Historical Society Museum
860 Quarry Road, Coralville, IA 52241
- Mondays: Closed
- Tuesday – Saturday: 10:00am – 5:00pm
- Sunday: 12:00pm – 5:00pm
- Admission: $5/person, JCHS members and children under 12 are FREE
- Event rentals available. Please visit our Room Reservations page for more information.
- Group rates available with prior notice
The Johnson County Historical Society Museum is home to the society’s more than 10,000 historic artifacts that portray the diverse and vibrant heritage of the county, from the Meskwaki to early settlers to contemporary times.
Many of these items—from an authentic handcart commemorating the Mormon’s historic trek westwards from Iowa to a replica of the beloved Blue Top Motel and a 19th century millstone—are on display in permanent and rotating exhibits that bring history alive.
A unique viewing window enables visitors to see into the archival area, where staff preserve and care for historic artifacts.
Use the tabs below to view information on our exhibits.
A Home on the Farm: Changes in Farm Life in the Mid-Twentieth Century
By the turn of the twentieth century, Iowa had been transformed from a diverse habitat of prairies, wetlands and forest to a land overrun by the plow. Even today, Iowa’s identity is associated with farming. Some of the greatest changes in the industry came about between the middle half of the twentieth century with the advent of electricity and plumping, mechanized machinery, the telephone and the radio. But it wasn’t just technology that changed farming during this time period—two world wars, economic hardships brought on by the Great Depression, rising urbanization and the changing nature of farming from small family farms to corporations brought on defined changes to the landscape in Johnson County.
This exhibit traces some of those developments in farming and country life from the farmers themselves. With the inclusion of artifacts from the time period, maps, and photographs as well as a chance for visitors to get a feel for what it was like back then as we dig up and explore an agricultural history of the county during the mid-twentieth century and how it has defined the future of farming.
Between Two Rivers: The Meskwaki in Johnson County
The Meskwaki originally lived along the Saint Lawrence River in Canada. By the 1600s, the tribe had migrated to the region of present-day Michigan, settling in the Detroit area. The Meskwaki later relocated to Wisconsin. This area is where the tribe first met with the French. In 1712, the Meskwaki engaged in an extended period of conflict with the French that became known as the Fox Wars; these wars lasted until 1737. The Fox Wars forced the Meskwaki to abandon their Wisconsin villages and migrate west to Iowa.
By 1736, the Meskwaki had settled on the west side of the Mississippi River, with their allies, the Sauk (Sac) tribe, on the east side. These two tribes formed an alliance for mutual protection during the Fox Wars. Their villages and hunting grounds extended from the Mississippi River to the Des Moines River, an area including present-day Johnson County, Iowa. The Meskwaki and Sauk tribes lived in this region until the 1840s, when the U.S. government started forcing land cessions.
This exhibit focuses on Meskwaki history and involvement in Johnson County, Iowa. Information regarding Meskwaki culture is also highlighted along with Meskwaki artifacts on display. A highlight of the exhibit is an interactive replica of a “wickiup” to delight children and adults alike.
Bradley Print Shop
Coming Together to Create Communities
Little Houses on the Prairie: The Blue Top Motel
The Blue Top Cabin Motel is an important piece of Americana. Operating from 1943 to 1996, this important landmark was razed to make room for the developing Coralville town center. The exhibit is told through the people who owned it and the visitors who inhabited the distinctly built cabins with the famous blue tops and white siding. Artifacts include newspaper clippings and photographs that tell an in-depth story of the motel through the years. The exhibit is accompanied by an old coke machine, bicycle and a stunning replica of a Blue Top cottage designed by Jim Stebral Construction, Inc. of Solon, Iowa.
The Johnson County Community Stories Project & Township Maps
They opened their scrapbooks and hunted in the archives to put together accounts of times gone by as well as the present. The Community Stories Project offers a glimpse of the cities, towns and villages of Johnson County, Iowa as seen through the eyes of the people who live there. With aided research and artifacts, the exhibit promotes the uniqueness of Johnson County and encourages visitors to see it through their own eyes. Questions abound: are there hills in Hills? How many “Frys” live in Frytown? Is it true that Coralville once had coral reefs? Where’s Elmira and does it still exist?
In addition, you can view enlarged township maps of Johnson County from 1900, which provides a treasure trove of information about the townships and communities of the county during the turn of the century.
As you explore these communities, whether through this exhibit or on the open road, keep in mind that there are still more stories to be told. What’s your story?
The LaBudde Gun Collection
The Search for John Gilbert
The founding of John Gilbert’s trading post paved the way for the settlement of Johnson County. His first trading post was a failure, while his second proved successful; his second trading post led to the founding of the town of Napoleon, which would later evolve into Iowa City and become the county seat of Johnson County and—for several years—the capital of the new state of Iowa. Over the years, the search for Gilbert’s post has led to extensive archaeological digs and research has uncovered many pioneer tales and accounts from the time period. This exhibit interprets John Gilbert’s life, his legacy and offers a glimpse at the pioneering days of Johnson County, Iowa.
