By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Dec. 1, 2017 — At the end of 2017, when Mary Lynch retires from the board of directors of the Greene County Historical Society, we lose regular participation by one of our key leaders over the past 20-plus years.
So we sat down with her for a valedictory interview, covering some of her favorite historical society memories and reflections.
“From 1999 to 2003, I was the president at the time when we bought the building the museum is in now,” said Lynch, who lives in Jefferson. “We worked in it from March in 2002 until we opened in December. We completely re-did the building, and almost all the work was done by our volunteers. In the building the museum had been in (since 1970) on the north side of the square, we had three stories of stuff displayed or in storage. We got rid of some of it that had deteriorated, but then we moved everything else over to the new building, where we built new exhibits and storage areas. It was exhausting, but it was a whole lot of fun, too.
“Ever since then,” she added, “when anybody’s told me they’re moving from one home to another and how much work it is, I’ve always said, ‘Well, you’ve never really moved until you’ve moved a whole museum!’ ”
Lynch said she “has always been a history buff,” but she didn’t join and become active in the historical society until after she retired from American Athletic Inc. in late 1993. She had worked her first 10 years there as a receptionist, the next 10 years in accounting. Earlier in her career she had worked in the offices of Dr. J.K. Johnson Jr., then the local electrical utility and also attorney Eugene Melson. And she spent 18 years at home raising the children she had with her husband Kenny Lynch, who had a carpet and floor covering business.
When she joined the historical board in about 1994, she began looking around the existing museum, saw how crowded it was, and eventually told the rest of the board, “Folks, it’s time to find a new home for our museum.” Valerie Heater Ogren, then the longtime president of the society, “put it right back on me,” Lynch said. “She said, ‘Well, Mary, how would you like to head-up a committee to make long-term plans and make it happen.?’ I had to say yes.”
She began looking for suitable buildings in Jefferson, and soon learned that Chuck Ryan was planning to retire from his Ryan Furniture store – our museum now.
“I knew the building pretty well because my husband Kenny had done the flooring in it when Chuck opened it in 1972,” Lynch said. “I thought the location would be perfect, just a block off the square and in view for people up at the top of the bell tower – they might come visit the museum, too.”
“As soon as I found out that Chuck Ryan was going to sell it, I called Craig MacDonald, one of the realtors, and told him the historical society was interested and to give us a chance on it,” Lynch said. “Then I called Francis Cudahy (an attorney) and Gene Houk (a dentist) and said, ‘Hey, guys, we have to go see this building and I want you to come along.’ ”
The brick building had been built in 1917 as a fuel station and repair shop for motor vehicles. Later it had been used for new car sales, and then the furniture store. The price was $65,000.
“Francis, Gene and I all thought that was a fair price, but still it was quite a bit of money for our historical society,” Lynch said. “But at our next meeting, which happened to be up in Churdan, I told our members about it and proposed that we buy it. No one spoke up against it, and we went ahead. We spent most of 2001 raising the money. I had been around Jefferson and Greene County my whole life, and I just knew that for a good project like this, people would get together and support a good project like this.”
Her nephew Chris Durlam “had just finished helping raise the money for the Greene County Community Center, so he was my advisor. He told us to get contributions first from all our board members, and then send out letters to the public. We did that, and just like I thought would happen, the checks came rolling in. I remember Jim Andrew driving over to my house and handing me two checks, each for $7,500. Gene and Carolyn Houk were major donors, and there were a whole lot of other donations from $1,000 to $5,000.
“Other people wanted to help fix or build the new museum. Carson Griffith had retired as a music teacher at East Greene, and he had a side painting business, too. He said he had many half-full cans of paint left over from past jobs, and his wife Betty wanted him to get them out of the house. So he mixed all that paint, came up with a nice light color, and then painted the whole interior of the building. My husband Kenny, who was then 76 years old, laid 650 square yards of carpet – and we laughed it was the second time he’d done the floors in that building.”
As they planned and built new exhibits, the historical society had free consultations on design and lay-out from Mike Vogt, the curator at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge, and from Greene County native Tom Morain, who had headed Living History Farms and the State Historical Society of Iowa.
Volunteerism from our own membership must’ve reached an all-time high. Lynch recalls that there were a half-dozen or more couples who spent nearly every evening through the hot summer working at the new museum.
It was completed for a grand opening in December 2002 as part of the holiday “Tour of Homes” in Jefferson. More than 400 people came through the new museum then. And people have been coming ever since – to see the collection of artifacts (reported as 11,000 artifacts in 2010) as well as for historical programs and other community programs.
After her presidency, Lynch served a term as past-president and then went off the board. Three years later, “I realized I missed being involved, so I asked to go back on the board” and she has served until now.
At 88 and continuing to deal with macular degeneration, she felt time for another retirement had arrived.
But she did ask for time at our board of directors meeting in January to talk about her ideas for future projects by the historical society, most of them at the museum.
Exhibits need to be changed and refreshed, she says. “That really should happen every year,” she said. “There are events and people that should be featured in exhibits that we’ve never really done enough with – George Gallup Jr., Jackie Fye for her gymnastics, the Mahanays and others.
“And then we need to talk about what we can do with the level of funds that we have, in order to make the museum more popular.”
Mary Lynch’s story is a good reminder of how much our earlier members have invested in our historical society in time, talent and treasure. And it’s a call for more of us to step up and carry it forward, now and into the future.
This story was first published in the printed 2018 newsletter of the Greene County Historical Society. That was distributed at the Dec. 1 meeting of the organization in Jefferson, and subsequently mailed to members of the society who were unable to attend that meeting. You can email the author at chuck@Offenburger.com.