- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

MONSON, Mass. — Of all the things Myra Keep Lovell Moulton collected and couldn’t part with — furniture receipts, family diaries, bird’s eggs — she cherished the buttons the most.

Thousands of the fasteners — whether they were made of plastic, porcelain, copper or pearl — made their way into her attic, basement and bins stuffed in closets around her house.

When she died in 1988 at age 89, the buttons came out of storage and became the focal point of the Keep Homestead Museum, home to one of the country’s largest button collections.

The twice-married one-time schoolteacher, traveler and unabashed pack rat willed her land, family home and everything in it to the town. The gift came with two strings: It had to be opened to the public, and it had to be named the Keep Homestead Museum.

In this western Massachusetts town of about 8,000 people, it’s little surprise that the museum’s care fell into the hands of those who knew and admired Mrs. Moulton. It also figures that they’re as passionate about button collecting as Mrs. Moulton was, some holding official positions in the Massachusetts State Button Society.

The newly appointed caretakers of the Keep Homestead Museum set out cataloging and showcasing as many of Mrs. Moulton’s buttons as they could. To date, about 6,000 are on display throughout the Keep family’s farmhouse on Ely Road.

Thousands more are still being inventoried.

“Myra saw buttons as miniature works of art,” says Jacquie Hatton, president of the Friends of the Keep Homestead Museum and a past president of the state’s button society. “This was her passion.”

Case after case holds buttons from around the world with histories spanning hundreds of years. English-made copper buttons that were excavated from Revolutionary War battlefield sites fill one shelf. On another, buttons from Okinawa are carved into the faces of Oriental deities such as Jurojin, the god of long life, and Benzaiten, the goddess of beauty.

Mother-of-pearl buttons glisten not far from duller, intricately carved buttons of bone.

One display shows the evolution of political buttons, from Zachary Taylor’s 1848 campaign to the “I Like Ike” pins of the 1952 campaign.

The prize of the lot, though, is the collection of about 600 mosaic buttons. Made in Rome and Florence, Italy, in the 1850s, the buttons — some as small as a pinky fingernail — have designs of animals, buildings, flowers and birds. At first glance, the motifs look painted on backgrounds of onyx, silver or brass. With closer inspection with a magnifying glass, however, it becomes clear the designs were made from minuscule pieces of colored stone or glass.

Exactly what drove Mrs. Moulton to collect buttons is unknown, but her tendency to acquire stuff may have been hereditary.

“Myra was typical New England,” says Emmaladd Shepherd, chairwoman of the museum’s steering committee. “She threw nothing out. Now we’ve got it on display.”

The Keeps were among Monson’s founding families, making a name for themselves in town politics and as well-to-do farmers. The family’s 120-year-old farmhouse became a repository of journals, records and bills of sale.

“They may seem like silly little things,” Miss Shepherd says, “but they give us a really good idea of what life was like back then.”

Along with ledgers from the 1800s that record daily selling prices of milk and eggs and receipts for bedroom furniture and a Limoges china set, the family amassed a collection of rocks, gems and seashells that were brought back by friends and relatives who traveled the globe. Charles Keep, Mrs. Moulton’s father, collected and cataloged bird’s eggs.

A schoolteacher until she married her first husband, Mrs. Moulton drove cross-country with another single friend, recording the adventures of her journey.

After one stop in Wisconsin, she wrote that the town’s “ginger ale was too active and the men were too free.”

“She was a very free-spirited woman,” Miss Shepherd says, “even when that wasn’t too popular for a woman.”

She married the Rev. Charles Lovell in 1941. A year after he died in 1952, she married Ralph Moulton, who died in 1961.

With no children of her own, Mrs. Moulton often would invite girls to her home for tea and lessons in needlepoint. Quilts, bedspreads and other embroidered works adorn the homestead museum.

The buttons, though, took center stage in her life.

She traveled to Europe in the late 1960s to purchase the mosaic button collection. She hunted for storybook figural buttons that depict scenes and characters from children’s fairy tales and storybooks. She found Jerusalem pearls — mother-of-pearl buttons from the 1940s and 1950s that were carved into the shapes of crosses and saints.

Exactly how many buttons there are, nobody is sure.

“We’re still trying to figure that out,” Miss Hatton says..

The Keep Homestead Museum is at 35 Ely Road in Monson, Mass. An open house is held on the first Sunday of each month from April through December. Nature tours and special events are also open to the public, and private viewings can be arranged. For more information, call 413/267-4137.

On the Internet: Keep Homestead Museum (www.keephomesteadmuseum.org) and the Massachusetts State Button Society (www.geocities.com/FashionAvenue/5902/msb98.html).

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