COLLECTING A LEGACY …AND CONTROVERSY
Small Town Museum Hails Worldly Artifacts
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler – Your Tour Guide to Fun!
Two brothers traveled the globe to amass an eclectic collection of artifacts – some creating controversy and others considered to be the best of their kind – only to donate it to their childhood town of Coshocton, Ohio.
From the unusual Rothenstein Cache to the much-debated Newark Holy Stones, the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum (JHM) attracts attention from professional archaeologists to busloads of travelers. These visitors are curious about the rare relics and infamous hoax that are one and all, human history. The two-story brick museum with its large pillars is nestled in the Historic Roscoe Village, a restored Ohio & Erie Canal town. JHM also has an important connection to the nearby Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, which have been nominated to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. This prestigious recognition would put these earthworks alongside the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, and Stonehenge.
The journey began when the four Johnson brothers from one Coshocton family married the four Humrickhouse sisters from across town. One of the couples included the parents of John and David Johnson. When these two brothers reached old age, after globetrotting most of their lives, they bequeathed over 15,000 artifacts to their childhood town. They envisioned a museum to honor their parents, Joseph Johnson and Mary Susan Humrickhouse. And so the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum was born.
In the mid-19th Century, while they were just kids, the Johnson brothers discovered a passion for collecting. They scraped Coshocton’s riverbanks and farmers’ fields to unearth beautifully preserved chert or flint points otherwise known as arrowheads. These were made by pre-Columbian era Native Americans (ancient Indians). Paleo-Indians were the original human settlers of the Americas and date back to the latter part of the Pleistocene period. “Paleo” is a Greek word meaning “ancient.” Flint is a variety of chert, and chert is a form of sedimentary rock. It breaks with a fracture that produces very sharp edges in a process called fluting. Ancient Indians made a variety of tools out of the rock. And the young Johnson brothers searched to discover as many of these ancient tools as they could find. In doing so, they ignited a passion for exploration that would fuel the rest of their lives, leading to a collection that attracts archaeologists from near and far to come and study today.
The two brothers moved from Coshocton and lived most of their lives in Tacoma, Washington. With their income as landlords, they traveled Europe, Asia, and America to build their one-of-a-kind collection.
“From the Southwest United States to Canada and Alaska, they acquired one of the most remarkable displays of Native American baskets and beads,” said JHM director Jennifer Bush. “Voyages to China, Japan, Russia, India, Korea, and the Philippines produced an Asian collection that even had a Chinese visitor say that he was blown away when he saw our gallery.”
The Johnson brothers initially contacted Coshocton County officials around 1909 to create a succession plan for their storied collection. But it wouldn’t be until 1929 that the details of the arrangement would be finalized. Unfortunately, it was the cusp of The Great Depression so the Johnson brothers’ estate was only a fraction of its former worth. It wouldn’t be enough to open and fulfill their vision of the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum. Not unless another financer could be found.
“The Coshocton Public Library stepped up and assumed ownership of the museum and its contents, and it remains the owners to this day,” said Bush.
The Johnson brothers’ lifelong collection of artifacts was loaded onto railcars in January 1931 and sent to Coshocton. The museum was created within an old schoolhouse. It remained there until 1979, when it moved to its current location at 300 North Whitewoman Street in Coshocton, Ohio.
“The collections had outgrown the space at the old schoolhouse because others had followed the Johnson brothers’ example and donated major personal collections of their own,” said Bush. “We call the Johnsons’ collection the Original Collection.”
The two-story museum has east and west wings on each floor. Its five galleries include one for traveling exhibits, and four permanent exhibits: Native American Gallery, Historic Ohio, Asian, and 19th & 20th Century Decorative Arts.
“Back when I was working on my dissertation, I was very close with Coshocton County and the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum,” said Curator of Archaeology and Manager of Archaeology and Natural History at the Ohio History Connection Bradley T. Lepper.
Ohio History Connection was incorporated in 1885 as The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society. Lepper is especially known for his work on ancient earthworks and peoples in what is now the Ohio region.
“They [JHM] have one of the best collections of artifacts in the state related to the earliest Native American peoples,” said Lepper.
The collection features ancient Indian tools that are 13,000 years old, including spear points that could have been used to hunt mastodons and wooly mammoths.
“There are more of those kinds of spear points documented in Coshocton County than any other county in Ohio and more than many states in the United States,” said Lepper. “That’s one of the things that makes Coshocton County unique in terms of how it can contribute to the story of the very first Americans.”
The upper Mercer flint quarries in the Coshocton area were important to archaeologists and their understanding of that first chapter in America’s human history. Evidence of these early inhabitants is displayed at the museum as the Rothenstein Cache, named after the person who found and donated it to the museum. This collection of 330 spearpoints was discovered in 1952 while a basement was being dug in Coshocton. When large quantities of such blades are found buried together, they are called caches. One of the largest of these discoveries is the Rothenstein Cache.
“The points are actually pre-forms or roughly knapped points,” explained Bush. “A preform is a rough shape of the tool it will become, but it is unfinished.”
