Historical Society seeks to bring back Dinehart bears

Submitted photo This pair of walnut-carved bears, designed for stairway newel posts, was owned by the Dinehart family of Slayton.

SLAYTON — The Dinehart family made a special effort to put a finishing touch on their new home in Slayton back in the 1890s.

More than a century later, the Murray County Historical Society is making another extra effort to bring the same artifacts back to the historic home.

Funds are being raised to purchase the two walnut-carved bears that stood at the base of the home’s staircase. The current owner, who purchased them when the Dinehart estate was settled in 1996, has offered to sell them back to the historical society for the $10,000 that he paid to buy them.

“We have a first option,” said Executive Director Janet Timmerman. “That give us some time to raise the funds. It’s off to a good start, and we’d like to reach the goal as soon as we can.”

She said a total of $2,260 has been raised thus far. The total was boosted by a special August fundraising project, starting with a root beer float tasting event at the Dinehart House.

The tasting, which was intended to reflect the social tradition of a house party and lawn party that was often held in the home’s time period, generated $386 in proceeds. Root beer floats were then sold as part of the society’s yearly appearance at the Murray County Fair, where they led to another $169.

Timmerman researched the fate of the Dinehart bears after becoming Murray County’s historical society director. She previously held a similar Olmsted County position in Rochester, and has been published in books such as “Draining the Great Oasis,” which was compiled by the Southwest Minnesota State University Rural and Regional Studies program and which explores the history of land uses in Murray County.

Through auctioneers, she was able to locate the bears’ new owner in Spring Valley. In the process, she looked into the origin of the twin walnut carvings.

“They’re very likely tied in with the Dinehart family’s trip to the Columbian Exposition in 1893,” Timmerman said. “We know they attended. One of the family members exhibited prize-winning wheat. That’s probably where they found the bears or learned how to have them imported.”

The Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, was organized as a prelude to the 20th century. It reflected the expectations for faster worldwide travel, new modern conveniences, and more luxuries in the home.

Based on the walnut wood and the carving style, the bears probably were crafted in Switzerland by a Swiss carver. A business card for a carver in Bern, Switzerland was found among the family’s possessions.

The Swiss are well known for wood carvings. A small-sized collectible option, which has both historic and more modern examples, brings together ornate wood carvings and Swiss machine precision in the form of Swiss chalet music boxes.

Timmerman said the bears appear to be a finishing touch to the Dinehart home, which is located across the street from the Murray County Government Center. Its one-story buildings replaced the former Murray County Courthouse.

“The bears weren’t part of the original floor plans,” she said. “It’s logical that the family wanted them. They gave the staircase a more elaborate appearance and extra lighting.”

She said they were put in place when the house still had gas lights prior to Slayton’s city electrification. The foot of the stairway currently has a darker appearance, with more indirect illumination, by not having the bear carvings and corresponding light fixtures.

Lighting will be considered as part of the plans to eventually reinstall the bears. The goal will be to have a level of artificial lighting equal to what existed when the bears were new.

The current owner also purchased historic tapestries from the Dinehart estate. Timmerman said those have since been resold, which means they might never be traced.

“We want to bring back the home’s original character,” she said. “Much of that starts with research. It also has to stay within our budget.”


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