Allergies, Adventure, and Archives

By Anthony “TJ” Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

The emails you write, the tweets you tweet, the letters you send, the documents you sign, the advertisements you see, everything bit of garbage and trace you leave behind on this world may someday make a historian’s day. These are all ‘primary sources,’ the evidence historians use to reconstruct and interpret the past. Anything can be a primary source. In our archive at the Barker Mansion, we house thousands of such sources, from John Barker Sr.’s letters to his father in the 1830s to Catherine Barker’s baby shoes. On my desktop, I have a folder with 2,355 such sources used to write my upcoming book on Michigan City. Another folder has 1,182 files for a project on suicide in 19th century Chicago. These are mostly photos, newspapers, census records, and scans from various archives. This is nothing compared to professional historians; one of my former professors at Valparaiso University took over 20,000 photographs and scans in just one archive he visited for his dissertation.

Of course, we do not use all of these sources. Historians gather sources far and wide, read through them, ponder them, read secondary sources to gain context, and then interpret them. Usually, a select few will make into their work. A book may have a couple hundred directly cited in the footnotes, but the thousands of others were still used for context. Many times historians will gather these sources and then have no use for them. For example, I spent months working on gathering sources on the Barker Family’s early genealogy for a book project. I found original wills from 1600s Andover Massachusetts, diaries from the revolutionary war that talked about Barker Sr.’s uncle ordered another historian’s research notes from an archive in Missouri, and read through piles of sources on the family’s history. From these sources, I wrote an extensive chapter on the family’s history for the book, but a change in the scope of the project cut that down to about two pages. All that work for two pages…it’s frustrating, but it happens to everyone. Despite such difficulties (as well as the allergies), I love primary sources.

My favorite primary sources are not newspaper articles, census records, diaries, or letters though. My favorite primary sources are blueprints. Blueprints are marvelous, through them one can learn a person’s tastes, see how a family lived, intimately experience an architect’s vision, grasp the impact of new technology, among many other insights.

Since I started at the Barker Mansion, I have been obsessed with finding the original mansion blueprints. In our archive, we have around three hundred and fifty blueprints, primarily of the Barkers’ freight car factory and a few blueprints of the mansion from the 1980s, but not the original 1905 or 1857 blueprints.

My search for the original mansion blueprints has been one of the greatest adventures of my young life. While that makes my life sound rather dull (looking around for dusty scraps of paper), to me, it was a thrilling escapade into the mystic world of primary sources.

The adventure began at my computer screen in my office in what used to be the Barker’s Valet’s bedroom. There I found out that the mansion blueprints were located in an archive in Illinois. The papers of the architect who built the mansion addition, Frederick Wainwright Perkins, had bee donated to the Lincoln and Illinois History Collections at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign library. The collection had an online finding aid for the Perkins collection, listing all his buildings and commissions along with a listing for the boxes and folders that housed each one.

There were several boxes with the ‘John Barker’ in the label with several folders in each. The finding aid did not have specific details on what was in each folder, some were labeled “correspondence,” some “specifications,” others labeled “drawings.” I desperately wanted to see what was in these folders, but I had lacked the time and resources to drive down to Illinois to view these blueprints on my own.

At the time I was working on my book project on Michigan City, and these blueprints were necessary for my research. This was in fall 2017 when the project was supervised by Dr. Robert Elder, my advisor at Valparaiso University. Dr. Elder had agreed to have the project count as an internship so that I could receive class credit for all my work. Also helping me on the project was Mark Robison, a library professor at VU. Part of Professor Robison’s job was to assist us in research, helping students locate sources for projects as well proving feedback.

To many of the history majors at VU, Prof. Robison was our hero and savior. He was always able to find the best sources for any project (it was a sad day when he left for a job at Notre Dame this year). From documents on ethnic cleansing in the Soviet Union to Ethiopian foreign policy records, Professor Robison was the best. With this project, Professor Robison arranged for the library to order photographs and scans of the documents of several folders in the Barker boxes.

Several weeks later I received a PDF document from the library, including about eighty pages of scans and photos of documents related to the construction of the mansion. The included contracts for the construction of the house, decoration orders, and letters between the Barkers and the Perkins, the architect.fullsizeoutput_a81

These were incredible. I was able to see the how the mansion construction was organized, what the Barkers were saying to the architect while the house was under construction, which parts of the interior were decorated and when it was an incredible find. But, this was only a small piece of the puzzle.