Flint rocks come in chunks. The chunks may have been too large to feasibly transport, so ancient Indians may have knapped out rough forms to more easily move and finish later. However, it seems that the Rothenstein Cache was never retrieved. The unfinished points are composed of Coshocton black flint and are as large as 8.5 inches. They are archaic in age, dating back around 5,000 years or so.
“Coshocton County has the main quarries for Upper Mercer flint, which is probably some of the best flint in eastern North America,” said Lepper.
The earliest Native American hunters used a distinctive spear tip referred to as a fluted point. Such points have a channel – or flute – removed from each face of the un-notched blade to lighten it. Although a vast number of these points have been found in the Ohio region, they are rarely found in heavy concentrations.
Coshocton County and the surrounding region also had a high presence of the Hopewell Culture, which dates to around 2,000 years ago from CE 1 – 400.
The Hopewell Culture was named after the owner of the farm where artifacts were discovered in the 19th century. This was because no other name for this ancient Indian culture was known.
It was typical of the Hopewell Culture in central and southern Ohio to be broken into small clusters of people living together in a community. They were hunters, gatherers, and fishermen, but they also cultivated some plants. It is because of this lifestyle that the creation of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks in Central Ohio is mind-boggling. It required great coordination from these clusters of people who were spread throughout the region.
Ohio’s Hopewell ceremonial and cultural centers were elaborate geometric earthworks. The Newark Earthworks in Licking County, Ohio are the largest cluster of geometric earthen enclosures in the world. It contained several miles of walls and covered approximately 3,000 acres. Today, over 200 acres are preserved at Moundbuilders State Park. The three sections consist of The Great Circle Earthworks, The Octagonal Earthworks, and The Wright Earthworks. At a time when other monumental architecture in the world required cities or kings, and pharos, to gather the necessary human resources to build them, it is baffling that a network of small bands of the Hopewell could come together to orchestrate such massive and expansive geometrically aligned creations, especially considering that they did not have an aerial vantage point to guide the precise layout. By most anthropological and sociological theories, a culture like the Hopewell should not have been able to achieve such an undertaking.
“It’s what makes the story of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks one that has what UNESCO calls ‘outstanding universal value’ that elevates an amazing Ohio site or American site to deserve the attention of the world,” said Lepper. “People today pilgrimage from all around the world to go to those ceremonial places much like they did then. So the people living in the Coshocton County area were as involved in the construction and in the worship at these places as were any of the people living in Licking County.”
Numerous ceremonial or burial mounds dot the Ohio landscape throughout the area. An impressive number are located in Ross County. One such mound is just several miles from JHM. It’s the Porteus Mound and was built between 800 BCE (Before Common Era) and 500 CE (Common Era). Unlike most mounds in Ohio which were used for burials, this mound was a ceremonial mound. It was first excavated in 1896. Today, it is a non-descript roadside hill identified by a simple stone marker.
It’s this earliest chapter of the human story in the Americas that fascinated Lepper. And this chapter is also why, during grad school, he focused on Coshocton County.
“That’s when my path of learning and discovering more about the Hopewell Culture started,” said Lepper. “Although I took Hopewell classes in college, it wasn’t my main area of interest. It became sort of my obsession once I had the responsibility to share those stories with the general public, so I had to learn more about it to be able to learn the real stories. And that’s when I got people asking me about the Newark Holy Stones.”
The Newark Holy Stones were discovered in Licking County between 1860 and 1867 by surveyor David Wyrick. One of them was found at the Newark Earthworks and the other one was found at the Jacksontown Stone Mound. The collection is composed of the Keystone, the Decalogue Stone, a two-piece box made to house the Decalogue Stone, and a bowl. Both the Keystone and Decalogue Stone are inscribed in Hebrew. The Decalogue Stone also bears an image of Moses. This controversial find infers that these ancient Indians were the descendants of the “Lost Tribes of Israel,” the ten of which were said to have been deported after Israel’s conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire around 722 BCE.
The Newark Holy Stones were part of the JHM Original Collection and are currently on display at the museum.
“It’s not exactly known how the Johnson brothers came to possess the Newark Holy Stones,” said Bush. “But it’s believed that they purchased them directly from David Wyrick.”
There was correspondence between the Johnson brothers and different scientists, among others, trying to authenticate the Holy Stones. After time, the stones were just stored away. In a letter, they asked someone at Tiffany’s Department Store in New York City what they should do with them. The correspondence back from Tiffany’s offered to display them in their storefront. Instead, the brothers held onto them until they showed up in Coshocton by railcar with the rest of the Original Collection.
“It is mind boggling to have had all of those things packed up and sent like that,” said Bush.
JHM had the Newark Holy Stones in a drawer, not even on display, until a book was authored by Robert W. Alrutz, a professor at Denison University. As a result of this book, belief in the authenticity of the Newark Holy Stones grew.
“So I had to start researching them sort of out of self-defense,” said Lepper.
Lepper became fascinated and likened his pursuit of the truth to an Agatha Christie mystery that he was trying to solve.
“It was a great deal of fun and I think it shed a great deal of light on this very early period in the history of archaeology,” said Lepper.
