History Mystery – What Is It?

While you might not be able to visit Museum, we can always bring little bits of the Museum to you! On this page, we’ll periodically post interesting items found around the Museum and explain what they are and how they fit into American frontier culture. You’ll also find the answers to challenge questions on our Facebook page below.


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Halberd

Halberds like this were used in many European militaries during the 18th century as a mark of rank for Sergeants, as opposed to equipping them with muskets, as their job was primarily to command others, not personally fire at the enemy.

Weapons like these were developed by the Swiss in the 14th century as a convenient combination of an axe, spear, and spike or hook, giving the wielder a wide range of options to choose from when engaging the enemy. They would continue in use as a combat weapon until the 18th century, at which time they would be relegated to a largely aesthetic role as marks of rank.

Halberds also make excellent social-distancing sticks

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Harnen Stand


This is an original artifact from the Museum’s collection, but you can find a reproduction on the hearth in our Irish farmhouse.

This object is a harnen stand. Prior to the introduction of the potato to Ireland, the mainstays of the Irish diet were dairy products and oats. The thin, round oatcake was the common bread for most Irish families in the eighteenth century. Oatcakes were baked on a flat stone or iron griddle then placed on the harnen stand in front of the fire for further drying or “hardening.” Surviving examples of harnen stands often have decoratively shaped grid patterns, a testimony to the skill of the blacksmiths who made them.


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Clock Reel / Spinner’s Weasel

This is an original artifact from the Museum’s collection, but you can find other examples in several of our farmhouse exhibits.

This object goes by many names; yarn winder, spinner’s weasel, or clock reel. It is a mechanical device that measures yarn. One end of the yarn was tied to an arm of the reel, and the yarn then wound around the outside of the arms. Many, such as this one, had gears attached to a pointer on a marked face that looked like a clock, allowing the spinner to pay close attention to how much yarn was being wound. When a full skein (80 yards) was wound, the internal mechanism also made a loud pop to alert the spinner.

This particular clock reel belonged to the Wampler family of Augusta County, Virginia. Underneath the base is inscribed in pencil “T. W. Price May 5th 1863,” presumably the maker’s name and date of manufacture. The 1860 United States census shows a wagonmaker by the name of T. W. Price living in the North subdivision of Augusta County at that time.


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Quern – Hand-Powered Mill

Visitors to the Museum’s Irish Farmhouse will see a large apparatus next to the front door. The device is a hand-powered mill, also known as a quern, used to grind grain into flour. The use of stones to crush or grind cereal dates to very ancient times. The one at the Irish Farm is a rotary quern, with the top stone rotating over a stationary bottom stone. Grain is inserted into the hole in the top stone, and ground between the two stones. Grinding flour was an arduous task that required an hour to make 10 pounds of flour. Nevertheless, querns remained in use after the introduction of water-powered grist mills. Families living far away from a mill relied on their querns, and some preferred to use a quern at home in defiance of manorial rules requiring tenants attend their lord’s mill to have their grain ground. Families that brewed beer used querns to grind malt, and smaller querns were used to grind mustard and other seeds and herbs.

Quern Hand-Powered Mill

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Rushlight & Candle Holder

Many visitors to the Museum’s German farmhouse inquire about a curious object found on the table in the Stube (living room). This lighting device is a combination candle/rushlight holder. Before electricity, the home was a dark place after sundown. Hearth fires provided some light, but artificial light was needed in dark corners of the room. Common forms of artificial light included candles made from animal fat, and rushlights made from the dried pith of a rush or reed and thinly coated with animal fat, and splints from the resinous wood of the fir tree. Candles were preferred because they provided superior light, but rushes and splints were more economical as they burned longer and were easier to make in the home. A lighting devices that accommodated multiple forms of artificial light permitted the peasant family to use rushes, splints, or candles as economy and need dictated.

Rushlight & Candle Holder