Holidays, history on display in Niles

NILES – Beyond the cast iron gates wrapped with cheerful red bows, the Ward-Thomas historical home bustled with visitors admiring the recent addition of holiday decorations at an open house Sunday afternoon.

A Christmas tree was erected in the parlor and the dining room next door had a table set for a Christmas feast, but the home’s only permanent residents are a congregation of mannequins wearing exquisite gowns. They, along with their Niles Historical Society caretakers, welcomed the company of admiring attendees.

“It’s really cool. I like the china,” Elizabeth Rusnak, 11, of Niles, said.

She and her parents, Ruth and Mark Rusnak, worked their way around the dining room examining the dishes that Elizabeth enjoys collecting. One thing that Elizabeth said wasn’t so appealing were the gowns.

“She has to force me to wear dresses,” Elizabeth said of her mother.

The Ward-Thomas house, built in 1962 in the Italianate style of architecture, is home to 38 dresses made to replicate gowns worn by presidential first ladies that were donated to the Smithsonian museum.

More of the dresses upstairs though, are what piqued Eric Apple’s curiosity. He is a walking encyclopedia of information on the presidential families.

He pointed out a photo of President Abraham Lincoln in a bedroom and rattled off a slew of information on first lady Mary Ann Todd Lincoln, including the facts that she was criticized for holding seances at the White House, was eventually declared insane and died of a stroke.

Which first lady had the best run in the White House? “Nancy Reagan. She was called Queen Nancy,” Apple said.

His mother, Bonnie Apple, said that Eric has been fascinated by the presidents since he was nine years old and all the way through his time at Fairhaven. If ever there was a savant on presidential trivia, she said her son would be the expert.

Downstairs, the kitchen is decorated with a collection of Christmas cards and nutcrackers. The first floor was decorated by four volunteers from the historical society over several days.

“It was built in the Civil War era, so perhaps there wasn’t much decorating then,” said volunteer Nancy Malone, “but the Thomas’ bought the house in 1887 and they were very successful and they probably did more.”

Putting out this year’s decorations was no small feat. Nancy said the women formed a “chain gang” to pass items from the attic down to the first floor. Their efforts were well received.

“I think it is fantastic. I love looking at the old houses,” said Kathy Allan of Cortland. “It’s interesting that people actually lived this way.”

She and her friend, Phyllis Kelsh of Niles, leaned in to look at a few of the multitude of angel figurines decorating the house. Though the two said they enjoyed the decorations, they weren’t sure if they would want to live in a comparable fashion.

“We like our microwaves,” Allan remarked.

The house at 503 Brown St. will be open the first Sunday of January for another round of holiday tours between 2 and 5 p.m. Tours cost $5 and money will be used to save for an addition to the museum.