Refurnished Thoughts

Discover Vintage America - APRIL 2018

Antiquing as a civilizing force

Spring is finally arrived and we wish it could have come a little sooner. This flu-wracked winter has been enough already! It's time to cure cabin fever and get out and about again.
Of course, all of us at Discover Vintage America hope that your travels include visits to antique shops, malls and vintage stores throughout the Midwest.

Grinter Place in Kansas City, KS. (photo courtesty

While you are going about your spring picking,
we also hope that you will visit some historic
sites, especially the old homes that continue to
tell the stories of their origins.

We feature three historic houses in this issue –
the Maclay Home in Tipton, MO, the Carroll Mansion in Leavenworth, KS and the Atkins-Johnson Farm in Gladstone, MO. Each of these preserved structures is unique and speaks of the early founding of their communities.

There are plenty of other historic residences throughout the region, all of which are virtually begging for visitors. According to a report issued by the National Endowment for the Arts several years ago, attendance figures at historic sites in general were headed downward. To wit, although nearly 56 million people visited historic sites in 2008, it's down from a high of nearly 65 million in 2002. But as a percentage of the total growing population of the United States, the participation rates have steadily fallen since 1982, perhaps even accelerating, according to the NEA. The trend is even being felt at famous national sites such as Williamsburg and Monticello in Virginia.

Which is not to say that historic house museums aren't part of their own problem. Their challenge is to present history in a way that is relevant to life in the here and now. They need to be more welcoming to a younger generation that doesn't yet feel a real connection to the past. There's an air of snobbery and fussiness that comes across in some cases, with a preoccupation to wallpaper patterns and furnishings that simply turn off visitors who just want to know why that home is significant.

House museums have begun dropping the velvet ropes, discarding guided tours, embracing technology, and hosting historic happy hours with beer and history to lure new visitors.
Plus, historic homes need to be more inclusive. The majority of museums in this country continue to perpetuate stories of the elite and underrepresent the art, history, and injustices of marginalized groups. "Private club" style house museums were never in the best interest of the community. Preserving only the objects and stories of "rich white men" isn't either.

Of course, knowing where the sites are in the first place is very important too. One of the best sources for this is the website of Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area at It maps out and describes a host of historic sites from Maryville to Joplin, Higginsville to Junction City, KS. It's an impressive site whose creators strived to include all facets of regional history.

Check it out and then hit the road. After all, spring is here!

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at
Leigh Elmore's Refurbished Thoughts Archive — past columns