, or by appointment during winter months. For more information, call 573-635-1850 or visit ColeCountyHistoricalMuseum.org.
Historic George Washington artifacts come to museum
The Cole County Historical Society was delighted to house its newest Revolutionary Era exhibit, sponsored by The Wilbers Law Firm and in memory of attorney Leroy H. “Bud “Wilbers.
Donated by Mrs. S.H. (Alma G.) Taylor in the late 1950s, some of George Washington’s items reside in museum’s Goller room exhibit, including hardcarved inkwells with glass vial inserts, candlesticks and a hand-hemmed linen tablecloth. The inkwells and candlesticks came down through the descendants of President Zachary Taylor, as the Taylor and Washington families were friends.
“The ink wells were portable and Washington would have carried them in a pocket or satchel, taking them out in the field during the war,” Ward said. “During the Revoluntionary War, about the only way you could communicate was to write somebody a note. … The saying, ‘don’t shoot the messenger,’ caem about because they did have an important message to deliver.”
Included in the exhibit are plates, including a pewter plate dating back to the 1600s, and a saber from Mad Anthony Wayne, one of Washington’s favorite soldiers. Mrs. Wilbers’ friend, Nancy Wilson, also helped dress a Washington character with period clothing to add to the exhibit ambiance.