Battle Lake museum may soon be on National Register of Historic Places
BATTLE LAKE — Though he didn’t grow up in Prospect House, Jay Johnson has many, many memories of visiting his grandparents in the 18-room mansion that was built in 1882 by his great grandfather, James “Cap” Colehour.
Eventually, Johnson’s parents moved into the historic family home in Battle Lake. Though he always felt a kinship with the big, rambling old house, Johnson didn’t really know that much about the secrets that were stored there.
It was only after he moved into Prospect House in the early 2000s, to care for his ailing mother, that Johnson finally had the chance to explore all of its nooks and crannies.
“There was 200 years of family history stored in those 18 rooms,” Johnson says. “I’ve been sorting through it for the past 12 to 14 years, and I’ve still got piles of stuff sitting here in my office and in storage rooms.”
Though his mother, Kathryn Wilkins Johnson, passed away five years ago, he continued to work toward her dream of preserving Prospect House and its history.
“I opened the Prospect House as a museum three years ago,” he says. “Basically, it’s two museums in one.
“Twelve years ago I found a chest on the third floor (of Prospect House) with nearly 200 Civil War letters in it, and I started to find Civil War stuff all over the house.”
The family’s collection of Civil War memorabilia is now housed in the basement, while the first two floors of Prospect House “are just exactly like they were in 1929, when the house was remodeled into the Georgian mansion that it is now.”
The third floor, meanwhile, has been set up to replicate what it looked like when Prospect House first opened as a hotel in 1886.
“It was the first tourist hotel in the area,” Johnson said. “It had the first lights in town, the first telephone in town, it had a restaurant and convenience store, and we were the largest employer in the area.
“My mother did everything she could to preserve the property, and I’m just kind of carrying out her wishes. There are so many unique and interesting things in this house that it really needs to be shared with the public rather than just sold off at auction.”
About 25 years ago, in 1988, Kathryn Johnson first began to pursue the idea of trying to get Prospect House on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, a lack of funding prevented her from completing the process.
“We finally got a grant last year to finalize the National Register status,” he said.
Early in March, Johnson received word that the Prospect House was officially being considered by the Minnesota Historical Society’s State Review Board for nomination to the National Register.
“When we went down to Minneapolis for the nomination process we found out there were only seven places in the whole state that had been nominated, and we were the first ones on the list,” Johnson said. “They only do this nomination process once a year; you’ve got to be pretty good to get that far. It’s pretty exclusive.”
Prospect House’s nomination passed by unanimous vote. The panel of judges on the review board included archaeologists, antique experts and many other professionals involved in the field of historic preservation.
“Getting nominated for the National Register and approved by the state review board is probably the biggest hurdle,” Johnson said. “We hopefully should get final approval in May sometime. The process takes a couple of months.”
Being placed on the National Register would open up new funding avenues for Prospect House, Johnson added.
“Basically it means the building should be preserved as it is, in perpetuity,” he said. “That opens up some grant money to get the structure repaired and painted and keep it going. It’s a big place and it requires quite a bit of maintenance.”
Prospect House contains four fireplaces, all of them still in working order, as well as a variety of Oriental rugs — not to mention the original furniture, most of which was purchased from Dayton’s in Minneapolis in 1929-1930.
“It’s pretty fancy stuff,” Johnson said.
The Civil War Museum in the basement houses between 300-400 artifacts — including a letter written by his grandfather that was stained with his own blood, from when he was wounded in battle.
“There’s his uniform with bullet holes in it, from when he was shot, his sword, his journals … there’s even as campaign poster for Abraham Lincoln from when he was running for president in 1864.”
Johnson himself no longer lives inside Prospect House; instead, he moved into the house next door, “which my grandfather built so he didn’t have to live in the hotel with the guests.”
He credits Becker County Museum director Amy Degerstrom with helping him to do some of the setup work for the civil war museum, and also noted that “we had a big exhibit at the In Their Own Words (Veterans) Museum in Perham this winter.”
The Prospect House is open year round, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, as well as from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. More information is available on its website, www.prospecthousemuseum.org, or by calling 218-864-4008.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.