Upon first glance it might be easy to overlook the tiny brick building sitting near the corner of Shelby and East Washington Street, just one block behind The Voice-Tribune’s NuLu/Butchertown offices. Built in the 1850s, the miniature shotgun duplex is one of the rare Louisville houses from the time period still standing today – but age alone does not account for the approximately 4,000 visitors it draws annually.
Rather, the inconspicuous structure known as Thomas Edison House boasts an honor that few other buildings in the country can claim, having once housed the great American inventor after whom it is named. While working as a telegraph operator for Western Union in Louisville during 1866 and 1867, Thomas Alva Edison rented a room in the building, a local boarding house, as the 19-year-old was already beginning to conduct experiments and explore new ideas. And although Edison’s stay in Louisville lasted less than two years thanks to an untimely workplace acid spill – an experiment gone awry – his legacy lives on in Louisville thanks to the volunteers and donors working each day to keep the historic museum open and involved in the community.
“It’s just a piece of history, and you cant create history,” commented Butch Shaw, board chair for Historic Homes Foundation, the nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the museum alongside other significant historic estates. “And for someone like Edison, who did so many things and invented so many different types of things, it’s pretty cool. And kids love it – it’s just amazing that they would get so ecstatic about some things that maybe older folks would not think are as big a deal.”
Highlights of the museum tour include a re-creation of Edison’s former bedroom, a space which offers a glimpse into the inventor’s spare lifestyle as he devoted the bulk of his time end energy to studying at his desk and experiments wherever they could be conducted. Other rooms in the house showcase a display of Edison’s experiments and inventions, at various stages and with accompanying timelines. Dedicated volunteer docents take turns leading the tours, which run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, as well as by appointment.
Ranging from retired teachers to history enthusiasts, the docents are the driving force in keeping the local landmark alive, Shaw explained. Working out volunteer schedules amongst themselves after the museum lost its executive director, the four tour guides conspired to make sure open hours remained the same as they had in the past. Each day the docents
not only teach visitors about the inventor’s work, but also tailor each lesson to their specific audience, making connections so that the historical significance of the place is not lost in translation.
“I was here one day when one of the docents was giving a tour to a school group, and they were going over the telegraph,” Shaw shared. “And she could tell that they were maybe not understanding (the concept). And she goes, ‘It’s kind of like texting.’ And so all of a sudden, it’s like, boom! That makes sense – they were just basically texting a wire Morse code across the world, and so it kind of made sense how that could happen.”
While tour groups generate much of the funds necessary to keep the local landmark open and running, the nonprofit museum is also supported by the generous donations of community members invested in keeping history alive. Local fundraising events, such as the upcoming “Edstravaganza” on Nov. 10, generate up to 30 percent of the museum’s operating and programming expenses. Supporting Thomas Edison House not only helps ensure the preservation of this historical landmark for future generations, it also pays for educational programs such as the “Invention Convention,” a competition in which local students present their own innovative ideas and creations.
For Shaw, the lesson that anyone, in any place, can do great things is at the core of Edison House’s educational mission. “Thomas Edison, one of the great inventors of all time, was actually here and in Louisville in this little bitty house,” he smiled. “You can start out with something little like this, and turn it into something great.”
Thomas Edison House is pleased to announce that tickets are now on sale for Edstravaganza, the most important fundraising event for the museum. Now in its 16th year, the Edstravaganza will be held on Saturday, Nov. 10, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Whitehall House and Gardens, 3110 Lexington Road. This event is generously supported by Brown-Forman, Bittners, Magnolia Photo Booth Co. and Monroe Shine & Co., Inc. CPAs.
The elegant evening’s lineup includes cocktails, heavy hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction with all proceeds benefiting the day-to-day operation of Thomas Edison House. Tickets are available for advance purchase for $50 per person, $90 per couple and $250 for a group of six, and may also be purchased the day of the event. For more information or to RSVP, call the Historic Homes Foundation at 502.899.5079 or email email@example.com.
Thomas Edison House is located at 729-731 E. Washington St. For information on tours, programming and upcoming events, call 502.585.5247 and leave a detailed message, or visit www.edisonhouse.org.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune