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Deere-Wiman historian also a detective of sorts
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Gretchen Small shows historic photos of the Deere-Wiman House to a grade-school class touring the Moline home during a field trip Nov. 23, 2010.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Gretchen Small waits while grade-school children explore the second floor of the Deere-Wiman House in Moline.
MOLINE -- When children step into the Deere-Wiman House, some gasp in wonder.

"This place is huge!" one child said in amazement while walking in with a group last November.

Another quietly asked Butterworth Center and Deere-Wiman House program director Gretchen Small a question.

"Yep, just one family lived here," she replied, smiling.

Ms. Small hopes the children always will remember at least some of what they learn while touring the 1872 house.

"If just one piece of history stuck with them, that's my goal -- and I think it happens," she said while sitting in the window seat of the Deere-Wiman House breakfast room before the group arrived.

She peered outside every so often, waiting for the arrival of a yellow school bus filled with fourth-graders from Bicentennial Elementary in Coal Valley. The kids were coming to see the Moline house built by Charles Deere, John Deere's son, and learn of things past.

Ms. Small, 51, of Eldridge, has worked at the Butterworth Center and Deere-Wiman House for more than 24 years, beginning just a few months after earning her master's degree.

She grew up in Indiana and knew she wanted to return to the Midwest after school. She had a summer job working for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival immediately after graduating.

Ms. Small began her job with the William Butterworth Memorial Trust in September of that year. The trust owns and operates both of the historic Moline houses.She handles educational programming, special events, historical research and curator work at the Butterworth Center and Deere-Wiman House.

In November, she was working on planning the 19th Century Christmas event and the 2011 programming when she wasn't doing school tours.

"I think what I like is there is variety. One day I'm giving a school tour, then I'm coordinating ads for an event," Ms. Small said.

She said the only drawback to her job is that her busy schedule doesn't always allow her to get done everything she wants to, and she doesn't have time to do as much research as she would like.

"I just love history," she said. "These houses are really rich in history."

Her workdays typically begin at 8 a.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. or later, depending on the day. If there's a tour at 8 a.m., she shows up earlier to prepare.

After the kids entered the house on this November day, Ms. Small directed them to the living room, asking them to sit in front of the huge fireplace. The teacher accompanying the students encouraged them to follow her lead.

"Criss-cross applesauce, please," the teacher said.

Once they were settled, Ms. Small told them that, as a historian, she looks for clues about how the house has changed over the years.She then showed them a picture of how the house originally looked and explained that it changed after a fire damaged the roof and the family decided to upgrade the roof style.

The room in which the kids sat also has undergone significant change. Ms. Small told them it was once two rooms, with back-to-back fireplaces.

"They need these fireplaces to help heat the rooms," she said.

One of the fireplace mantles was moved upstairs to a guest room. She showed the kids a picture of it and asked them to search for it when they were exploring the second floor of the house.

Before the kids could see more of the house, though, Ms. Small had to lay out the ground rules.

"First rule is, don't touch," Ms. Small said.

She explained to them that the oil on people's fingertips can harm things, even if a person has just washed their hands, adding that's why there are no touching rules at museums.

Then the kids lined up to look at old photographs of the home before heading into the library, where Ms. Small told them that the families who lived there loved to read.

"To know what was going on back then you had to read (about) it" or talk to someone directly, Ms. Small said.

An 1884 bust of John Deere with a Roman hairstyle and toga is displayed in that room. Ms. Small said it was created by a man named L.W. Volk, who lived in the Quad-Cities for a while and who also did a bust of Abraham Lincoln.

"Volk got to meet Lincoln and John Deere personally," she said.

Then the group went to the dining room, where the kids were asked to look for signs of nature. Almost everything in the room had a flower or animal on it, including the mantle, paintings, light fixtures and tablecloth.

After that it was time for the kids to see the second floor. A few girls excitedly announced they knew in which room the fireplace mantle was after a quick glance about.

"Walk, don't run; we've got plenty of time," Ms. Small said.

The kids walked from room to room, poking their heads into each one, and then ventured in to explore the portions that weren't roped off. Some marveled over a train set.

Once the kids had a chance to peer at everything, Ms. Small had them gather at the elevator.

"What's neat about history is you're always looking for answers," she told them.She said a push button on the second floor wall is still a puzzle to her. She has no idea what it was for, although she suspects it had something to do with the elevator.

"You always keep looking," she said, because you never know when you'll find the answer.

Ms. Small told the students she knew the elevator wasn't installed when the house was built in 1872 because there was no electricity then. For a long time, however, she had no idea when the elevator had been added -- until she found an 1899 newspaper article about William Wiman falling down the elevator shaft during a fire.

"It means the elevator had to be there (by 1899)," she said.

She's still not sure of the exact year it was installed, but knows it's more than 110 years old and still in working order. She often uses the elevator to travel to her third-floor work room.

Someday she hopes to know when it was added — as well as the purpose of the mysterious button.

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