Azel D. Barnum began building this Italianate style home for
his family in 1862 after purchasing the land from the Overman family. Azel and
his wife Jane had moved to Cedar Falls from Freeport, Illinois with their four
children, and they soon became a prominent family in the community. Azel Barnum
partnered with local businessman Peter Melendy to build and run a grain, seed,
and farm implement warehouse on the Cedar River.
The Barnums sold the home in 1874, and it changed hands
several times before Walter and Cornelia Bryant purchased it for their family
in 1880. TheBryants brought three children with them to Cedar Falls and had two more
when they were settled in their new home. Walter Bryant worked in the lumber
industry and was active in Cedar Falls’ civic society. The Bryant were known to host literary
meetings and musical performances in their parlor.
The home remained a single-family home until the mid-1920s
when it was converted into a duplex and then broken down into smaller
apartments. John and Myrna Dempster lived in the home as a single-family
residence beginning in 1947. The Cedar Falls Historical Society purchased the
home from the Dempsters in 1966 to create a community museum to house its
collection of local artifacts, photographs, recordings, and other print
When the home was originally built, it had kerosene lighting
and was heated with fireplaces. In
the kitchen, food was cooled with ice delivered by the ice man, and a pump
delivered water to the sink—but the maid would need to carry the water out of
the house for disposal. Steam radiators were installed around 1900 to heat the
home, and the cupola on the roof served as early air conditioning. When the windows were open, they drew
cool air up from the basement through wooden ductwork.
Many of these technologies are apparent in the home today,
where visitors can experience a typical home interior of a wealthy
Victorian-era family. The historic museum includes the many knick-knacks,
textiles, and natural history artifacts that were signs of wealth and
prominence during the time period. And it also shows the workspaces of the
live-in maid who would have helped the family cook, clean, do laundry, care for
children, and generally maintain appearances. The artifacts and furnishings
speak to the day-to-day social and cultural norms of the day.