In the email with the PDF, the library notified me that the archive in Illinois had several hundred more documents to scan and that VU’s library could not afford to pay someone to have all of them scanned, it would run well over six hundred dollars, and the limit per student request was fifty. I would not stop though––I wanted to see those blueprints––in fact, I needed to look at those blueprints!

Dr. Elder came to the rescue. He recommended I apply for a research grant through the Valparaiso University Committee for Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression. Dr. Elder wrote me a letter of recommendation, and I filled out an expense projection as well as an outline of how the blueprints would be used. A few weeks later, the committee awarded me the grant. I was ecstatic, the next semester I made plans to venture down to the University of Illinois over spring break in early March using the grant money for gasoline, a hotel room, and photocopying expenses.

Months of anticipation passed and the day arrived. My coworker, friend, and fellow VU history major, Bailey Roberts joined me on this intrepid adventure. We drove three hours down to Illinois and arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign library in the morning.

Over the next several days, my mind was blown. In the archive we were able to find more letters and documents on the construction of the house, samples of original lampshades and wallpaper, drawings and designs of furniture for the mansion, drawings of other buildings Perkins designed for the Barkers, and most importantly: the mansion blueprints.

The blueprints were in an oversize folder, about five feet square. In the folder were drawing of all the woodcarvings in the walls of the house, plans for the cabinets, the staircase, the fireplaces, a full-scale drawing of the library clock, and nine different blueprints for the mansion. These included the foundation, the basement, the three floors, the grounds of the mansion, two side views of the house, and the front of the mansion. It was an incredible find that revealed to us a new history of the Barker Mansion.

The first thing that jumped out was the date the blueprints were signed off, July-August 1905, this means that construction of the mansion did not begin until this time. Previously it was thought that the Barkers moved in in 1905, now with these blueprints and the letters with Perkins, we know that construction did not start until late 1905 and the family did not move in until at least 1909. This means that Mr. and Mrs. Barker lived in the mansion for less than a year before they passed away.

We also found out what each room in the mansion was intended for. My office was definitively proven to be the Valet’s bedroom, our archivist Jackie’s office was a butler’s bedroom, and many other rooms were relabeled or labeled for the first time. We also saw that the mansion was designed differently than we originally thought. The servants’ quarters were originally blocked off from the Barkers’ area of the second floor by a sewing room; the archives were three separate bedrooms originally; the third floor was designated as Catherine’s Playroom and not a ballroom. The third-floor Playroom had two different designs as well. One design in July 1905 included a small sitting room with a fireplace, the second design from August 1905 matched the current plan.

Throughout these blueprints were sketches of other small details in the mansion. We could see the original design for the wine cellar, with schematics for the shelf sizes and the design of the wine racks. The garden cisterns were included as well, with drawings of their depth, design, and connected pipes. Also included were a number of drawings of things that were never built at the mansion. We found a drawing for a fountain designated for the north wall of the garden. A drawing for an extension of the Garden pergola that included a ring of columns leading out to the garden walkway.
Through these documents, we gained insight into the different voices and perspectives embodied by the mansion. The majority of the correspondence between the architect and the Barkers was actually correspondence between Perkins and Katherine Fitzgerald Barker, John Barker’s second wife. She picked out the interior décor, consulted with Perkins on the design, even gave orders to contractors. She also had a separate account with Perkins’ firm in her name for the commission. The mansion, more than anything is an expression of Mrs. Barker’s vision and agency.

We also found that Perkins’ vision for the mansion went far beyond just the walls. Perkins designed most of the furniture, clocks, fireplaces, light fixtures, wood carvings, and other small details in the mansion. This was common in the time period, architects thought of themselves as designing a ‘lived-space’ and not just a structure. Designing furniture and other interior items was a way for the architect to design how the space within the house would be used by the family.

From the outside looking in, this adventure was merely an awkward Midwestern college student sitting at his computer screen, driving to southern Illinois, sitting in a small room full of old paper for several days, and then spending more time at the computer. But from my perspective, this was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy makes his way through the temple in the Amazon and switches a bag of sand with a gold idol. Finding these blueprints was just as thrilling as running from a giant stone ball or later protecting the Ark of the Covenant from Nazi archaeologists.

