Friday, April 13, 2012

The DeMoulin Museum - The Story of Three Brothers & A Goat

Anything that I do, whether it’s my Dirty Roots Radio Show, or this blog, tends to be a little left-of-center. I try to bring exposure to unique things that fit that bill, too. It is with this in mind that I visited with my old friend (as in “long time” not “he’s in advanced age” – though he is that, too) John Goldsmith, Executive Director of the DeMoulin Museum.

The museum is located in Greenville, IL, the same town its namesake – now a band uniform manufacturer – is based. DeMoulin’s creates band uniforms for schools and other organizations literally around the world. If you caught the Super Bowl last February, and took in Madonna’s half-time show, you saw some of their handiwork. DeMoulin’s made 100 of the band uniforms used in the show, and created a special uniform worn in the performance by Cee Lo Green.


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RYAN MIFFLIN:
With this blog, I try to highlight unique things that are a little more “out there” or have a little more edge than “normal” things. For instance, you have western movies…then you have spaghetti westerns. The spaghetti westerns are just a little different…a little cooler.

The DeMoulin Museum is like that to me. We know about companies…and we know about museums dedicated to company history…but this one’s a little more “out there”.

JOHN GOLDSMITH: Yeah, I think we embrace our quirkiness and most of the folks that live her in Greenville or live locally…they expect to walk in and see a museum that’s 100 band uniforms. Because that’s all that they’ve known. That’s really what the company has focused on, for the most part, for the last 50 years. So most of them are not aware of these other things that DeMoulin’s made. So it’s an eye opening experience for them, because they learn more about their own history.

But then we also appeal to those who do know about the lodge initiation devices and their quirkiness. That’s an even more eclectic target audience that we have out there. And they are out there. They follow us on Facebook and some of them have come to the museum, specifically to see a bucking goat or a trick chair or a lifting and spanking machine. They know what they are, they know that they’re rare, they know what they were used for. They also know that this is one of the few places in the United States that you can actually see some of these devices.


OK, let’s go back to square one here. If someone doesn’t know anything about the DeMoulin Museum or the factory or their history, they’re probably wondering what we mean when we talk about “bucking goats” and “spanking chairs”.

Well, the titles themselves can strike fear into the misinformed or the uneducated.

At the turn of the century, specifically from about 1890 to 1930, in that forty year period, fraternal lodges were huge in the United States. You say “fraternal lodge” now and almost everybody thinks Masonic, because that’s about the only one that’s really going strong. There are others; there are still Oddfellows Chapters and some Woodmen of the World and Modern Woodmen of America. But at one point, especially in that 40-year time span, there were literally hundreds of different kinds of fraternal lodges that men, and eventually women, could belong to.

They existed for different reasons. Some of them, like Modern Woodmen of America or the Woodmen of the World, were in business to sell insurance. So, if a man wanted to buy a life insurance policy, he had to belong to that organization. So you belonged to a local chapter. It was very competitive for that business. That’s how the DeMoulin’s actually got their start.

A local man named William Northcott, who at the time – 1892 – was the Bond County State’s Attorney and was also the head counsel of the Modern Woodmen of America, which essentially meant he was the national president of that fraternal lodge. It was a pretty good sized fraternal order at that time, but knowing how competitive it was for that business, he was looking for ways to encourage people to join Modern Woodmen over Woodmen of the World and some of the competitors.

So he approached Ed DeMoulin one day with this dilemma and asked for ideas to encourage people to want to belong to Modern Woodmen chapters. Ed was a photographer in Greenville. He was a gadget guy and Northcott knew that. Earlier that year, Ed had received his first patent, for an attachment to cameras that allowed what they called “trick” or “freak photography”, which was essentially a very primitive form of double exposure trick photography.

Ed got together with his two brothers, U.S. and Erastus, and the three of them began to dream up these crazy contraptions for lodge initiation. So the first couple of years the company existed, they made things specifically for Modern Woodmen of America chapters. But within a few years, they realized they could make things for all the fraternal lodges.

By 1900 – a span of about eight years – the company’s business went through the roof and they were making things for all of the fraternal lodges. They made bright, detailed regalia that they would wear during initiation or at ceremonies or official wear that they would have at a convention or a parade.

Then they did the trick devices. The goat was their signature piece. The goat was a mechanism that looked like the body of a goat and was set up on a mechanism that would have two to five wheels. Depending on how it was built, it did something different, but the end result was always that the guy who was riding it would get thrown off. In the early days of the factory, they were known locally as the “Goat Factory”; that was their nickname.


The company held about thirty different patents on devices. They had the trick chairs that if you sat on them, the chairs collapsed and it fired a blank cartridge. They did something called the “lifting and spraying” machine, which was supposedly a strength tester. You would lift up on the handles and it would shoot water in your face and fire a blank cartridge. Almost all of these things fired blank cartridges.



