NILES - When approaching the Ward-Thomas House, the building appears to exist out of time, not truly belonging to the modern world. Behind the white doors lie more than 5,000 historical treasures that Niles has cherished and preserved for decades.
The Ward-Thomas House was built in 1862, according to curator Audrey John. The title comes from the last names of two prominent families who lived there: James Ward, a builder and iron pioneer who was murdered by an ax-wielding man in 1864, and John Thomas, the founder of the Niles Firebrick Company. In 1969, the house was deeded to the City of Niles.
"It's the complete history of Niles," John said. "We believe that our job is important. We collect artifacts from the past. When people stop caring about the past and stop finding, preserving, and protecting artifacts from the past, then one day these priceless artifacts will be gone, and there will be nothing we can do to get them back."
Photos by Joe Marino / Tribune Chronicle correspondent
Gowns from many of the country’s first ladies are on display at the Ward Thomas House in Niles.
On the walls of the entry area, where guests can sign in, are photographs and other trivia about the Niles area, compliments of the Niles Historical Society. One of the photographs is the oldest picture in the house, a photo of the house taken not long after it was built.
Next, visitors enter a living room, where a beautiful chandelier, three striking mannequins and other exquisite items reside.
The mannequins showcase one-of-a-kind treasures - the gowns of the country's first ladies. All but five of the country's first ladies - the 40 beginning with Martha Washington and ending at Nancy Reagan - have an authentic reproduction of a dress displayed at the museum. The hairstyle of each first lady was matched as closely as possible, creating an aura of authenticity.
This collection of presidential memorabilia was formed in 1976.
The living room also is filled with dozens of authentic pieces of the times - carved wooden chairs, white-painted couches, striking personal portraits, black canes and books.
The dining room is home to a lovely table, silver and floral china, a fireplace and a cabinet full of various treasures made in Niles. Seated at the table are two mannequins dressed in morning attire.
The hallway has a piano, an old record player, the genealogy of the Ward and Thomas families. Also featured are wall and ceiling designs. The most interesting element in the hallway is the collection of documents and other odds and ends that lie under protective glass, including a letter written more than 100 years ago.
Before heading upstairs, visitors go through another room full of random items the Historical Society couldn't fit anywhere else, from a 100-year-old stethoscope to a giant Ahlstrom piano to an arrowhead to jewelry. This is by far one of the more attention-grabbing rooms.
At the top of the stairs is another hallway that connects to the bedrooms and a study filled with memorabilia of Niles business history, including a bronze sign reading, "The Niles Firebrick Co., established 1872."
In the four upstairs rooms are wedding dresses, dozens of pairs of shoes, wigs, bathing suits, hats, clothes, mirrors, brushes, handmade lace, furs, an old vacuum and even a set of Grandma's teeth.
An unusual inclusion is an early 1900s bathroom, which surprisingly looks very similar to what we have today except for the bathtub.
Going back downstairs, visitors can enter the kitchen, filled with items like an ice-cream churner, an old-style toaster, an oven, ironing board and iron, pots, pans, rolling pins, a "Magic Chef Cooking" book and a telephone from the period. The cabinet is filled with old brand names such as Argo gloss starch, Glamorene shampoo, Terro ant killer and Kress varnish stain.
Leaving the house through the kitchen, visitors come out onto 5.5 acres of landscaping and trees.
Guests can also tour a garage-like one-story building. The highlight of the room is the Purple Heart and Silver Star medals from Vietnam and World War II, and even are some medals and items with the Nazi symbol printed on them.
Another highlight is an extensive toy collection, with toys numbering in the hundreds. From a plush pink poodle to wooden miniature cowboys to a miniature rendition of the White House, this section promises to be entertaining to all.
John said that the most important service the Ward-Thomas House gives to visitors is to help "future generations realize just how important and large the past is, and hopefully to learn from its mistakes and follow in its victories. Ultimately, we want to encourage them to understand and cherish the past."