Chautauqua Institution interns Megan Stahlsmith, left, and Mary Elmore DeMott work in the Miller Cottage, the former home of Mina Miller and Thomas Edison.

The Institution Archives will be working this summer in the Miller Cottage to create an inventory of what was there while Thomas and Mina Edison used it as their summer home. Megan Stahlsmith, a history student at the Miami University in Ohio, is doing an internship this summer at the Oliver Archives Center and has a special interest in historical houses. The acquisition of the cottage this year has provided her with a rare opportunity to work in a residence of one of America’s most famous celebrities. She is a resident of Mayville and has been coming to Chautauqua all her life. Assisting Stahlsmith is Mary Elmore DeMott, a student at Vanderbilt.

Trying to discover exactly how a room looked at a specific time in the past is usually very challenging. Sometimes one must guess at how a room appeared, and often it is necessary to use non-original, period pieces. But with the Miller Cottage, we are able to bring the room back to life using what was actually there in the 1920s.

This has been made possible by the efforts undertaken to preserve the cottage undertaken by the Arnn family, and the meticulous records kept by Mina Edison. After carrying out extensive renovations, Mina made a detailed list of the contents of each room, and saved the receipts of what she purchased for the cottage. With those lists in hand, we know what was there and are able to remove items that were added later.

To begin, we are restoring the library by pulling all books not listed by Mina. We are then making an inventory of the items currently in the rooms or stored for later use. Part of that inventory will be a Record of Monitoring which will serve as a baseline by which to monitor future deterioration or damage. UV light will be monitored and a log started to record the temperature and relative humidity throughout the year.   

Fabrics and upholstery are not original; but, fortunately, Nancy Arnn, the granddaughter of Lewis and Mary Valinda Miller, kept samples of the original fabric so that it can be replicated. That will mean the appearance of the interior of the cottage will be even closer to how it looked in 1920s because the fabric will be new.

The Miller Cottage, summer home of Thomas and Mina Edison, is clearly one of the most precious historical assets on the grounds, which offers an exceptional opportunity for us to preserve our history. We are especially grateful to Ted and Kim Arnn, who have worked so hard to preserve the history, structure and contents of the cottage, and to Tom Hagen who made it possible for the Foundation to purchase it.

Jonathan Schmitz is Chautauqua Institution’s historian and archivist.