Local Museum House City’s Rich History

Writer  /  Julie Engelhardt

Traveling through certain areas of Middletown is a little like stepping back in time, especially if you know the history of the city. Did you know that the Little Bit of Bybee handmade pottery shop is located in a former grocery store or that the area where Kroger sits used to be a turkey farm? All of this information, and most anything else you’d like to learn about Middletown’s heritage, can be found by visiting the museum.

The two main caretakers and volunteers at the museum are Dudley Wetherby and his wife Nancy, president of the Historic Middletown Incorporated. Dudley is a true hometown boy as he was born in a house in the 1930s not far from the museum. Nancy is originally from Ohio, but she came to Louisville to attend nursing school. She and Dudley were set up on a blind date, and it was a good match, as they’ve been married for 61 years.

The museum falls under the auspices of the Historic Middletown Incorporated. HMI began in 1966 and was the idea of resident Blaine Guthrie and others who felt it was important to preserve the town’s past. Regular meetings were held to discuss the historical significance of the town as many were concerned that the construction of Shelbyville Road was taking away the action on Main Street. They were worried that their city would be forgotten but they persevered. Members took on projects such as placing placards in front of homes on the National Register of Historic Places. The idea to start a museum was discussed and the first location eventually opened in 1988, merging with HMI in 1989.

The museum was first housed in what is now The Wright Stuff Consignment Shop on Main Street. The building had been the post office, then changed hands and was owned by LaVay Lauter. The museum was located in LaVay’s building in a small portion where the post office boxes had been situated. The museum then relocated to the building now occupied by Lisa Lynne Design Services across from Eastern High School. In 2014, the museum moved to its current location at the old United Methodist Church.

Dudley and Nancy took on the task of setting up displays and cases in their new place, dragging in boxes and items off moving trucks. One of the largest and heaviest pieces in the museum is a wood and marble display case that was once owned by the Benedict sisters in their tea room. When they went out of business, a local pharmacist used it, and when he moved he donated it to the museum.

“Eight men moved it into the museum using straps around their neck in order to lift it,” Dudley says. “It’s very, very heavy.”

The case now holds a display of military memorabilia.

The neat, little museum is studded with an impressive array of photographs, furniture, dolls, toys, sporting goods, kitchen items, medical supplies, clothing, maps — the list is infinite. Items have either been donated by Middletown residents or they were brought in from businesses. One resident, artist Bill Thomas, even created a special display for the museum — a scale model replica of Main Street. Built in the 1980s, it shows a fascinating view of what Historic Middletown looked like in the 1950s.

Artifacts are set up in different groupings in the museum. In one area you’ll find the church corner, displaying objects from the old United Methodist Church, such as stained glass windows and the church altar. Down the way are grand portraits of early Middletown residents, circa 1860. According to Dudley, these portraits are likely to be some of the most valuable items on display. Across from the portraits you’ll find a copy of the 1797 charter to start Middletown, plus other historical documents and explanations of the city’s history. Included on this wall is information about President Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, who settled outside of Middletown, and information about the historic Chenoweth family.

On the opposite side of that display wall are photographs from the Louisville and Eastern Railway which brought inter-urban transportation between Louisville and Shelbyville in 1910. One placard reads, “Middletownians could now find expanding economic opportunities in Louisville, and Louisvillians could move ‘to the country’ while continuing to jobs in the city.’”

In 1934, the company went out of business due to competition from the automobile industry and from hard times brought on by the Great Depression.

Those who’ve kept up with their Middletown history know that the current city hall had been the Wetherby House and at one time operated as the Davis Tavern. The tavern was known for its high-quality cheese which was kept in larders at the establishment. The museum has one of the larders, a heavy, wooden piece that is a treasure of Middletown’s past.

Dudley’s paternal family history plays a prominent role in the displays found throughout the museum. One case holds a tuxedo that belonged to his grandfather and a formal dress that his grandmother wore. In another section, pictures and memorabilia honoring his uncle, Governor Lawrence Winchester Wetherby, are displayed. Lawrence was born in Middletown in 1908, and according to Nancy, he was the only governor elected from Jefferson County. A statue of the former governor now stands, quite appropriately, in Middletown’s Wetherby Park.

A tribute to Louisville’s iconic Derby Clock is found in the museum. They carry small replicas of the figures found on the clock which depict George Rogers Clark, Daniel Boone, Thomas Jefferson, King Louis XVI and the Belle of Louisville. Those familiar with this large timepiece know it was designed to look like a large wind-up toy, and on it were different themes of Kentucky’s culture, especially the Kentucky Derby. At noon each day a bugle announced the beginning of a race and the figures were ‘off!’

Located in the same case as the replicas is a collection of fairings —delicate trinket boxes that were given out as prizes at carnivals. Nancy also has an army of tin soldiers proudly on display in the case. Down the way is another case half-filled with antique sporting goods including croquet mallets, tennis racquets, metal roller skates and ice skates, and in the other half there’s memorabilia from Eastern High School. Further down, youngsters who’ve never used a rotary dial telephone have a chance to see several in the museum along with a vintage switchboard from the Anchorage-Middletown telephone exchange.

The final wing of the museum displays items from Self Hardware Store including kerosene lamps and soldering irons.

“This man had anything and everything,” Dudley says.

In that same section, visitors will find treasures such as a scale from the ‘Kroger’ turkey farm and an old-fashioned toaster. Further down is the medical corner displaying rather odd-looking dental equipment, forceps, apothecary jars, a wicker-back wheelchair and photographs of doctors who practiced in Middletown.

A visit to the museum truly gives residents and visitors an outstanding look at a by-gone era but searching through the past can provide insight into the future. The museum is located at 11700 Main Street and is open two days a week, Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The museum volunteers are always seeking new recruits. For more information call 502-254-4303.