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Wylie House: A ‘Slice Of Life’ Lived Long Ago

The toothbrush is a hint at the Wylie's private lives, while the shards of china are glimmers of a more public existence.

Stop by the corner of East 2nd St. and South Lincoln in Bloomington, and you’ll see a large, brick house on a raised lawn with a gray barn beside it, set off from the sidewalk by an old limestone wall. The house is 186 years old, and it’s the former residence of Andrew Wylie: minister, farmer, and very first president of what would one day be known as Indiana University. But while the Wylie family lived in the house nearly eighty years, it’s about as likely any of them ever saw the barn as it would have been for them to have shopped at the Kroger supermarket down the street.

A Barn From Afar Reveals Treasure Below

Wylie’s land once covered twenty acres. That’s nearly all of what’s now the south side of Bloomington. Nowadays, all that’s left is the residence, which is now a museum–and the barn, a new addition. It’s called the Morton C. Bradley Education Center, and it was intended as an extension of the museum. Right now, its main floor is serving as a gallery for an exhibit called A Slice of Life: Artifacts Found on the Ground at Wiley House Museum.

On a recent visit to the Wylie House Museum, I spoke with Sherry Wise, who introduced herself as “the Outdoor Interpreter, which is a fancy name for Gardener.” Sherry told me the barn was built around 1865 here in Monroe County. But it didn’t start on this site. “It was taken apart piece by piece, all numbered, stored away. It had to be treated for bugs. This is the original barn floor, but it’s just turned, so it’s nice and clean.” Each of the floor planks, I noticed, was about six inches wide–and each was installed upside-down.

Domestic Relics

The exhibition in the barn features domestic relics, most of which were unearthed from the ground while contractors were digging up to about twelve feet in the ground to put in the barn’s foundation. Sherry isn’t just the green thumb who tends Wylie House’s garden—she’s also the excavator who unearthed and salvaged all the treasures in the exhibition. If twelve feet seems out of a gardener’s depth, Sherry says her experience in Wiley House archaeology began closer to the surface of the soil.

I’ve worked here for ten years, and when I’m out in the garden working, I find artifacts. It started, oh, about seven years ago: After it rained, I went out in the garden and thought, ‘Oh, there’s a dime,’ and picked it up. It turned out to be an 1864 Indian head penny. Another day, when I was walking around to see what was in this area before they started digging, I found another medallion, from Daughters of Veterans of the Civil War. So there are many, many artifacts here. The ones that are the most recent are on the surface; as you dig deeper, then you get into the older artifacts. I found a clay marble, over here. Here’s a bone toothbrush.

You can see the spine of the toothbrush, so to speak, but you can’t see the bristles, because they’ve long ago decomposed. “When this first came out of the ground, I didn’t have any idea what it was,” Sherry says. But there was a clue engraved in the bone: “It says ‘Silverwire’ on the back, because they used silver wire to attach the swine bristles. And that’s what you used to brush your teeth.”

A Family’s Lifestyle

Many of the artifacts provide clues as to how the Wylies lived. If the toothbrush is a hint at their private lives, some of the more beautiful pieces on display are glimmers of a more public existence. Elaborate dinners and Indiana high society are evoked by some of the fancy china.

“I like this set in particular because of all the animals. Here’s a squirrel; here’s a parrot.” Was that a child and a goat? “Yes, or maybe an angel. Look at these ladies over here, teeter-tottering. She looks like someone important; there’s a castle–maybe she lives in the castle.”

The figure Sherry was pointing at had a long, flowing veil attached to her hat. She was on a see-saw, but it was impossible to see who was on the other side of it, because the plate was broken.

Through Time And Space, To Cyberspace

Just like the pieces in it, Wylie House Museum has changed quite a bit over time. Sherry says she hopes one of those changes might soon be to transfer her exhibit from real space to cyberspace.

“I think a lot of these pieces would make a wonderful digital exhibit. It would make it available to a lot more people, and be a great research tool. We’ll see where it goes!” In the meantime, though, she says, “I’ve had just a tremendous amount of fun.”

Wylie House may have no digital exhibit yet, but you can find a slide show of A Slice of Life right here.

Event Information

A Slice of Life: Artifacts Found on the Grounds at Wylie House

An exhibit in the new Morton C. Bradley Education Center, on the grounds of the Wylie House Museum, 307 E. 2nd. St.

Morton C. Bradley, Jr. Education Center, main floor.

July 1, through July 29, 2011. Open Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. till 3:30 p.m.

Wylie House

Rachel Lyon

A native of Brooklyn, NY, Rachel Lyon came to Bloomington in 2009 to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing at IU. At WFIU, she is an announcer for All Things Considered and classical music, and she produces features for Artworks. Rachel's glad to be working in radio again after a long drought since her undergraduate years, when she was a DJ for WPRB, the independent station in Princeton, NJ.

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