Just 12 months ago, Kit Ketchmark, the director of the Brookfield Historical Society, stood inside what was once the waiting room of the Grossdale Station, facing a mountain of newly acquired, unsorted photographs and local memorabilia and, frankly, wondering how to deal with it all.
With the village on the eve of celebrating its 125th birthday, the old train station, which has served as Brookfield’s historical museum since being moved to its present location back in 1981, hadn’t been open to the public in more than a year.
Ever since acquiring boxes and boxes of items from the estate of the late local historian Chris Stach, the waiting room was turned into a storage area until someone could make sense of what was there.
But on Nov. 3, as part of the village’s Founder’s Day celebration, Ketchmark will re-cut the ribbon on the Brookfield Historical Museum, which will be open to the public for the first time in more than two years.
And in place of the boxes of memorabilia, there are cases displaying many of the artifacts the museum has collected through the years, including many never-seen-before items acquired through the Stach collection and other sources.
Ketchmark estimated that 20 percent of the items now on display inside the old waiting room have never been on display before, and even more new items may go on display in the future.
“It’s really amazing some of the things we’ve found, that had been here for 25 years and we had no idea,” said Ketchmark, who doubles as village president.
And Ketchmark and a now growing group of volunteers has only sifted through about a quarter of the items donated by Chris Stach’s estate.
“There so much more there,” Ketchmark said. “But we’re really on to something.”
Among the never-before-seen items is a pristine World War II-era Red Cross nurse’s uniform donated to the museum at some time in the past three-plus decades by former Brookfield resident Emily Basha, who wore it from 1941-45.
A newspaper clipping included with the item connects it to a Red Cross group at Blessed Agnes Catholic Church, an old Czech parish in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood.
Ketchmark had no idea the uniform existed until recently. It had sat inside one of the display cases, in a box that served as a pedestal for a pair of boots.
It now is paired with a World War I doughboy’s uniform, sans hat, donated many years ago by the family of Henry Seavey, a Brookfield man who served in World War I in 1917-18. Nov. 11 marks the 100th anniversary of that war’s end.
There’s a display case dedicated to memorabilia from Brookfield Zoo, another displaying items connected to long-gone local businesses, street signs that at one time were embedded in the sidewalks, a pair of decorative wooden finials purportedly rescued from the wreckage of the Grossdale Pavilion, which would have been as old as the Grossdale Station, had it not burned to the ground in 1897.
One recent acquisition, directly related to the village’s founder, came to the museum courtesy of a couple in Romford, England, who reached out to the village after unsuccessfully trying to find S.E. Gross’ relatives but successfully finding S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield. The couple reached the village through the principal of the school, Ryan Evans, who also happens to be a village trustee.
“It came out of the blue,” Evans said.
It’s a letter dated April 3, 1865 from John Gross to his son, S.E. Gross, then a captain in the Union Army in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. John Gross hadn’t heard from his son since March 16 and was writing Gross to let him know how relieved he was to get a letter from him on March 27.
Gross had been in Chicago and his father, a farmer writing from Mount Carroll in western Illinois, feared Gross had run into danger in the city. John Gross had fine penmanship, but was lacking in the spelling department.
“I was afraid you might have met with an axident a going down to the city from the Chicago University at that lait hour of the night,” John Gross wrote, “for their are a great many desperate bad people in Chicago.”
For those who had been inside the museum during the days in the past when it was open intermittently, the museum and artifacts will be noticeably easier to navigate. The old display cases had items numbered, but unlabeled – a holdover from the days when docents would lead guided tours. Now labels explain what items are and how they’re related to village history.
The museum, whose maintenance and operation is funded solely through donations – it’s not a village institution, though it sits on public land — is also a lot brighter inside, courtesy of a completely new paint job and newly polished floors.
All of the work came courtesy of about 30 people, said Ketchmark, who volunteered time on weekends to sort through items, move and refurbish cases, paint and work out what items to put on display and how to display them.
In addition, work to overhaul the interior of the old train station included rebuilding the north wall, which had sustained serious water damage; remodeling the bathroom, which hadn’t worked properly in years; and restoring a water fountain that was original to the station. Its porcelain bowl gleams and the fountain works like it’s new.
Ketchmark said it would have been impossible to get the museum ready for its grand reopening on Founder’s Day without the volunteers who have stepped up in the past year.
“It’s overwhelming, the time you’d spend with just a small group,” Ketchmark said. “It’s starting to look like a museum.”
There are no other public events planned at the museum in the short term, so Nov. 3 may be your best bet to get a look at the collection, at least until sometime next year. Ketchmark says there’s more work to do on the displays and the society wants to turn the old train station ticket office into an archive/reference area.
But, eventually, the plan is to get the museum open, again, to the public.
“Next year, yes, we’ll have some regular times,” Ketchmark said.