So they did a lot of these crazy different devices, but by 1930 or so those sort of things fell out of favor for a variety of reasons, and they didn’t make many of those things after that. In 1955 they completely closed down that wing of the company.

We have people like [illusionist] David Copperfield and other magicians who are drawn to these devices that know what they are. And we have people who know fraternal history that are attracted to them.

That’s sort of our niche. We have band uniforms at the museum, we have some of the regalia, and we have some wonderful furniture that the company made. They had a fantastic furniture division that made furniture for churches and lodges, and we have some of those things. But it’s the initiation devices – the goats and the chairs and spanking machines and the lung testers and that sort stuff – that sets us apart from other museums. It makes us quirky and unique.


Didn’t they get into costumes for circuses? I also heard a story from one of the DeMoulin family members about meeting Tom Mix as a young boy. What was that about?

Right. In the 1930’s the company stumbled into the circus business and for about ten years they made costumes for all of the major circuses. They made the clown costumes. And in those days, all of the circuses had live bands, so they made the band uniforms. They also made something called elephant blankets, which were ornate, beautiful, big blankets that the elephants wore when they were brought into the big top. Unfortunately, we have not been able to find any of those. We hope that someday we’ll be able to find some of those things for the museum.

Tom Mix was probably the first big, famous customer that they had. Tom Mix was at one point, probably outside of Valentino or Jolsen or a couple of those guys, was one of the biggest stars in the United States. He was the first big cowboy/ western star, and by the 1930’s had his own circus that he traveled around the country in. DeMoulin’s made many of the outfits for the Tom Mix Circus. In our collection at the museum, we have a letter from Tom Mix to the factory about one of the orders that they had filled for him.

We know that Tom Mix visited Greenville once. He did not go to the factory. He was on his way somewhere and stopped in Greenville briefly and the [local newspaper] Greenville Advocate interviewed him and he talked about DeMoulin’s doing work for him.

Tell me about the connection to David Copperfield. I remember he came through town a while back and I was working for the local news station then. I interviewed him and he toured the factory. And I know you’ve met with him since then, too.

As I mentioned earlier, magicians are really drawn to the lodge initiation devices. They look at some of these things as a form or an offshoot of magic. If you know how the devices work, you can kind of see where they’re coming from, because there’s trickery to them.

David is the world’s foremost illusionist and he’s also the world’s foremost collector of DeMoulin’s stuff. He has the largest collection of these devices in the world. His collection is even better than what we have at the museum. He’s been collecting for about 20 years. We do have one device that he doesn’t have, which is the DeMoulin electric branding iron, so we’re sort of proud of the fact that we have something David doesn’t have.

He did visit Greenville about ten years ago, while he was in St. Louis, performing at the Fox Theatre. The folks associated with DeMoulin’s in company ownership have had a chance to get to know him, as I have over the last year. That was strictly through the DeMoulin Museum. He became aware of it through a mutual friend that he and I have. That led to me being able to fly out to Vegas and meet him and see his collection first hand. It was a lot of fun to look at what he has in his collection and share our mutual hobby and talk about the stuff that was there.

Every small town bills itself as a “historical” place. And every small town does have its own unique history…but I think it’s sometimes a stretch to use that word. In most cases, people outside of that town don’t know or care about its history. However, here, you’ve got a really unique thing that appeals to people both in and outside of the small town of Greenville.

Let me first point out that beyond the DeMoulin family’s involvement in the community – which goes back to Ed DeMoulin who was the mayor of Greenville for several terms to U.S. DeMoulin, who donated the land where the local hospital sits now – locally, I think the most important thing that DeMoulin’s offered was employment to a lot of people over the years. But, even more importantly the factory – almost from the very beginning – has employed women and given them opportunities for financial freedom and independence. When you talk about a factory that was employing more women than men as early as the late 1890’s, I think there’s some significance to that locally and even on a larger scale.

If you look at the history outside the community, the company has made some very unique things. Even band uniforms. There are only a handful of band uniform manufacturers left in the United States. So, the diversity of the company is worth studying. But the products that they’ve made, and the quality of the products that they’ve made ties in with that history.

With the museum, we’re marketing a product that has two layers:

1) It has value to the local community, where they can learn more about themselves. Nearly everyone who walks through that door, who is a local resident, either worked there or was related to someone who worked there or had a neighbor who worked there. So, that’s a large net that we cast locally.

2) And we try to market to those outside of the community who have an interest in what we have, and appreciation for the quirky things that are there.

Here's a vintage advertisement for the DeMoulin's Guillotine:


And a group of junior high students on a recent class trip giving the piece a try...


Additional Examples of some early DeMoulin Brothers catalog pages follow...

The DeMoulin Museum is located at 110 W. Main in Greenville, IL

Admission is free and their hours are:

Fri: 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Sat: 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Sun: 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Click HERE to visit them on Facebook

For more information, call 618.664.4115







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Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a "Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show" featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk. Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.

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