The MUSEUM KEEPER
BY DONNA CRARY
When LaVaine Wrigley walked into the original Elliott Museum in the summer of 1996, she was looking for a volunteer position to keep her busy for a couple of days a week. As a 70-year-old with secretarial experience, she wasn’t quite ready to retire. So she inquired to find meaningful work.
“The woman in charge said, ‘If you can just answer the phone for me,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘How can I answer the phone? I don’t know anything about this place.’ She said, ‘You will, once you answer the questions that they ask.’”
Within hours, Wrigley was fielding phone calls that came in to the museum.
“They would call and ask questions like, ‘Is the beach crowded? Are the waves up? How’s the parking?’” she remembers with a laugh. “So, that’s how I started out.”
What began as a volunteer job developed over time into an indispensable position with the Martin County Historical Society. Within a few months, Wrigley’s value to the organization became obvious and she was put on the payroll.
Her first position involved general office work and overseeing the membership at the museum. In 1999, Wrigley worked with Susan Duncan, former curator, to set up and convert the museum’s collections and membership files from index cards and logbooks to digital files.
“Susan said, ‘I think you should learn Past Perfect software for membership instead of using index cards,’” she says. “By learning that program, I started to learn about the collection itself — which, up to that point, I really wasn’t involved with at all.”
Delving into the extensive baseball collection was Wrigley’s first project. She hardly considered it work — she has been a big fan of the sport since childhood. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she fondly remembers listening to Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Athletics games on the radio while ironing clothes for her family.
“I would iron away for hours and listen to the baseball games,” she recalls. “It was during the late 1930s to early 1940s. That was the big time — Babe Ruth, all the big guys. I was a fan. There were no two ways about it.”
At the Elliott, Wrigley helped put together a comprehensive signed baseball memorabilia collection. Autographed items include 600 baseball cards, 200 baseballs and nine baseball bats that were used and signed by baseball superstars like Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente and Josh Gibson.
Other items of significance include baseball cards that date back to 1887; a signed bank check in 1916 by “Shoeless Joe” Jackson; two press box tickets from the 1919 World Series, where the Chicago White Sox were paid off by gamblers to throw the championship; and a bleacher seat from Comiskey Park that dates back to 1910.
Wrigley also enjoyed working on the Elliott’s 1800s Americana collection that was always a favorite for locals. Reminiscent of small-town America, it was part of what’s called the Salem Collection, which included the general store, soda fountain, a barbershop and the apothecary shop.
She also helped pay tribute to Frances Langford, a local Hollywood celebrity from the 1940s, by displaying many of her personal items. Other featured locals include Hugh Willoughby, a resident of Sewall’s Point in the early 1900s, who was best known as a pioneer aviator who flew with Orville Wright. Willoughby’s original pilot’s license signed by Wright, a replica of his “Pelican” aeroplane that he invented and other items are on display at the museum.
From 2003 to 2016, Wrigley became the exhibit and collection coordinator for the historical society. In 2006, she organized a popular exhibit that showcased the evolution of American wedding dresses from the 1880s to the 1950s. The exhibit featured a variety of beautiful gowns with distinctive styles, and Wrigley had a favorite. It was her very own.
“Mine was made from a parachute,” she points out with a smile.
When LaVaine Martini married Thomas Booth Wrigley on June 7, 1947, at St. Timothy’s Church in Philadelphia, she wore an elegant full-length gown. It had long sleeves and a high round neck that was embellished with delicate lace. The A-line dress had a bustle at the waist with ruffles at the hem and a long-flowing cathedral train descending in the back.
“It was right after the war and people were coming back from the service with these pure silk parachutes,” she explains. “It wasn’t Tom’s parachute but belonged to a friend of his. He said to Tom, ‘I understand you’re getting married. You think your bride would like a wedding gown made of silk?’ It was beautiful!”
Probably Wrigley’s most challenging and important task at the museum has been creating a records system that identifies and locates the Elliott’s entire collection. In 2006, she began organizing and packing up its 33,500 items into storage, preparing for the demolition of the old museum’s building in 2011.
“We’d take items off of the shelves and pack them away and make a list,” she explains. “When they went home, I’d take that list and type a label from that list. Everything had a label on it. I would have a continuing record of everything. And that’s my value now. I know what we have, where it is, and how to find it.”
As collections manager since 2016, Wrigley has acted as both curator and registrar for its vast collection. At 92, she’s still on staff and is ready to hand over the reins to the Elliott’s new curator, Linda Geary.
“She knows the history of the museum,” Geary notes. “If you want to know something about the collections, you go to LaVaine. She can tell you where it is and all about it.”
For more than 20 years, Wrigley has found great satisfaction preserving records and artifacts so area residents and visitors can appreciate history. For her, the Elliott is special because it educates and entertains, while visitors stroll the rooms of the museum.
“It’s a wonderful place to spend time with your children and grandchildren because it covers so much,” she explains. “Whatever your interests are, there’s something in the Elliott Museum for you. The art, the exhibits, the antique cars — and the baseball, Sterling Elliott and early Americana collections. Sometimes, I see people walking around and they say, ‘I’ve never been here before. I cannot believe all the stuff that you have!’ People can’t. They have no idea.”
Lives in: Jensen Beach
Occupation: Collections manager for Martin County Historical Society
Education: Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls in Philadelphia
Hobbies: “I have been working four days a week, so I feel that my days are full with work. I enjoy having lunch with friends.”
What inspires me: “Active, professional women.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I’m stubborn.”