A hidden gem in Minnesota lakes country, the Prospect House and its museum embraces 'his' story
Jay Johnson, the great-grandson of a Civil War veteran, is grateful to share his family's treasures at the Battle Lake, Minn., museum.
BATTLE LAKE, Minn. — When Jay Johnson greets you on the lawn of the Prospect House and Civil War Museum — his passion project for more than a quarter century — it’s pretty clear you’re about to have an adventure.
Clad in overalls and a Civil War Union cap, Johnson ushers you inside the Georgian-style mansion, not for a leisurely stroll down memory lane, but a deep dive into one Minnesota family's past 140 years. And Minnesota’s premier Civil War museum just happens to be in the basement.
The Prospect House at 403 Lake Ave. N. in Battle Lake is almost easy to miss. Just off the main drag, it’s tucked away on a residential street like any other in lakes country.
Even the signs inviting visitors to stop in are lost.
“I’ve found that people drive down the highway and wouldn’t notice a pink elephant in a ditch,” Johnson says. “I just watch ‘em drive by.”
But plenty do stop in for a tour. Johnson says Prospect House gets about 1,500 visitors a summer, and school groups during the year. But it’s still a bit of a “hidden gem” in Minnesota history tourist circles.
Cap comes to town
The seeds of the Prospect House were planted when a man named James Allison “Cap” Colehour came to town. Cap, a Civil War veteran, was Johnson’s great-grandfather. A native of Pennsylvania, he later moved to Chicago, then after the war found his way north to Battle Lake where, in 1882, he built the first home in the city. Cap added to the property and by 1886 was running Prospect House, the area’s first tourist hotel.
It became a popular destination because of its proximity to the Fergus Falls and Black Hills branches of the Northern Pacific Railroad. You could get a room for $2 a day, or $9 for a week. Brochures for the Prospect House promised just the respite some needed:
“To eat, drink, sleep and breathe pure air will be your great desire, but you can row, fish, drive, hunt, bowl or lounge as seemeth best.”
The inn operated until 1924, when it was remodeled into a family home for Cap’s family. Since then, it has been handed down through the generations. Johnson remembers visiting his grandparents there for Sunday dinner surrounded by decades of family history.
“As a kid, you know you just think, ‘Yeah, it’s just old stuff. What the heck is that? Who cares?’ I just wanted to play with toys,” he says.
It wouldn’t be until around the turn of the 21st century when Johnson discovered exactly the treasures he was sitting on.
Mining for history
Johnson says when his mother died in 2008, the house was “plumb full” of things. He said since the house was passed down through the generations, no one really ever moved, so beloved memorabilia, souvenirs and household items were never thrown away or sold. They just found a place to be stored, oftentimes on the third floor in what used to be the hotel rooms.
So Johnson started the arduous process of figuring out what they had. He'd go from room to room, dumping out drawer after drawer.
Johnson says sometimes he didn’t even know what he had found. When he was puzzled, friends and family took to Google to search for answers. When they figured what a certain item was, Johnson was then able to demonstrate to visitors in the dining room how the antique sugar lump cutter worked or show them how to put out a candle in the bedroom with snuffing scissors.
Once Johnson had most of the memorabilia sorted, it was a matter of figuring what to do with it all.
Johnson organized many of the items based upon the time period and room where they might have been used. One room on the second floor is his mother’s childhood bedroom from 1929 and now houses much of her artwork. Next door is her parents' bedroom from that same time period. The furniture, clothing and bedding are all original, just like it had been the year of the 1929 stock market crash.
Down the hall is his great-grandparents' bedroom circa 1889. In the corner sits a wooden chair Cap designed himself. The armrests are slanted, which made it easier for Cap to get up since he had been shot in both shoulders during the war.
It seems the family kept most everything. An ornate valentine still in its box sits on the end table next to the bed.
“Leave it to my family to hold onto a cardboard box for 155 years,” Johnson says.
Holding onto and preserving its history, item by item, was a guiding principle for the family who once called this place home. And nowhere is that more evident than in the Civil War museum a couple of floors down.
The family patriarch, Cap Colehour, seemed to hold that sentiment as far back as the Civil War as his letter and photos sent home included details of exactly where he was and what he was experiencing. “I was wounded here,” he scribbled on a photo from Chickamauga to Muscle Shoals.
It took years to transcribe all of the letters, the handwriting was so ornate and often faded or smudged.
"He was sitting by a campfire in the woods in the rain in the dark with a pencil stump trying to write a letter home and you have a problem reading it? Can you imagine how much trouble he had writing the damn thing?" Johnson says.
Hundreds of items, from photos to books to memorabilia, line the walls of the museum.
Very personal items, including Cap's bullet-ridden sleeves, boot and gun, are encased.
Johnson relays the story of just what these items meant to Cap following a fire in the family home.
“My great-grandmother told him to grab the silver. He walked out with his boot and gun,” Johnson says.
It’s probably a good thing he did as the Prospect House and Civil War Museum is an active participant with the Minnesota Historical Society to teach sixth graders about Civil War history. For his part, Johnson says he just loves bringing history to life for the students and older guests.
“It’s surprising how gratifying it is to do my job, telling them about the museum. Sometimes, they start to clap and give me a standing ovation,” he says with a laugh.
Still, there is stress. It takes a lot to run a museum like this and as a nonprofit, money isn’t always pouring in. He has considered selling some items of lesser importance to help with funding. He’s been offered tens of thousands of dollars for some bigger or more notable items, including the living room carpet and a Civil War rifle. But then why have a museum?
“Would the Louvre sell the 'Mona Lisa'?” Johnson quips.
So the Georgian mansion off Battle Lake’s main drag, now on the National Register of Historic Places, relies upon donations from visitors and history lovers. Johnson will keep up his work cultivating his family’s treasures and memories — something you’d think great-grandfather Cap Colehour would appreciate.
“Originally, I just put stuff on display because I thought people would love to see it. But what I found out was that people wanted to hear the story behind the stuff,” Johnson says. “You’ve got to remember that history is two words, 'his' and 'story,' and if you don't have the story, it's not history. It's just cool old stuff. Museums are full of cool stuff. But we have the story too. This is a history museum.”
For information, visit www.ProspectHouseMuseum.org .