History of the Museum
The roots of the Porter House Museum began as early as the 1940s.
In 1940, Bert Porter approached the city of Decorah with an idea to turn his grandparents’ old home at 404 W Broadway, where he had been raised, into a museum for his natural history collections. According to Bert’s proposal, Bert would offer the house, the collections, and his own services as Director; the city would match him with a monetary contribution of about $25,000. When the city did not accept his offer, the matter was dropped for a time.
After Grace’s death in 1964, the idea of a museum re-emerged. Bert, who did not have any children or close relatives, was so distraught by the death of his wife of 60 years that he began to sell off personal items and furnishings. Before too long, he was approached by his concerned friend, Dale Ahern, a newspaper editor who was responsible for writing about the Porters’ international travels in local newspapers. Ahern encouraged Bert to stop selling his belongings and to consider his own property at 401 W Broadway as a suitable site for a museum. What better way to carry on his legacy, as Ahern wrote it, than “to share the educational and recreational benefits of his work with the men, women, and children who live after him.”
Ahern’s promptings were successful. In 1966, Bert deeded the home to become a museum under the care of the Winneshiek County Historical Society. When he passed away in 1968, the museum came into being. Original board members included Dale Ahern, H. P. Field, Tom Lynch, E. J. Weigle, W. P. Ronan, and Lucille Price. The Museum first opened its doors for a limited showing during Nordic Fest 1969.
In 1976, the house was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places as the Ellsworth-Porter House. Two years later, the Broadway-Phelps Park Historic District was entered onto the Register, with the Museum serving as the cornerstone of the neighborhood.
The Porter House left the stewardship of the Winneshiek County Historical Society in 1980 and became its own non-profit entity. Since that time, the Museum has been independently governed by its Board of Directors. The Museum receives no ongoing city, county, state, or federal funding; we rely on our wonderful and generous core of volunteers, members, and donors, all of whom have been essential in keeping our doors open all these years.
In 2010, the Porter House Museum celebrated its 40th year of continuous service. Small historic house museums are products of their communities. With such a vibrant and energetic community around us, we are looking forward to the next 40 years!