The research and findings of Lepper and his colleague Jeff Gill were detailed in their extensive article The Newark Holy Stones, published in the May/June 2000 edition of TIMELINE, a publication of the Ohio Historical Society. However, despite their effort, the controversial documentary The Lost Civilizations of North America also fueled the validity of the Newark Holy Stones. It largely ignored the archaeological community, and in particular, the Lepper/Gill findings.
“We think these forgeries were created to support a particular idea of the past that was in conflict with the then popular scientific theory that claimed that the mounds disproved the bible, and that it supported slavery, in a convoluted sort of way,” explained Lepper. “So these holy stones, even though they’re fake, have a very fascinating story to tell about this early period in the history of archaeology.”
At the time that the Holy Stones were discovered, the issue of slavery engulfed the nation. One year later, the Civil War had begun. Lepper said the Holy Stones should be on display because of this connection, even though he believes that the stones are forgeries.
“We get lots of people interested in the Newark Holy Stones,” said Bush. “I tell people my opinion based on the scientific analysis, but some don’t want to hear that. They want to hear that they are real.”
The Newark Holy Stones are not in the museum’s Native American Gallery, but rather on the second floor in the Golden Gallery. The museum is also ADA compliant with an elevator and wheel chairs to assist those with disabilities. The Golden Gallery and its Victorian nook offer a wide-array of American and European decorative arts, as well as some unique artifacts like a violin used by the secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots from the 16th Century. It is part of the Original Collection, acquired by the Johnson brothers when they traveled Europe.
Throughout the museum, there are many attention-grabbers that open a new world of curiosity.
The Asian Gallery displays pieces of exquisite quality and comprehensiveness. One of Bush’s favorite artifacts in the museum is the life-size, fully armored Samurai warrior with all of its original pieces. It even includes an authentic Samurai sword from the 18th Century. Samurai swords were once considered far superior to any other sword because they were stronger, sharper, and lighter than anything else of that time. Authentic Samurai swords have a stamp by its creator so it is known who exactly made each sword.
“He’s really cool to look at. You don’t expect to come to Coshocton and see a Samurai warrior,” said Bush. “It’s intriguing and sparks interest. It ranks up there as one of my favorite artifacts.”
Several pieces from the 9th and 12th Centuries, made of ceramic, are still in one piece. And the artwork throughout the Asian Gallery is stunning.
It is truly amazing that the Johnson brothers were able to create a microcosm of the world and of time. But not to get lost in wanderlust, everything must come home. After all, the Johnson’s did, one way or another. Welcome to the Historic Ohio Gallery. Here, visitors stop and examine the nooks and crannies of the re-created interior of a log house.
There’s also quite a display of old long-rifles from the 18th and 19th Centuries. A recreated cave in this gallery features insight to a more primitive living, and is a kid-friendly favorite.
This gallery also covers Coshocton’s proud heritage as the birthplace of advertising art, dating from the 1880’s to the 1940’s. Jasper Meek, a newspaper owner, used his printing press in 1886 to advertise a shoe store on burlap bags that were used for school. This was the first-known advertising art company. Meek’s 1830 model Washington Press is on display. Another advertising pioneer was H.D. Beach, owner of Standard Advertising in Coshocton. It was the first company in the world to utilize steam press lithography for metal signs. There are examples of this age of advertising in the gallery showcasing advertisements that were printed on horse blankets, and metal trays and signs. Much of the displayed memorabilia advertised the Coca-Cola Company.
“We now have roughly 20,000 artifacts at JHM,” said Bush. “And it’s a constant process of taking care of them. They need cleaned, checked on, and sometimes moved.”
Bush started working at the museum in 2010 as the Assistant Registrar – which is the person who largely takes care of the museum’s collections. Then she became the Collections Manager and Exhibits Coordinator. In this position she was responsible for setting up exhibits, including the art for the exhibit. This involved research, lighting, and anything else to properly represent the item on display. A collections catalogue is kept to document the year when a piece was received. It is assigned a category letter (A through Y). For example, the letter A is assigned to all of the museum’s basket work, B is for anything made of ceramic. Everything is divided into a category and all of a piece’s information is kept on hard copies accompanied by a photograph. In addition, it is entered into a computer program. This enables the ability to look-up any artifact and find it on display or in storage.
“In handling these artifacts you get a sense of who made them and who handled them before you, and what their lives were like. That is something that has really interested me – learning about people who were here before us,” said Bush. “I appreciate the time and the effort it took to make a basket, or to knap a piece of flint into an Arrowpoint, or to make a quilt to stay warm at night.”
So JHM, in a sense, is touched by hands across the world…and throughout time. What began with two brothers finding arrowheads along Coshocton’s riverbanks has turned into a place where professional archaeologists, school groups, graduate students, bus tours, and many others come to see relics that are rare – even one-of-a-kind – pieces of history amassed from across the continents.
Joseph Johnson and Mary Susan Humrickhouse would be proud of the museum that their sons envisioned to honor them and their town. And there’s no controversy about that.
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler – Your Tour Guide to Fun!