HOLDREGE — Nebraska Prairie Museum Executive Director Micah Huyser recently described the facility as feeling like a convection oven.
The museum north of Holdrege flooded July 9 after heavy rains hit the area. Commercial humidifiers were used to help lower the humidity in the building, but it caused the temperature to hit extreme levels in order to dry out the museum.
“With the dehumidifier going, it pumped air back into the building at 140 degrees,” Huyser said. “We went from about 80 to 100 percent (humidity) the first day. By the third day we were probably sitting at the air humidity of less than 30. It needed to be that dry so it could soak it out of the concrete.”
Volunteers came out in droves immediately after the flood to help mop up water, donate items and move artifacts. Protecting the antique pieces from water damage was a priority for staff and volunteers, but humidity became one of the bigger issues the workers faced.
Mary Olson has volunteered at the museum for many years working to preserve and care for nearly 200 quilts, one of which dates back to the Civil War-era. Olson went to the museum July 9, but she was unable to get inside due to the amount of water on the grounds. She returned the following day to check the humidity and temperature in the quilts’ storage room.
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“I have a humidity gauge and a temperature gauge back there in the room and it said the humidity was 80 percent. The (International) Quilt Museum says 45 to 55 percent is where it needs to be. Well you know 80 percent is way beyond that,” Olson explained.
The quilts in the storage room rest in acid-free boxes on metal shelves off the ground. None of the quilts had been touched by the floodwater, but the humidity caused dampness in the fabric. Olson was concerned about mold and mildew, and she knew the quilts had to be taken out of the building in order to dry.
She began making calls around Holdrege to find places each of the quilts could be laid out to dry. Volunteers transported and stretched the quilts out at the conference room of the Rodeway Inn, the Phelps County Community Foundation and Sunday school rooms at Bethel Lutheran Church.
Olson planned to begin moving the quilts back to the museum this week if she could get enough help to transport them.
Huyser knew humidity was going to be an issue when he saw the water inside the museum. The staff and Phelps County Historical Society Board made the decision to remove the carpet where water had been standing in order to help reduce the humidity levels. One of Huyser’s biggest concerns was for the museum’s books.
“We got those moved into the POW room which the humidity in there spiked because the books are a sponge basically. They absorb all that moisture,” he said.
He placed two dehumidifiers in with the books. Two weeks ago the humidity was at 70 percent, and by last week it was at 42 percent, which is in the safe zone, he said.
A few of the dresses that were on display on the main level did experience water damage. Despite only the bottom inch being exposed to moisture, the garments have a water line about six inches from the bottom.
“We didn’t really get like mud or dirt inside the building, but all of the dirt, grime, different adhesives that came out of the ground from the carpet, that got soaked up into the textiles. It’s almost like you have a salt ring,” Huyser said.
Huyser still is determining whether to leave the dresses the way they are or to look into a dry cleaning option.
“We are talking 1880s dresses and those types of things, that material just gives away over time,” he said.
Items in display cases were safe from the water inside the museum, but things made of wood, such as display cases, didn’t fare as well due to drastic changes in humidity.
“You will notice in some of our display cabinets, they have a really bad split in places because the wood absorbed all that moisture and it got sucked out of it so quickly,” he explained.
Water began seeping through the floor boards inside the museum’s schoolhouse on the east side of the grounds. The wood floor began to buckle in places, and Huyser had staff use an oil-based cleaner to help the wood relax.
“It gets really wet and dries out and it warps and buckles. Having that oil in there probably about three days or so after it was dried, that just allowed all the boards to relax,” Huyser said.
New flooring eventually will be installed in the museum’s main building. The museum currently has expenses of $62,000, and the flooring will cost approximately $70,000, Huyser said. Donations to the museum are being accepted at the Phelps County Community Foundation.
Despite the disarray the flooding caused at the Nebraska Prairie Museum, the facility opened its doors Aug. 1 to the public. Visitors still may access the balconies, the Prisoners of War exhibit and the Schrock Hall.
“There is still a lot of museum they can come and see,” Huyser said.
The museum’s quarterly program has been canceled, but there will be an open house at 7 p.m. Tuesday for the public to see the damage, the progress being made by volunteers and the exhibits that will be installed in the future.
The fall festival at the museum will be on a much smaller scale this year. Initially, Huyser had 79 vendors planning to come for the event but instead there will be the old-fashioned harvest and a few outdoor activities. The date of the harvest will be based on when the corn is ready to be combined, he said.
Now that the museum is dried out, staff and volunteers are taking the time to assess damages and mend things the correct way. The amount of volunteers and help provided continues to astonish Huyser.
“People are wanting to help and that I think is amazing. I think even in populations where they have four or five times of that of Holdrege, you have to pull teeth to get people to donate or do something, to volunteer. Out here that is just Nebraska Nice,” he said.