They Walked to Zion: The Mormon Handcart Trail: 1856-1857
Between June 9, 1856 and June 13, 1857, 650 handcarts made the journey from Iowa City to Salt Lake City in an average time of 109 days (16 weeks). The handcarts were crafted by Mormon migrants who sought a place where they were free to practice their contested religion and beliefs. At that time, Iowa City was the westernmost stop on the railroad in Iowa, so upon departing the train, the Mormons set up camp just west of town and built handcarts in order to transport their most valuable supplies to Utah. Today, the campsite is home to the Mormon Handcart Park.
In 1967, a group of residents in Iowa City and Coralville established the Mormon Trek Memorial Foundation, which evolved into the Johnson County Historical Society. A major thoroughfare connecting Iowa City with its suburb Coralville is named Mormon Trek Boulevard in commemoration of this historic journey.
The exhibit contains a full-size diorama depicting a handcart pioneer family. Interactive features include a sound bite of Mormon music and a reading of journal entries which adds more depth to the hardship of their journey. Funding for the $12,000 diorama was made in part by a joint effort between the JCHS, the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation and local Church members.
To view our Special exhibits, typically available on a temporary basis, please visit our Special Exhibits page.
JCHS has a number of traveling exhibits available for loan to other organizations. Short descriptions of each are listed below. For more information on how to host a traveling exhibit, please Contact Us.
School Days: Stories of Johnson County’s One-Room Schools
This table top exhibit explores the one-room school experience in Johnson County through excerpts from oral histories of Johnson County residents who attended or taught in one-room schools. The exhibit also features copies of photographs of and documents from several of Johnson County’s 100+ one-room schools.
Meet Me at the Fair: Stories from the Johnson County Fair
The first Johnson County Fair was held on Iowa City’s Capitol Square in 1853. This table top exhibit explores the history of the Johnson County Fair with copies of maps, photographs and documents. The exhibit also features excerpts from oral interviews conducted with Johnson County residents who share their memories of the Johnson County Fair.
Gristmills of Johnson County
In the 1800s, flour or gristmills were an important industry in Johnson County. Farmers brought grain to the mills to be ground and sold. Families, bakeries and restaurants depended on mills for flour. This exhibit explores the importance of this early industry in Johnson County and the history of a few of the mills. The exhibit consists of four 30″ x 42″ panels in barn board frames.
Samuel J. Kirkwood: From Dusty Miller to Iowa’s Civil War Governor
Samuel Kirkwood’s first venture in Iowa was as part owner of a gristmill in Coralville. From there he went on to lead Iowa through the tumultuous period during the Civil War as Governor, serve as a U.S. Senator and as Secretary of the Interior in President Garfield’s cabinet. This table top exhibit explores Samuel Kirkwood’s life in Iowa through photographs and documents. A 15-minute DVD about Kirkwood narrated by Kirkwood Elementary students is also available to accompany the exhibit.
Taking Care of Our own: Images from the Johnson County Care Facility
In 1963, three University of Iowa students visited the Johnson County Care Facility in order to create a photographic essay of their community for an art class assignment. Fortunately, those students kept their photographs and today they document a page in the history of this unique community. These images freeze life within an institution and a community that many people in the past and present have never seen and don’t know much about. The black and white photographs are framed and ready to be hung in a gallery space. The hosting institution may decide how many photographs they would like to exhibit.
Goosetown: An Iowa Neighborhood
Goosetown was settled by Bohemian immigrants fro the 1850s until the time between the World Wars. Nicknamed “Goosetown” because the residents kept geese in their yards, it was an area of small, frame cottages with outbuildings, vineyards, and fenced gardens set back from unpaved streets by white picket fences. Today, many of the small homes remain. This exhibit explores the early history of the neighborhood through 19 photographs. The photographs are matted and framed and ready to be hung in a gallery space. A guide to the photographs accompanies the exhibit.
Johnson County Historic Poor Farm
At one time, county poor farms were common in the Midwest—almost every county in Iowa had one. The Johnson County Historic Poor Farm was established by the county supervisors in 1855 and was designed as a place to shelter the indigent and those deemed “insane.” A two-wing structure housed people until 1886 when a larger facility was built. This table top exhibit explores the history of the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm using images and copies of documents.
On the Right Track: The Railroad in Johnson County
The first train came down the tracks into Iowa City on the last day of 1855 or the first day of 1856 (depending on whose watch you go by). Although the last passenger train came through Johnson County in the 1960s, freight train service remained an important part of the local economy. More recently, passenger trains might again roll through Johnson County. This table top exhibit explores the history of the railroad in Johnson County through images.
Johnson County Historical Society: Bringing History Alive
Johnson County’s history is rich with stories—stories the Johnson County Historical Society has been dedicated to preserving since 1973. Through images of JCHS sites and programs, this table top exhibit explores how JCHS works to bring to life the history of Johnson County through interpreting historic sites, programs, exhibits and tours.
From Farm to Subdivision: An Iowa Story
Through the photographs of Iowa City photographer Ina Loewenberg, this exhibit looks at an Iowa that is changing from rural to urban by telling the story of the transformation of one piece of Johnson County from farmland to residential development. The land featured in Ina’s photographs was purchased in 1856 by John and Mary Weno and farmed by the Weno family until 1995. The 20 photographs are matted and framed and ready to be hung in a gallery space.