Over the past year, these blueprints have proved indispensable for me. I first revised all our tours at the mansion to match some of the new information. We changed the date the Barkers moved in from 1905 to 1909, updated which sections of the house were built in 1857 and which were from 1909 (quite a bit of that changed), the origins of the furniture (many pieces thought to be from Europe were designed by Perkins), and other small details. This new information also made its way into my book, and I also presented my findings at a conference at VU and in several presentations, most recently our “When Walls Talk” event on November 29.

This new information gave us a new story on the mansion but some things we could not change though. Our documentary, some signs in the downtown area and in front of the mansion, and previously published articles and websites all use the old information. I felt troubled that I was responsible for spreading false information to the public. These things were out of our control. History was out of control! But then I was reassured by my former boss Jessica Rosier, that as long as we try our best to give the public the best information possible we are not misinforming anyone. Heritage interpretation is after all not just information but revelation based upon information (Freeman Tilden Interpreting our Heritage 1957).

Someday the new information will completely replace the old, but until it will require a lot of publishing, updating, and researching. History is always changing though, new documents will always be found, new interpretations will be made, contexts will change, nothing is ever truly definitive. So, who knows? Maybe someday another historian’s adventure will rewrite everything I have discovered and written, I would be happy with that.

[All photos are from the University Of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Lincoln History Collections, Perkins Papers]



Thanksgiving with the Barkers

Christmas fever has officially began to descend on Barker Mansion! The lead up to December is always a hectic time as staff and volunteers attempt to ready the mansion for the Christmas season. With everything that goes on during this time of year related to Christmas I have never paid much thought to Thanksgiving in relation to the Barker family. So like a good historian, I got curious and started poking around, and what I found honestly surprised me.

When we think of Thanksgiving today our minds tend to go straight to the same few things: Black Friday, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, family, and the food of course. Today most people simply sit down for a meal with their closest friends and family and I assumed that it would be the same for the Barkers, especially considering that I knew through previous research that in the early 1800s many people celebrated at home with their family. This of course got my mind going with ideas of what kind of menu would be served at a Barker Mansion Thanksgiving 100 years ago, so I went searching completely expecting to find an outline of an extravagant meal with expensive foods. When I found a menu, however, I was surprised to see that the menu itself was from a prominent New York hotel. With a little more digging I discovered that the turn of the century was a time where the trend was to eat a fancy meal at a restaurant, boarding house, or hotel. Due to their wealth and position in society, the Barker family would have spent Thanksgiving in a prominent Chicago hotel, likely the Palmer House.

This trend of eating dinner on Thanksgiving in a fancy restaurant or hotel only lasted from 1890-1920. After the end of World War I many decided to stay with their loved ones on the holiday, a decision that was re-enforced with the beginning of the Great Depression. Since then, Thanksgiving has returned to being a family oriented meal much like it is today. 

Make sure to swing by the Barker Mansion this December during our extended hours to see the Christmas decorations!


Jackie Perkins, Heritage Interpreter


New Exhibit at Barker Mansion

Sometimes one of the most difficult things here at the Barker Mansion can be redesigning old exhibit cases. The issue we often run into is how much of what can and should be displayed is already on display. A vast majority of the items in the archive consist of paper, photograph, and small items. It can be difficult to create a new exhibit out of the 3D items as they are a true hodgepodge, and displays of just photographs and documents are not nearly as gripping as the displays with beautiful items of the time period. Despite the difficulties we can sometimes have with creating exhibits, we are always looking for ways to bring new information to the public in the form of temporary and permanent exhibits.

The small exhibit case in the foyer of the Barker Mansion holds temporary exhibits that we change out every 1-2 months with items that tend to be related to upcoming events. Currently the case houses an exhibit of Catherine’s toys that are typically in a case upstairs and are not always seen by guests. We moved some of her toys down to advertise for an event we hosted earlier this summer called The Doll Tea. This case will be redone within the next few weeks for an upcoming event in November. The larger cases, like those in the Ballroom, are not changed out as frequently, making the task of creating a good, more permanent exhibit very challenging.

There are several reasons why permanent exhibits can be difficult to deal with, especially in a museum like the Barker Mansion, which does not acquire new items to display.

