By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Jan. 4, 2019 — Celia “Ces” Brunow, of Jefferson, hasn’t been involved in the Greene County Iowa Historical Society as long as many other people have. But she has had a major impact in her eight years with us – seven of them as an officer and/or board member.
She started attending meetings and volunteering in the museum in 2011, months after moving back to her ol’ hometown. Then she served a year on the board of directors, a year as vice-president, two years as president, and the last three years as past-president.
She decided to leave the board at the end of 2018, primarily because she and her husband & business partner John Brunow have increased their travels in demonstrating and selling specialty bicycles in their All Ability Cycles business. They are especially marketing specially designed, imported bicycles that are easily adapted for riders with special physical challenges, including the elderly.
“I do plan on staying involved with the historical society,” Ces said. “I have volunteered to work on increasing membership, and I’m always going to be interested in helping at the museum. There may come a time when I’d like to go back on the board, too, but for now, it’s hard for me to commit to a regular schedule for meetings when we’re traveling like we are.”
Brunow brought a new level of museum experience and new ideas about museum operations home to Greene County with her.
For the previous 15 years, she had worked at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as site director of their infant-toddler and later their pre-school program.
“Basically we were the child-care program for employees of the Smithsonian museums and for a few other federal agencies that were nearby,” she said. “What was really unusual about it was that we were located right in the museums, and we used their full resources with the children. In fact, we had a written curriculum we used called ‘Museum Magic,’ and it was a state-of-the-art program for early learning.”
That helped shape her belief that “a museum should always be educational, a place of learning. A museum should never be thought of as a boring place where you just go look at old things. And it may be even more important to emphasize educational role of museums in small towns than in bigger places.”
“Your local history is not really going to be offered in bigger museums elsewhere,” she said. “If we don’t preserve it right here, present it in programs and teach it, it’ll be forgotten.”
In her time with us so far, Brunow has joined with friends Janet Durlam, Dianne Piepel, Mary Weaver and others in several innovative new programs and exhibits.
They helped add several special Sunday afternoon feature programs, covering a wide range of topics, to attract new audiences to the museum – people who because of job normally can’t attend the historical society’s monthly Friday midday programs. They went through the museum archives and storage, acquainting themselves with the artifacts we have and using them in new displays. They put a new emphasis on personal histories of people in Greene County, even having them tell their own stories in video or audio interviews. They initiated a real change in making the museum much more of a “hands-on” place instead of a “do not touch place,” especially for children. And they’ve helped with several special exhibits and programs in support of major events in the community – like the 100th anniversary of the courthouse, the 50th anniversary of the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower, the Iowa Bicycle Festivals held in Jefferson, and the traveling Smithsonian Institution “Hometown Teams” exhibit about sports in our culture, which was displayed at the museum last summer and early fall.
Brunow pointed to that Smithsonian exhibit, which was co-sponsored here by the Jefferson Matters Main Street program and the historical society, as an example of how new programs or exhibits will attract new people – not only in the audiences but as volunteers.
“Like most volunteer organizations, we need to be adding new people all the time,” she said. “it was interesting that with the ‘Hometown Teams’ exhibit, we had about 40 docents signed up who welcomed people to the museum, guided visitors through, answered questions, that sort of thing. Many of those 40 people had never been in our museum before. I think they enjoyed it. Now we need to get back in touch with those people, thank them with a reception, and tell them how they can be involved with us in the future.”
She says attracting more members and volunteers is one of three big challenges she sees for the historical society in the near future.
A second one is “trying to find a way to continue one of the sweetest things about our Greene County historical society, and that’s our tradition of having the monthly meetings move around to the smaller towns in the county,” she said. As population has aged and declined, it’s increasingly hard for the small communities to find enough volunteers to provide lunches and help with hosting. The society works hard at not only meeting in as many of the towns as possible, but also presenting programs there about their local history.
A third challenge, she said, is “maintaining and improving the buildings we have now.” Those are the museum in the business district, as well as the historical building and one-room country schoolhouse at the county fairgrounds.
Ces Melson Brunow graduated from Jefferson High School in 1967. She and John Brunow, a native of Centerville in southern Iowa, met at the University of Iowa. After graduating in 1971 and marrying, they settled in Centerville, where in 1972 John was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives and served three terms. The Brunows also owned and operated the Moravia Union and Moulton Tribune newspapers in Appanoose County.
Later when John was selling insurance, they moved to New England for eight years, and then on to the Washington, D.C., area. When Ces was working at the Smithsonian, John realized a long dream of owning and operating a bicycle shop, in Vienna, Va. They decided to move back home to Iowa, to be here whenever their retirement begins, and picked Ces’ hometown of Jefferson, partially because of its location on the Raccoon River Valley Trail and John’s desire to open a bicycle shop here.
They have three grown children, all artists. Jessica is an art teacher in Bellevue, Wash.; Jacob, a sculptor and now a craft beer specialist, works with a distributor in Richmond, Va., and Sara, who graduated in musical theater, is now director of community engagement for a theater in Houston, Tex. They have six grandchildren, with a seventh on the way.
The author of this story, Chuck Offenburger, of Cooper, is a member of the board of directors of the Greene County Iowa Historical Society. You can write him at chuck@Offenburger.com.