No more water down the necks of visitors, nor icy steps endangering life and limb at the front door of the Bremer County Historical Society Museum in Waverly.
New, long-desired gutters on the high eaves of the iconic building at the corner of Bremer Avenue and Fourth Street Northwest will divert rain and snowmelt away from the front porch to protect visitors and volunteers entering the facility, but more importantly, the improvement will protect the historically significant building itself from the elements, and — at least for the moment — from the ravages of time.
The museum, which also serves as the headquarters of the Bremer County Historical Society, is one of the oldest buildings in the area, having been completed several years before the old mill in Independence, for example, though the latter is perhaps better known.
To put the Bremer County Historical Society Museum building’s age into perspective, Abraham Lincoln was just 53 years old when it opened its doors in 1862 as a wayfarer’s haven on the old stage coach route that ran from Cedar Falls and Waterloo to points north, including Waverly.
The venerable edifice, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966, has been home to the museum and historical society since 1961, but its story begins many years before that.
Standing Tall for Almost 160 Years
The building was built during the Civil War by a young entrepreneur named Andrew Daily, who saw a need on the west side of Waverly for a hotel to cater to the needs of travelers on the aforementioned north-south stage coach line that passed nearby.
The Daily House, as it was first named, was constructed of locally fired brick, and lumber from trees harvested nearby. It was an impressive three and a half stories high, and included potential retail spaces facing the street on the east side of the building, with the main entrance around the corner on the south-facing front.
Once the hotel was established and thriving, Daily opted to sell it and move on to other projects. Under new ownership the building became the Waverly House Hotel, and continued to do good business until an unfortunate incident took place in 1883 that brought a sudden end to the building’s days as a guest house.
A gentleman named J.F. Stevens, who was an overnight guest at the hotel, was fatally wounded by a gunshot to the head delivered by his traveling companion, a young widow named Emma Cronin.
Nearly a year later, after a closely followed trial, Cronin was found innocent of murder by reason of defense of her virtue. She immediately left town, never to be seen again.
On the other hand, legend has it that the ghost of Stevens roams the building to this day, evidenced by unexplained slamming of doors, whisper-like noises and mysterious drafts where there should be none. The presence of a ghost haunting the old hotel is disputable, but the fact that the Waverly House never again opened its doors as a hotel catering to the traveling public, is not.
Escape from the Wrecking Ball
After the homicide ended the building’s tenure as a hotel, it was converted to apartments for a few years, until in 1906 it was purchased by a local doctor and purveyor of medicines named Dr. Frank Osincup, who converted the then-44-year-old building into a pill manufacturing facility.
Osincup’s enterprise, the CaPhenin Chemical Company, occupied the building for many years until the founder’s family sold it and the business in the 1950s. When the buyers subsequently defaulted on the contract for the facility toward the end of the decade, it was repossessed by the Osincup family, which then actually considered demolishing the buiding and selling the lot. Fortunately for posterity, the old hotel/pill factory was saved from the wrecking ball when it was purchased by a relatively new organization in town, The Bremer County Historical Society, which had been looking for a place to call home.
The founders of the nascent historical society — Genevieve Shepard Graham, Margaret Gordon and Maude Brechner — had been alarmed that so much local history was disappearing at such a dizzying pace that within just a few years there would be little evidence left to document how Bremer County evolved over time to become the center of commerce, education and culture in northeast Iowa that it had become.
They recognized the need to preserve the “things,” stories and images of the people of Bremer County, so that future generations of this proud and productive part of the state could trace their local roots and connect with those who came before them — those county pioneers who established, without realizing as it was happening, a hard-earned, meandering, sometimes up-hill path to the present.
Those observant ladies, whose insight and initiative saved so much of what we know today about those early Bremer County residents, realized that there needed to be a depository for those artifacts, images and tales of past Bremer County residents, celebrated and otherwise.
They arranged for a modest display of such materials in a kiosk in the basement of the courthouse, but soon realized that they needed much more room to do the county’s history justice. They began a campaign to establish a full-fledged historical museum, which led shortly to — with a little help from the Schield brothers, the Lions Club and a local bank — purchase of the Osincup family’s’ somewhat down-on-its-luck building at the corner of what is now Fourth Street Northwest and West Bremer Avenue in Waverly.
After a modest renovation and clean-up, the building became the historical society’s museum and headquarters, and has served as such ever since, nearly 60 years, as this is written.
Gutters, Grants and a Glance Ahead
Which brings us back to 2018 and the recent work done on the exterior of the musuem building. Adding gutters to a building, old or otherwise, would not seem to be a particularly overwhelming task at first blush, but the museum project was complicated and costs associated with it driven up by many factors, especially the difficult-to-reach high roof lines involved, and very specific rules regarding changes to buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
Historical society secretary and grant coordinator, Gena Mackamul, describes one of the many hoops that had to be jumped through even for a project as seemingly straightforward as adding gutters.
“For example, the historical society needed to document that the building did indeed have gutters in the past, and once that had been established, to then make sure the new gutters closely match the classic style of the old building,” she explained. “As a result, the new gutters had to be special-ordered all the way from Texas.”
Once on site, the new gutters were installed utilizing a rented extended-lift rig that could reach the eaves without sticking out into West Bremer Avenue traffic. The actual installation, as well as some other gutter-related upkeep and repair tasks, was completed by Bergmann Gutters and Carpentry of Waverly.
Mackamul shared where the money for the upgrade came from.
“The project was funded by grants from the Schumacher Fund of the Community Foundation; the Max and Helen Guernsey Foundation; a donation from the Waverly Rotary Club; labor and materials donated by Jim Hundley Heating, Air Conditioning and Plumbing; and some generous individual donors,” said the longtime historical society board member. “We want to express our gratitude to these wonderful organizations and individuals for their support. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
So now the necks and heads of visitors and volunteers are protected from cold rains, and ascending the front steps in the winter should no longer be akin to climbing Mt. Everest.
The old building is without question a Waverly and Bremer County landmark, revered by locals and visitors alike for its classic beauty and historic significance. That special relationship is not lost on Bremer County Historical Society administrators. They know that the museum is literally and figuratively a vessel holding not only fascinating artifacts and collections, but also the memories and associations of generations of county residents.
Indeed, those familiar red brick walls are themselves a huge part of that historic legacy. There is no place for complacency, however, where the museum is concerned, for time, gravity and weather exact an inevitable toll on the aging structure.
There is important work to be done to preserve Andrew Daily’s beautiful creation. In the spirit of those wise women back in the 1950s who saw a need to protect the irreplacable links to the county’s past, the Bremer County Historical Society invites every member of the local community to get involved in making sure that the tall, stately structure that has occupied the same Waverly corner for over 150 years, is as much a part of Bremer County’s future as it is of its past.
The Bremer County Historical Society Museum is open from May through October: Tuesday-Thursday from 1-4 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 1-4:30 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday. For more information visit the BCHS website at bremercountyhistoricalsociety.org, check out Bremer County Historical Society on Facebook or call (319) 352-1309. Watch for information in this publication on the historical society’s 2018 annual meeting to be held in May.