This causes two problems: First, items can be damaged from remaining incorrectly displayed or displayed for an extreme length of time. A good example of an item that was incorrectly displayed was the dress that was on display in the Barker Mansion for over 30 years. We took the dress out of its case earlier this year and we were all terrified about the dress just falling apart as we tried to move it. Getting it out of the case was quite the production; taking six people hovering around and carefully lifting out the dress. Although it was on a mannequin, we still feared what the condition of the dress would be as we started to move it and take it off of the mannequin. As we lifted it out of the case we noted that it had been sewn onto the mannequin, it was too small for the dress, which worried us even more since we would now have to remove the stitches without tearing the dress. Luckily we were able to remove the dress from the mannequin without damaging it more. Another plus was the fact that the dress had much less damage than we thought it would. The worst of the damage was on the inside of the skirt where the weighted silk had pulled itself apart, which happens often to old clothing made of weighted silk. After removing the dress we packed it away and put it in the archive where it will stay for the next few years and rest.

The second issue is that permanent displays cause stagnation in interpretation and programming. A lack of change in our displays can cause returning visitors to lose interest in the displays they have seen before, so changing the displays not only pleases our visitors it reinvigorates the mansion as a whole and allows us to display new items and bring a new side of the Barker story to our visitors.

But this brings us back to question, “what do we display?”

I will admit that when we pulled the dress out of its case earlier this year I worried that whatever display I put together wouldn’t be able to stand up to the beautiful dress that had occupied the case for 30 years. Luckily for me, I found a gold mine hidden away in what we call the Trunk Room.

My original plan was to pull some of the original steamer trunks out and display them open in the case with some of the smaller travel related items we had in the archives. Imagine my shock when the first trunk I opened turned out to be a Louis Vuitton ‘Ideal’ men’s steamer trunk c. 1905! This was a very happy moment because I had just found my center piece for the case. I went on to find another Vuitton trunk that had belonged to Mrs. Barker as well as a leather bag from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Along with these three items I pulled out two more trunks and several small items and created what became one of my favorite exhibits to date.


Original Display

While I adored the case, I knew that there were some small problems with it that I would like to address the next time I created an exhibit or had the chance to fix this one. A few weeks ago the case next to my trunk case was emptied and I was asked to create an exhibit for it. In the beginning I was stumped, because what am I supposed to put into it? There were no large ‘matching’ collections in archive that I could display aside from some of the travel related items I didn’t use in the original trunk case. Then I got the idea to connect the two cases. This allowed me to display more items in a better fashion. One of the mistakes I made with the original trunk case was overcrowding. There were too many items jammed into the case and it made it hard for visitors to take it all in. By taking out some of the items, I was able to really highlight the Vuitton trunk in the center. A few of the items that came out of the trunk case were put into the long case next to it along with some new items from the archive. I then took the time to number every item and create a list that described each item. I also recreated the sign for the display and put it between the two cases. In the end, I prefer this new display as it is not as overcrowded and it is easier to learn what each item is thanks to the itemized list.

trunk cases

New Display

Though it can be difficult to put together these exhibits, there is always something so satisfying seeing them finally come together. Moving forward, the staff here at the Barker Mansion plans to redo many of the exhibit cases throughout the mansion. Keep an eye out the next time you visit for our new exhibits!

Jackie Perkins, Heritage Interpreter

Barker at the Creek

This past week I had the honor of taking part in a collaborative program here in Michigan City called Trail Creek Week. This program is a yearly event put on by the LaPorte County Soil and Water Conservation District and organized by their Education Coordinator Nicole Messacar. The purpose of this program is to teach roughly 800 4th-8th grade students from local schools about Trail Creek. The subjects covered within the day camp include Water Quality, History, Canoe and Kayak Safety, as well as a portion on the different types of wildlife in Trail Creek. Students also get to canoe on Trail Creek as part of the experience.

Barker Mansion was lucky enough to have been invited for the past three years to teach the History of Trail Creek and Michigan City. We focus mainly on the what Michigan City was like between 1676-1900. Although the area has a deeper, richer history that occurred both before and after this period, we chose a 300 year period because presenters are able to give students better interpretive programs within the allotted 30 minutes than if we covered the area’s entire history. In addition to a lecture, we show photographs to the students and encourage them handle animal furs provided by other departments. Our presentation covers information that most students are not taught within the classroom. Every teacher is given a worksheet for the students to complete when they return to school.

Trail Creek Week is not only a fun time for the students, but also for the presenters. This was my third year participating and I enjoy it every time. As an interpreter, Trail Creek Week can be an exhausting and challenging week that takes you out of your normal element of teaching. My involvement allowed me to think critically and approach interpretation in new ways as these students expand their knowledge about conservation and the preservation of the area. This is a program that gets students outside learning using all of their senses in a way that cannot be duplicated within a classroom. Each station of presenters offers new and exciting ways to grasp the history of the Trail Creek area and its importance in Michigan City.

