Rural Women on Display

“Rural Women on Display”

Elyssa Ford, Northwest Missouri State University


Head north from Kansas City on Interstate 29 in Missouri and the features of city life quickly fade from view.  From the road, you see rows of corn and cattle in the fields, which provide a glimpse into the daily life that has existed, both today and for decades in the past, for people in this part of the state.  While many of these rural communities no longer exist, historical societies across northwestern Missouri gather stories of the past and display that history to the people who live there today and for the people who used to call the area home.

There are an estimated 10,000 local historical societies in the United States today, and many run on a shoestring budget.  In fact, a LinkedIn poll reported that only 25% of historical societies had more than one paid, professional staff member.[1]  Atchison, Holt, Andrew, and Nodaway counties in Northwest Missouri all are home to their own historical societies, and like countless others in the country they run on a limited staff or rely solely on volunteer support.  In 1896, M. Burton Williamson stated that the “actual local value of our [historical] society to the community in which it is located can not be estimated in dollars and cents.”[2]  In 2012, Debbie Ann Doyle, a historian with the American Historical Association, agreed with Williamson’s statement made over a century earlier: “Small historical societies play an important role in protecting and preserving the historical record and also interpret the past to the public.”[3]  The county organizations and the people in this corner of Missouri would agree with both of these statements.

Yet despite their sustained presence and their perceived value, these societies and their small museums often are in a constant scramble not just for monetary and volunteer support but visitor numbers.  There clearly is a disconnect between the value that we believe historical societies have for our communities and the role that they truly play.  Theories abound to explain this disconnect, but repeatedly there is the idea that historical societies can be too limited, too parochial in their approach and content to speak to and for the current community.  This is not just a modern-day problem.  Williamson raised just this concern in 1896 in California: “Their interests have been centered elsewhere. Our history does not appeal to them [newcomers to the area] until they have become identified with that history. It takes time to do this.”[4]  Of course, Williamson had a different perspective on this problem than others, like John Galluzo who said in 2016 that “[w]e’re not local in nature anymore.  There will be fewer and fewer people with long, deep knowledge of local landscapes, people who are really dedicated to the preservation of hometown history.”[5]  Galluzo is saying that historical societies need to change the stories that they tell – to move away from such a deeply local history and that limited scope – in order to remain relevant to a more transient population.  In contrast, Williamson was saying that the local story simply did not appeal to these newcomers yet but that it could and would.  As he believed, “Our local history furnishes us with unusual and interesting events.”[6]  You just had to find the right stories to tell to get the community, whether old timers or new, interested.

The question then is, what stories are these historical societies telling and what lies untold?  At the Nodaway County Historical Society, many different parts of the local community and its history can be found on display.  There are exhibits on railroads, military service, quilts, music, local heroes and well-known residents, and African American history, to name just a few.  Women feature prominently throughout the museum, but not always in a way that is directly stated.  There is a room of quilts, one of dolls, and another of women’s clothing.  A historic house run by the museum highlights the daily lives of women at home with a garden out back, a stocked kitchen, and upstairs rooms with a decidedly female- and child-centric arrangement of artifacts.  Most of these exhibits are object centered with few explanatory labels, so despite the presence of women, that presence is often fleeting and ephemeral rather than as a focused and explicit discussion about women and their experiences in Nodaway County.


At the NCHS, the women who appear and the artifacts that are assembled to tell their stories in many ways could be stories and objects of women anywhere in the country.  There is little that sets them apart and tells a uniquely rural story about their lives even though Nodaway County is a remarkably rural place.  Today the primary hub is the county seat of Maryville, and several other, much smaller communities still remain, while others have become almost ghost towns or even disappeared entirely.  This is a place that once had over 100 school districts, served predominately by one room schoolhouses and staffed by young, female teachers.  The museum’s site includes one of these schools and the Caleb Burns house, which is the oldest standing home in Maryville and once rented rooms to young women who took the train into town from their more rural homes to attend the local teacher’s college.  Yet visitors to the schoolhouse or the Caleb Burns house take little away from either that tell the story of these women or the impact that their rural homes have on their daily lives.

According to historian Debbie Ann Doyle,

Many local historical societies were founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by amateur historians whose interest in the past was often combined with a desire to celebrate the significance, growth, and business potential of the community. These early societies were commonly formed by elites whose main interest was the history of people like themselves, leaders in business, commerce, and government.[7]

Though women certainly were a part of the elite families in Nodaway County, they were not leaders in business, commerce, or government in the 1960s when the historical society was founded or even in the 1990s when a museum building was constructed and a permanent collection formed.  Likewise, as Doyle explains, “Their mission was to preserve the legacy of their ancestors, to commemorate local heroes, and to preserve historic architecture.”[8]  If the goal of a historical society is to preserve local heroes, architecture, and key events, women rarely are seen as central to that story.  Women in more remote corners – meaning in even further rural areas – of Nodaway County fit this understanding of historical value even less.  This can be seen at the NCHS museum today as it is not just women but the most rural women of the community who fail to have their stories told.

The Nodaway County Historical Society is not the only museum that fails to display rural women or purposefully discuss them in the context of a rural setting.  In historical societies across the country, rural women remain hidden from view, much as they did in their lived experiences throughout American history.  Now that we are expanding our understanding of that past and encouraging other stories to be told, we need to work with and in our local historical societies to gather the stories of rural women and display them to remember that history and to present it to current residents and future generations.

[1] Debbie Ann Doyle, “The Future of Local Historical Societies,” AHA: Perspectives on History (December 2012)

[2] M. Burton Williamson, “The Value of a Historical Society,” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles 3:4 (1896): 58.

[3] Debbie Ann Doyle, “The Future of Local Historical Societies,” AHA: Perspectives on History (December 2012)

[4] Williamson, “The Value of a Historical Society,” 60.

[5] John Galluzo, “Historical Societies and the March of Time,” AASLH (November 2016)

[6] Williamson, “The Value of a Historical Society,” 59.

[7] Doyle, “The Future of Local Historical Societies.”

[8] Doyle, “The Future of Local Historical Societies.”

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