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Historic Homes And Small Museums Plan Subdued Holidays But Hope Their Stories Ease Pandemic Fears

Julie Denesha
Wearing a mask, volunteer Caden Gird sets up a holiday tree in the parlor of the Wornall House. Across the metro, many historical sites are still open to visitors for a quieter holiday season.

Disease and conflict shadowed frontier life during the heydey of many historic homes in the metro. Visitors have a chance to view today's events through the lens of history at places like the John Wornall House and the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm.

John and Eliza Wornall lost five of their seven children before they reached their 3rd birthdays, and John Wornall's brother died of cholera on the Oregon Trail.

The family also survived one of the most divided times in U.S. history. Their home at 6115 Wornall Road in Kansas City, Missouri, was used as a field hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Westport.

Sarah Bader-King, curator and director of programs at the John Wornall House Museum, says her staff and volunteers are keeping that history in mind as they prepare the home for a subdued holiday celebration at the conclusion of a year defined by a pandemic and tears in America's civic fabric.

"People have to be willing to support small museums even when our doors aren't as fully open as they normally would be," Bader-King says.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
In this photo from 2017, the Vaile Mansion decorates its Victorian-era rooms with holiday swag. This year the museum is closed to visitors.

Small museums struggle to stay relevant in the best of times, which isn’t now. A recent study by the American Alliance of Museums warned that one of every three museums may not survive as the pandemic drags on and funding sources and financial reserves run dry.

Small museums, like those housed in historic homes, usually count on tours and special holiday events to boost their annual revenues.

Places like the Vaile Mansion at 1500 N. Liberty St. in Independence, Missouri, and the Strawberry Hill Museum at 720 N. 4th St., in Kansas City, Kansas, gussy up their Victorian-era rooms with holiday swag and invite the public in to see. But not this year. Both museums made the decision to close their doors until 2021.

Other historic homes remain open to small groups of visitors but have canceled the big events that draw large crowds.

That's the case at the Wornall House. While fir boughs and Victorian baubles are going up inside the 1858 home — one of the oldest surviving Greek Revival-style homes in Kansas City — the popular candlelight tours won't take place this year.

Julie Denesha
In Westport, the Harris-Kearney House has canceled many of the holiday events that draw large crowds of visitors.

Candlelight tours are also a holiday tradition at the Harris-Kearney House, at 4000 Baltimore Ave. in Kansas City, Missouri, a Greek revival house built in 1855 by Colonel John and Henrietta Harris. This year large tours and events are canceled and visitors are limited to groups of eight to promote social distancing.

Alana Smith, president of the Westport Historical Society, says the restrictions seem to reassure visitors who find their way to the home.

“We’ve had more visitors than we anticipated and we had guest after guest telling us that they feel very comfortable coming there because there aren't a lot of people," she says. "We're down, but not down as much as we anticipated."

Julie Denesha
Shelby Duncan is on hand as a volunteer to decorate holiday trees at The Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm.

In Olathe, Kansas, the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm at 1200 E. Kansas City Road is the only working stagecoach stop left on the Santa Fe Trail. The historic farm remains open but the annual Christmas open house was canceled.

“Even though we are outdoor living history, we know that we want to keep everybody safe,”says Alexis Radil, events coordinator.

A look at history through the experiences of the original owners, James B. and Lucinda Mahaffie, gives perspective to our current struggles, Radil says.

Julie Denesha
James Beatty Mahaffie and his wife Lucinda arrived in Olathe in 1857. Their farm is now a historic site and is the last remaining stagecoach stop left on the Santa Fe Trail.

“The Mahaffie family endured a lot of what was going on here during the Border War and Civil War,” she says. “They endured their own challenges with disease and they managed to survive. It may look a little grim now, but you will survive and we will get through it and we will learn a lot, just like the Mahaffie family did back in the 1860s and 70s.”

In Kansas City, the Wornall House is also hoping visitors will find strength and inspiration in its small slice of history.

Illness was a huge concern in 19th-Century Kansas City, Bader-King says. The Wornall family would have identified with the hardships of the current pandemic.

Julie Denesha
A new replica portrait of John Wornall painted by George Caleb Bingham hangs over the fireplace in the parlor. The Wornall family struggled with illness that took five of their seven children.

“We discuss medical advancements at the Wornall House, a lot of it framed by Civil War medicine, but that extended to the general population as well,” Bader-King says.

“The gradual acceptance of germ theory in the mid-nineteenth century and the discovery of viruses in the 1890s revolutionized the way we could treat illnesses," she adds. "Certainly we could not prevent or treat COVID-19 without this critical understanding”

Like everyone, Bader-King hopes that next year the isolation brought on by COVID-19 will a part of history. And that candles will once again light the way for evening tours.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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