Rare, handmade early 1850s child’s clothing donated 15 years ago to the Benton County Historical Society will be professionally preserved thanks to grant funding.
The Oregon Heritage Commission recently announced the 13 recipients of $78,021 in grants, including $3,230 donated to the Philomath-based Benton County Historical Society.
Irene Zenev, the historical society’s executive director, said the organization was able to match $3,230 gifted through a $2,000 grant from the OSU Folk Club and a $1,230 museum grant from the State Historic Preservation Office.
“It’s unusual for us to do this regularly,” Zenev said. “We do, however, have a conservator who is on contract with us who’s been working with us for two or three years now on getting objects cleaned and stabilized for exhibition.
“Having a conservator available gave us the opportunity to do some work on this piece because it’s extremely rare and something that’s important to Oregon history,” she added.
Zenev was referring to Tom Fuller, a veteran conservator who has developed a widespread reputation for his work.
“He’s worked with the Smithsonian, he’s worked with the University of Pennsylvania, he’s done a lot of work for the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem,” Zenev said, “so we’re really fortunate to have someone with that caliber here in Corvallis. It’s pretty amazing.”
The conservation project involves a very special two-piece set of boy’s clothing not often seen in Western museums. It had been worn by the toddler son of Guilford and Catherine Barnard. His name was Landy Wilson Barnard and he died at age 2 in 1852 while his family was traveling with a wagon train bound for Oregon.
“The manner of death is in some dispute — he either died of cholera, was run over by the oxen-drawn wagon, or possibly both,” the Historical Society’s documentation on the clothing reads. “One account states he recovered from the cholera and was run over soon after.”
According to the family’s history, the child was buried close to the Oregon Trail on Turkey Creek near the Little Blue River in Kansas Territory. The Barnard family continued on their journey and initially settled in Linn County. In 1871, they moved to a farm in Benton County just east of Bellfountain.
The little boy’s clothing — a dress, jacket and pair of shoes — were saved by the family in his memory. The person who donated the dress, Gladys Hunt, was the great-granddaughter of the child’s mother.
For those not familiar with clothing from that era, boys often wore dresses when they were still in diapers.
“It was more convenient to put all children in dresses so you could access their diapers,” Zenev said. “Until they were old enough to be toilet-trained, they wore a dress.”
The boy’s dress and jacket, both tan and white and featuring white glass buttons, are listed on historical society documentation as being in “sound” condition.
Upon seeing the garments, people will get an accurate view of what a young child in the 1850s would’ve been wearing.
“When you can see the object, you can get a better sense of the size of the person, certainly can’t get a feeling for their personality or anything, but I think it helps people to imagine what that person appeared to be,” Zenev said.
“It’s 3-dimensional — you can look at a photograph but all of the photographs from that era are black and white and this is something in living color, so I think it gives you more of a sense of what a 2-year-old was wearing and you can kinda compare it to the 2-year-olds you know in your life,” she added.
Zenev said the project will take about 34 hours and the grant covers the cost of cleaning and treatment.
“There’s two hours of documentation time, a couple of hours of set-up with assembling tools and materials, and there are a total of five stabilizing patches that have to be placed on the garments,” Zenev said. “It takes six hours per patch.”
The patches are among the tools used by conservators to stabilize fragile textiles.
“Conservation’s a very specialized field,” Zenev said. “You have to know chemistry, you have to know a lot of materials, you have to have knowledge of a whole variety of different types of artifacts.”
Zenev said a textile intern from Oregon State who worked with the Historical Society’s Mary Gallagher was fascinated with the museum having such an item in its collection.
“She was really impressed that we even had this piece in our collection because the family, even though the little boy died, they kept the clothing as a memento and then passed it down through the family,” Zenev said.
Children’s clothes from the mid-19th century are a bit rare, especially those that have such a clear provenance.
“A lot of times, children’s clothing gets totally worn out; people would have all of their children wear the clothing,” Zenev said. “The fact that this survived and was preserved by the family and then given to the museum was pretty rare.”