Jay Johnson: Founder of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum
Jay Johnson, great grandson of “Cap” Colehour, is the founder of the Prospect House & Civil War Museum. He grew up visiting his grandparents who lived in the eighteen-room mansion built in 1882 by his great-grandfather “Cap.”“I didn’t grow up in the Prospect House, but I’ve been in and out of it since the day I was born. My grandparents (Cap’s daughter and her husband) lived there and my parents lived only ten miles away.”
Eventually, Jay’s mother and father moved into the family home that “Cap” built. When Jay visited, he felt a kinship with the big old rambling house, but visits centered on family occasions that took place downstairs. Not even after the death of his father – when his mother took over running the house herself – did Jay venture into the nooks and crannies of the big, old house.
But Jay’s mother, Kathryn Wilkins Johnson, declined in physical and mental health in the early 2000s. Jay moved from his farm in nearby Amor, Minnesota to the Prospect House to care for her. For five to six years prior to his mother’s death, Jay looked after her, first seeing to it that she had what she needed, then looking after meals and medications, and finally helping her dress and eat as she sunk into the final stages of dementia.
During those five to six years, Jay had time on his hands. In his younger years, he’d heard of Civil War memorabilia stashed somewhere in the eighteen-room house, where 125 years and three-generations of family belongings had accumulated. He decided to search for the Civil War memorabilia.
WHAT JAY DISCOVERED
“In idle moments, I explored the big, old house…”
“In idle moments, I explored the big, old house. My searches were rewarded. I found a chest filled with nearly 200 Civil War letters. I found the sleeves to my great-grandfather’s uniform with a bullet hole in each one where he’d been shot during the Civil War. I found a fife, buttons from a uniform, a cartridge box, a tent, a cap box, a powder flask, a bullet mold, two diaries, typhoid serum, Lincoln-Johnson campaign poster, belts and buckles, a flag and battlefield souvenirs. There are many pieces of this large historical puzzle still yet to be found.
Jay’s exploration yielded more than artifacts and memorabilia, though, it yielded insight.
INSIGHT INTO CAP’S COLLECTION
“The Civil War collection at the Prospect House is not about the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Lexington, or other battles of the war. Instead…”
“The Civil War collection at the Prospect House is about Cap Colehour and his part in the Civil War. When Cap was at Chickamauga – the bloodiest two-day battle of the war, with 35,000 casualties – he was shot. He believed at that time he would not survive the war, and he began writing more letters, saving more of what he found around him, and sending things back home so people would know his story.“
Cap’s collection tells the story of a young soldier… a brother…a son. It tells of life after the Civil War when soldiers – the lucky ones – returned home. It tells of lives built on memories that never quite faded.
“It’s a uniquely personal story…”
“In the end, my great-grandfather lived to the age of 96 years, 11 months, having survived two shootings and a bout with typhoid fever during the Civil War. The letters and accounts he sent home, the clothing, diaries and other belongings with which he returned, and the artifacts he collected after the Civil War tell his story – a uniquely personal story.
The amazing discovery of letters from the battlefield, typhoid serum and uniform sleeves, fife, cartridge box, tent, cap box, powder flask, bullet mold, belts and buckles, flag, “Cap’s” Spencer rifle and cartridges, his brother David’s sword – and the death of his mother – moved Jay to action.
Even while continuing to sort and organize, he opened for tours of the house and collections. He called it the Civil War Museum and put out a sign.
THE CIVIL WAR MUSEUM
“With the passing of my mother, I feel it’s up to me to tell the story now.”
“I opened for tours the summer of 2008. With nearly 2000 visitors so far, 100s of names on the guest book, and many repeat visitors bringing back friends, it is definitely being noticed as an interesting local attraction. It’s bigger than that – some think it is a national treasure.”
Until a proper museum can be built, the Civil War collection is housed in the Prospect House. It’s hardly a disadvantage, however, because the house itself is worth the trip to Battle Lake.
THE PROSPECT HOUSE
“My great-grandparents were of some means and filled the house with fine rugs, furniture, glassware, china, artwork, books, collections, toys, fine clothing and, of course, all modern conveniences of the day. The Prospect House is filled with the lives and accumulations of several generations of my family, accumulations of more than 125 years. The wealth of a bygone era remains intact. Most is as it had been in 1929 when it was remodeled, with the third floor left as it originally was.”Jay Johnson – The Image of a Civil War Soldier
Jay was in his early 50s when he set himself the task of sorting through the forgotten recesses of the Prospect House. Even now, he’s not yet sixty, but to see him you’d think he’s just stepped out of the Civil War himself. A tour of the Prospect House and Civil War Museum with Jay as guide is to be transported back in history.The Prospect House & Civil War Museum – A Story of Perseverance
Jay had slim means with which to start a museum. His livelihood – a tree business in Otter Tail County – brought him satisfaction, but not much disposable income. Expenses associated with his mother’s and father’s deaths left him even less.
Yet he felt an obligation to preserve what he’d found and to share it with others. He began by sorting through 175 years of family belongings: Civil War stuff to the basement; toys, paper dolls, and games to a third floor room; hats and dresses to a bedroom; china and silver to the dining room; and on and on. He assembled collections: campaign buttons, 19th century buttons, 150 years of pens. A friend built display cases, and Jay arranged the collections to great artistic effect. He asked for favors: Will you sort through the china and clean the dining room? He traded favors: Work on the gardens and I’ll cut down that ailing tree. Little by little, he brought organization to chaos. He started giving tours of the house and the Civil War collection. He kept fuel in the furnace through long, cold winters. He continued to sort, arrange, and clear away piles of accumulated possessions.
But he finally realized he couldn’t do it alone. He asked a few people who supported his dream to help. He formed a Board of Directors and worked with an attorney to file the necessary paperwork. His cousin – William Colehour and wife, Jean – joined the effort. In August 2010, the nonprofit Prospect House & Civil War Museum came into being. The organization supports Jay’s dream of preserving family treasurers and sharing “Cap’s” story with others.The organization supports Jay’s dream of preserving family treasurers and sharing “Cap’s” story with others.
Jay’s perseverance embodies the Colehour spirit. The family fortune was lost, and yet the family survived.
FAMILY FORTUNE LOST
“The family fortune was lost during the crash of 1929. The family rarely purchased anything after that. As they had everything they needed, the circumstance didn’t bring on the hardship one might expect. The family learned to do with what they had. Because the family was small, the house large, and the Depression rooted in their minds, they were able to preserve the home and property. “