Kerrie Nichols, director of the Wornall/Majors House Museums, is in her element in the garden

08/08/2014 7:00 AM

08/10/2014 8:15 PM

Ask Kerrie Nichols about her decade spent on the East Coast, and you’ll learn that she is truly down to earth. Anything grows in that rich soil, she says with a laugh, adding that it’s a bit more difficult to garden in this area.

But the Independence native, who now lives in Lee’s Summit with her husband, David, and her two children, was happy to come back home.

She recently left her position as public programs supervisor for the Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead in Overland Park to become the executive director of the Wornall/Majors House Museums, a nonprofit that oversees two of Kansas City’s most historically significant structures.

The John Wornall House Museum recently received a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to develop a master plan for the landscaping, and Nichols — who has honed her skills working with historic gardens over the years — was a perfect fit.

But before she shows off the gardens at the Wornall House, tucked into a quiet neighborhood in Brookside, she takes the time to show off the treasures inside the 1858 Greek Revival house. The bricks on the home’s exterior — along with its limestone foundation, fireplaces and door lintels — were all quarried from materials in the area, back in the day when it was sitting on 640 acres of farmland.

Nichols wanders through the home with a well-educated guide, who points out treasures like an 1867 Steinway in a formal parlor — the only area, aside from the entryway, where guests were able to see in the home. The sitting room, where family gathered, features such pieces as the original family Bible, which documents John Wornall’s history, including his success as a farmer and the background on his three wives.

A ball and chain represents the war; the home was located in the center of fighting, and was a field hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers.

But bring Nichols outside to really watch her come alive about her latest adventure. She took time out of her busy day to answer a few questions about her plans for both historic homes.

As you undertake your new position, what’s your biggest job?

We’re taking our mission outdoors, engaging the community, especially children. Inside, many things are often hands-off. Outside, we want the children to touch and really engage in history. We want to connect children with the past, demonstrating its impact on the present and inspiring the future.

The Wornall house was closed because of structural damage from the drought. During the project to repair the home, what was unearthed?

We brought in an archaeologist and made many discoveries. They exposed cisterns, which people can now touch. They also unearthed a bottle of castor oil, burlap and a scythe for cutting fields. This was a farmhouse, with well over 500 acres.

What’s your favorite spot to relax around here?

For me, it will always be someplace outside. So it’s the herb garden.

What’s growing there?

Basil, thyme and oregano. We don’t grow things like cilantro, which is common today, because they would not have grown that in the 1800s.

What goes into growing a historically significant garden?

We’re hoping to engage a landscape historian and architect to help us show not only what was here, but what experiences might have been happening on a home site. For example, the lady of the house was in charge of running everything, and it was a farm, so everything they ate had to be raised or grown, from vegetables to herbs and fruit. I don’t know if it will be possible, but it would be great to get farm animals out here during special events, to really give children a look at what life was like.

Do you have similar plans for the Alexander Majors Home?

Both homes have significant history and were built around the same time. The Wornall home is more formal. He came from Kentucky, and he wanted to show his prominence and show a more civilized house, with the columns and the red brick. The Alexander Majors Home has a barn on the property. I’d like to see the same outdoor learning environment taking place there, and more activities related to farm life.

Do your own children share your passion for the outdoors?

They share the spirit. My daughter helped plan our vegetable garden. We’re growing Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and pumpkins. Children love gardens. I want to have an environment here where a child can pick up a watering can and water whatever is growing.

For those who have older homes, any tips for restoring them?

Have a plan and get in touch with resources like historical preservation societies. Also, take a deep breath and realize it’s the experience, not the destination. Slowing down is important. History didn’t happen overnight.

When were you bitten by the history bug?

One of my fondest memories as a child was visiting the Alexander Majors House when I was in third grade. I was watching the ladies in period costumes and imagining that that was actually what you wore on hot summer days. I remember trying to relate to the fact that back then, my mother would have been in the kitchen, working alongside the help, cooking or canning or preserving for 12 hours a day, because there were no grocery stores.

Does that memory help you inspire children to relate to history?

I had my daughter here, and she loves art. I showed her the slates that they used, and told her, back then, there were no crayons or markers or clay. Slate and chalk? They would have been your iPad, too.

While it’s clear you’re in your element in the garden, do you have a favorite room inside the house?

I love the children’s room. John Wornall had, I believe, four children who survived. And the room feels happy and alive. The illustrations on the wall represent the season. You think of seasons, and you think of life and growth. It’s a cheery place.

For information on tours, classroom or scouting trips, and scheduling events at the John Wornall House Museum, 6115 Wornall Road, or the Alexander Majors House, 8201 State Line Road, go to WornallHouse.org.

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