Below are article links for those interested in reading further about both Trail Creek and Trail Creek Week.

Jackie Perkins, Heritage Interpreter

Barker Mansion Blackout Tours

By Anthony “TJ” Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*This blog post solely reflects the views of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

Go on Google and type “Barker Mansion” in the search box. As you will see, the 7th suggested option down says “Barker Mansion haunted.” Sometimes when I check, this option is the second or third down….usually in October.

At least once a week either visitors to the mansion or acquaintances ask me if the mansion is haunted, hoping for me to tell some sort of Steven King or Amityville horror-esq tale. I usually just smile and say “I have some stories, but I am not going to tell them here.” These stories are saved for the Blackout Tours.

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Every October the Barker Mansion Blackout Tours are offered to meet the public demand for ghost stories and tales of haunting at the Barker Mansion. To be clear, I am not admitting that the Barker Mansion is haunted. Nor are the Blackout Tours a de facto admission that the museum is haunted. The Blackout Tours are offered to meet this public demand, to interpret what it is like to work at the mansion, and importantly: containment. Hauntings are a big part of the public perceptions of old homes like the Barker Mansion and it is important for museums to handle that perception responsibly.

My role at the Barker Mansion is to interpret the life and legacy of the Barker Family in Michigan City as well as the history of Michigan City and Northwest Indiana in the Gilded Age. Part of this entails interpreting the purpose and function of the Barker Mansion as a museum and civic center. This includes talking about what it is like to work here, and ghost stories are a part of that behind-the-scenes side of the mansion.

The Blackout Tours present stories about the Barker Mansion in this interpretive framework. Many of the stories that are part of the Blackout Tours are experiences myself, and others have had while working at the mansion. We connect these stories on tour to the work it takes to keep the place running, including general maintenance, office work, research, and archives management. Each story is told not as a stand-alone ghost story, but as a piece of the story of the important work that goes on to keep this institution vital. We are not here to scare guests, no one jumps out and tries to scare anyone on tour, the mansion is not decorated like a haunted house.

We also connect these stories to cultural history. Part of why so many people ask if the mansion is haunted is because our culture is primed to think of these kinds of buildings as haunted. Many Victorian mansions were abandoned by the 1920s when the children of Gilded Age industrialists found them too expensive to maintain and out of style. Typically Gilded Age mansions were at the center of the towns they were built in, making their creepy, run-down facades focal points in their communities. These mansions were depicted as dark, haunted places in American literature and art. In many cases, the artists and writers who crafted these depictions were the children of workers or consumers who were abused by the Gilded Age industrialists who lived in these homes.

The image of the haunted Gilded Age mansion is ingrained in our culture and has made its way into countless book and movies. On the Blackout Tours, we connect the history of this image of the Gilded Age mansion with the history of the Gilded Age. I use the abused workers to talk about labor in the Gilded Age as well as interpreting the architecture of the Mansion. Through these connections, the Blackout Tours meet our interpretive goals and are not entirely filled with ghost stories about one of Michigan CIty’s oldest homes.


Still, you are probably wondering, what are these stories you tell? What has happened to you, TJ?  Is the mansion haunted?

My coworkers and I as well as many others have had weird experiences at the mansion. While I can not speak for their experiences, I can explain my logic behind what I have seen, felt, and heard.

Most of the time when weird things happen I know that I am scaring myself, falling victim to the same logic that visitors use, the logic primed by our culture. The Barker Mansion is an old building, and it makes a lot of strange noises as all old homes do, but sometimes things happen that I can not explain away so easily.

I have experienced phenomena at work outside of my faculties of explanation.  Seemingly very real things have happened to me. But I do not say that ghosts are the explanation.

My other two jobs are in logic, teaching logic as a TA at Valparaiso University and logic consulting for a firm in Valparaiso. The logician in me refuses to jump to conclusions about my experiences. I think that ghosts or spirits are a mode of explanation but not the only mode of explanation. When something weird happens to me, I accept that something happened, but I do not try to explain it. I do not deny that ghosts are real, but I also do not affirm that ghosts are real, I am neutral on the subject.

I do not like to rule things out entirely either. Just because ghosts do not fit perfectly into the scientific worldview does not mean I deny their existence. I do not think any mode of explanation should be closed off, we have to be open to phenomena outside of our understanding of the world.

