While working in Omaha, Nebraska, last week I took a couple hours to visit an exhibit of thousands of tools and household implements from the mid-19th century that had been preserved in the mud of the Missouri River.
The objects – more than 250,000 – were recovered in 1968-69 from the wreck of the Bertrand, a sternwheel steamboat that was hauling goods from St. Louis to the Montana Territory in 1865. During its maiden journey, the steamboat hit a log and sank. No one on board was killed, but most of the cargo was lost to the mud of the river.
The oxygen-deprived atmosphere preserved most of the cargo. And when the ship was found in 1968 by a couple of treasure-seekers looking for mercury, they unlocked a time capsule of material culture in the United States from the mid-19th century.
The permanent exhibit is at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, a serene river setting that encompasses land in both Iowa and Nebraska. Walking through the exhibit is like visiting a Main Street in 1865 America. There’s stuff from the General Store – pickles (still green), canned food, honey, sauces and household implements. The Hardware Store – tools for woodworking, farming, mining and homesteading. The Gun Shop. The Haberdashery. The Shoe Shop. And the Liquor Store – so much liquor (especially champagne). Oh, and nuts. Peanuts still in their shells.
The front part of the exhibit shows samples from the collection, nicely displayed. But what is shocking are the racks and racks and racks behind the displays that are filled with even more of these objects.
The ones on display have been cleaned, and it is remarkable to see how some of them still look brand new (especially the sharpening stones).
My favorite part (and I’m not alone) were the nail kegs. The square nails had rusted into one big keg-shaped mass, and then the barrel had rotted away.
There are also lots of fascinating details about the collection. The matches they found amongst the cargo were still so potent that they kept accidentally igniting – setting one of the researcher’s pants on fire.
If you are ever in the Omaha area, it’s worth a visit. Now I just need to get to the similar exhibit in Kansas City – the Arabia Steamboat Museum.
— Christopher Schwarz
18 thoughts on “The Hardware Store Under the River”
Nebraska has a lot of hidden gems like this. Hastings Museum in Hastings, NE and the Stuhr Museum-Prarie Pioneer in Grand Island, NE (about 20 miles apart) have exhibits and collections from this period as well. Hastings Museum in particular has a lot of tools, implements, chairs/stools (mostly 1900s), and travelling chests in their collection.
Went to Stuhr Museum in elementary school and remember it being really neat. If in that area, make sure to go just a little bit farther west to Minden and check out Pioneer Village, which has an unbelievable assortment of stuff.
The Arabia is similarly fascinating.
Another visit to add to my list.
Let me know when you come to KC. BBQ is on me.
I’ve been to the Arabia and it had a ton of woodworking tools on it. Also impressive to me was how well all the leather goods were preserved. You would think that would be something that would rot away but they had rows of shoes and boots.
If anyone likes model ships, the basement floor of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto has a fantastic collection, from late 1700s to early 1900s.
Chris, we have never met but I’ve been a reader of the blog for a long time and still relatively new to woodworking. As a native Kansan, and someone hoping to show our state (and KC metro) is more than a fly through state, I’d be happy to pay your admission to Steamboat Arabia and tour the museum with you. If there’s time for you, we can visit the best BBQ joint too!
Small world connection — that box of axe heads came from the Douglas Axe Manufacturing company, which was located in the small town of 9,000 people where I live. The company is long gone, but some remnants still remain. The local kids’ soccer club is the Douglas Axemen and local mountain bike trails include Single Bit and Double Bit.
I gotta say, the Arabia Steamboat Museum was impressive. A few HVAC guys went looking for buried treasure, found it, and were smart enough to get expert advice. Unlike most attractions off of I-70 (“The World’s Largest Prairie Dog?” No…just…no), it’s worth the detour.
Fun fact: it’s not too far from Arthur Bryant’s, which is DEFINITELY worth the detour.
Thanks for sharing this fascinating page of our history.
Also,as others have mentioned, steamboat Arabia in Kansas City has a very impressive collection of woodworking, store and household goods.
This was most interesting as I love history and tools of history. Thank you for this info on past tool history. Always appreciate this sites woodworking experiences and info.
Please show more of this and more like this Thank you
it was nice meeting you last weekend. enjoyed the presentations. i haven’t been to the bertrand but have visited the Arabia–well worth the visit and like you, i was struck by the racks of endless goods. felt like i was in a modern department store. i didn’t know about the bertand. will definitely pay a visit since it’s just a hop skip and a jump away.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in KC (visited during the WIA conference a while back) has some lovely furniture, including a nice collection of Chinese pieces.;
All the artifacts are quite interesting. However I think the whetstones are the most informative. Stones that are flat to a gnats whisker are certainly a modern convention and some would include marketing hype as an observation.
I love my diamond plates, but still I break out the hard black Arkansas stone when I want the finest “polish”.
We discovered this accidentally on the way back from visiting with the 400,000 Sandhill Cranes near Kearney a few years ago. Definitely worth a visit!
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