The snow fell down in giant fluffy flakes as we walked up the four marble steps leading to the tall wooden door.
Curator and village historian, Joe Laurenza, was upstairs in the library when we arrived. Hearing the door, he came running down the steps, crying “I’m here! We’re open!” Given that the museum gets about 1,100 visitors a year, the surprise in his voice made sense.
To understand the Gouverneur Museum, you have understand Joe. He has lived in Gouverneur since the 1960s but he still has a heavy Boston accent carried over from growing up in Andover. You can tell he’s a retired teacher because, even though he lets you browse the museum on your own, if you utter a question (or even think it too hard) Joe is there ready to supply an answer. I can see his comfort zone is firmly rooted in history when he tells us he distrusts online banking.
Upstairs in the library, Joe says this is where he spends most of his time doing research. Every week he gets emails from across the country from people looking for help piecing together family trees. Today Joe is working on a mystery. A man from Arizona has sent a photo of his great-great grandfather’s home. It’s supposed to be somewhere in the village of Gouveneur and he wants Joe to find it. Handing us the photo, Joe tells us he plans to drive around later this afternoon; hunting for 1880 in 2015.
This is why Joe does it. He loves a mystery, but more than that he loves teaching and connecting people. Like any good museum, this one does just that in its own way. With three floors of artifacts, the museum is full of curiosities and unexpected charm. As you stand in the foyer you can’t help but notice the glass encased log with unexploded civil war shells still inside. Make your way to the women’s room to see lace wedding dresses worn by the ladies of Gouverneur in the 1900s and stop by the toy room to check out dolls that will creep into your nightmares for days to come. Make your way to the basement and check out the old mining equipment and rare minerals. While you’re down there, ask about the cow; you won’t be disappointed.
The best part is, unlike most museums, Joe lets you touch it all. There are no rules here.
According to the website, the museum is only open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 1:00 to 3:00 but if you call Joe any other time, he’ll likely unlock the door and show you around. It’s small town charm I never learned to appreciate during the 18 years I called Gouverneur home. The town, like the museum, is a bit dusty and peculiar but underneath are stories waiting to be discovered. And as long as people have questions, Joe will do his best to answer them. Even if it means driving around in a blizzard comparing a black and white photo to every house in the village.