As a historian, I am supposed to be rigorous in my explanations and theses. For anything I write, I need to base my reasoning on primary sources. Primary sources include diaries, newspapers, interviews, letters, sermons, photos, blueprints, maps, and other pieces of evidence from the time period. While I have zero primary sources for ghosts, I still need to be open-minded as a historian.

One of my favorite historians and a personal hero of mine is Robert Orsi, professor of religious studies and historian of religion at Northwestern University. His recent book, History and Presence (Harvard University Press, 2016), argues that historians need to be more serious when interpreting the history of religious experience.

He uses the example of Marian apparitions, i.e., appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Historians generally interpret Marian apparitions as cultural superstition or social phenomena that occur. They implicitly treat these experiences as false and inauthentic. Their logic rules out the possibility, reality, and substance of those apparitions. Orsi’s argues that religious experiences like Marian apparitions should be analyzed as real phenomena. Marian apparitions are authentic to those who experience them, and historians need to respect their experience rather than automatically ruling them out. Writing as if Mary or god is really present in history heralds a return to writing authentic history that captures the reality and substance of human experience and religion as opposed to the abstract religion historians tend to write about.

The import of Orsi’s work to the Blackout Tours is that when I interpret my experience at the mansion, I do not rule out its substance from the start. Orsi’s historical analysis about religious experience helps me handle how I interpret my experience. I try to convey to guest what it really was like to experience the strange happenings at Barker Mansion. As a historian, I do not deny the reality of that experience, but as a logician, I do not jump to conclusions.

Thus, Barker Mansion is not haunted in the sense we think of, but I also do not say that Barker Mansion is totally devoid of strange phenomena. I interpret my experience without explanation or judgment. Visitors on the Blackout Tours can take the stories of my experience any way they want.

Many times I have individuals come on tour to investigate for themselves. Many people tell me they are sensitive to ghosts and sometimes individuals with jackets or shirts for different paranormal investigation groups come on tour. They give me their takes on the happenings at the mansion, and I sometimes am asked if they can bring in equipment for testing. We never have nor will we ever allow paranormal investigations inside the Barker Mansion. We are strictly a historical site, we focus on historical, not paranormal or scientific research. But, the modern history of the mansion includes the experiences of staff, and we interpret that history with the Blackout Tours.

Just to be clear, the mansion is not a scary place, and I assure visitors that the mansion is a safe and friendly place to visit. Weird and strange happenings are rare almost never happen with multiple people inside the house.

The Blackout Tours have proven to be our most popular events, tickets sold out the previous two years and this year looks to be just as busy. To hear those stories and to experience this side of history for yourself, visit us for the Blackout Tours, Friday and Saturday nights in October at 8 and 10 pm. But, also please come out for our regular historical programming to see the full picture of the work we do at Barker Mansion. Thank you.

Tickets are 15$ for adults and 10$ for youth and seniors, available for purchase online through the link below or by calling the mansion at (219) 873-1520.


Further Reading:

Robert Orsi. History and Presence. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Robert Orsi. The Madonna of 115 St.: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Sarah Burns. “‘Better for Haunts’ Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination” American Art Vol. 26, No. 3 (Fall 2012) 2-25

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Preserving the Past: Digitization of the Barker Mansion Archives.

When I first interviewed at the mansion, almost two years ago now, one of the questions I clearly remember being asked if the archive, and the tasks that came with it, scared me. Of course, I said no, it was an interview for a job I really wanted! That being said, I knew that if I got the job here at the Barker Mansion, I would have to be really cautious about how I went about organizing the archive.

The first time I truly sat down and tried to figure out the various organization systems left in place in the archive over the years, I realized very quickly that I would have to change the system slightly in order to reach the goal of complete digitization of all of the documents and photographs in the Barker Mansion. I decided to set myself goals in terms of digitization, with the first goal being to sort through the documents and photographs in the archive and divide them into pre-1940 and post-1940. This made it much easier to know what needed to be digitized and preserved first and what could wait to be sorted and scanned. One of the main reasons why I decided on that particular time period to separate the documents and photographs is because the 1940s marks the beginning of Purdue University’s time at the Barker Mansion. It was simply less complicated to basically divide everything in half and start with the oldest and most fragile documents and photographs.

It took over a year to sort everything and in January of this year we began digitizing with the aid of two interns from Purdue University Northwest. We were able to purchase a new computer, scanner, and other items as well as pay two interns through a grant we received from the Indiana Historical Society. Working with interns who had no experience in digitization or in an archive would have been an interesting experience on its own. I myself had little to no experience in digitization made for an interesting start to the project.

archive 1

(Textile boxes in the archive)

Once the three of us, figured out how the computer and scanner worked, we were finally able to begin with making finding aids and start scanning. I was slightly unsure how my interns would work together due to them being at the mansion at different times most days, but they managed to find a rhythm in working together that meant that they moved quickly through their projects. By the time the college semester ended, they had managed to digitize all of the pre-1940 documents and photographs, make a list of the textiles stored in the archive, sort through and organize all of the blueprints, and begin the process of uploading the finding aids and digitized content onto the online archive Archon. Thanks to the two of them, I am now much further along with my plan to digitize the archive than I thought I would be.

Organizing and digitizing an archive is not easy, but it is very rewarding. Throughout the past two years our work in the archive has lead us to make discoveries about the mansion that we had never known. This helps us immensely in understanding the lives of the Barker family before, during, and after their time at the Barker Mansion. Though there is still a lot of work left to do in the archive, I am beyond happy with where the archive is now in comparison to where it started.

The next steps for the archive include organizing and digitizing the post-1940 documents and photographs, getting a full listing of the artifacts and textiles in the archive, and digitizing the blueprints currently housed in the archive.

Jackie Perkins, Heritage Interpreter


Franklin Barker

Written by Heritage interpreter Bailey Roberts

When us Heritage Interpreters aren’t giving tours or sitting at our desks doing research, we can be found keeping up the appearance of the mansion.

I love to work outside, there is something so calming about getting your hands dirty when planting flowers, or pulling weeds no matter how meticulous it gets. But one, sweltering afternoon (as this week has been) Austin Pittman, another heritage interpreter and I, were scheduled for a maintenance day. unfortunately for us, we were tasked with some yard work for that morning and afternoon.

The Mansion Garden is certainly a love/hate relationship. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at, to sit in and walk through. But working in it can definitely have its challenges. For historians, it is not only important to preserve the artifacts and furniture that is inside the house, but the actual house itself as well. It is just as important. So Austin and I had to do the monumental task, most appropriately titled: Vine Control.

Since the spring, we have noticed a series of vines creeping up along the Garden wall, as well as the house walls via the garden. There were also maple trees starting to crop up around the air-conditioning unit in the side-yard. Yea, what seemed like an easy two person job was a stress case of trying to chop roots around the various electrical tubes and wires attaching the house to the unit. Needless to say, we cut the trees and left the roots for another day when the sun isn’t beating down on top of us. The vines were a whole other beast in itself. Taking them off the wall was an easy business, but untangling them from the other plants, and pulling them from the ground, well that was not an easy business, to say the least. There was one section of the garden, where it was literally just a pile of vines that we had previously thought were plants. As I started pulling and tearing, it was clear that it was just one big vine-tangled around itself. There is now a beautiful plot of garden land that can be filled with something that’s a little more beautiful to look at, and that’s not a vine.

Working at the mansion is sometimes jumping outside your comfort zone. History is something which is ever changing, a field that is always so full of surprises. It’s one big mystery that always needs solving. Pulling down vines, cutting down trees, weeding and planting is one of those aspects of local history that not many people realize happens. The garden is just as much history as the artifacts or the furniture, and it also needs care and preservation, even if it means getting your hands dirty.

But even gardening has its surprises. Growing underneath my office window was a small pine tree. How it started to grow there is beyond me, but alas it did not belong. After removing it, its roots were still intact and the tree was still in good health. The green thumb in me decided to keep the tree and appropriately name it Franklin Barker.

There is a tradition here whenever we find an animal in the garden, or when one shows up in the mansion (a story for another day) we always name them. Animals should have names too right? So why not a small pine tree? Franklin now sits in a large terracotta pot, with a name tag, on top of my desk. He keeps me company here at the mansion, and it’s nice to have some green inside my office, it’s important to have plants around you, even if my office window looks right out into the garden.

It truly is an experience, to say the least, working at the mansion, because I never know what is going to happen that day, or what to expect. History works that way sometimes. We write our own stories and work with the challenges and surprises that face us ahead. Whether it’s vine control, tree trimming, or tree planting, every day is a new adventure and I can’t wait to tackle what it has it store for me.