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    Bloomington, Indiana 47405-3907
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last updated: 7/8/2013

The Gift of a Lifetime

Morton Bradley and the Wylie Family Letters


About a year before he died last September, Morton Bradley Jr., eyes twinkling, revealed to Jo Burgess that he had a box of family letters she might find interesting.

As director of the Wylie House Museum, Burgess is always on the lookout for research that will help her restore and interpret the home where the Wylie family lived for nearly 80 years. And as the great-grandson of Theophilus Wylie, IU professor and librarian who bought the house in 1859, Bradley felt an intensely strong connection to his Indiana family and ancestral home.


"In my head I'm picturing a shoe box full," Burgess recalls. "I didn't expect seven crates!" Burgess says the wooden crates, each about the size of a file drawer, are "absolutely stuffed" with thousands of handwritten letters, all thoughtfully tied up in neat little bundles.

The correspondence, intimate handwritten accounts of life in Bloomington in the second half of the nineteenth century, is a historian's dream. Bradley left his estate to Indiana University, and Burgess obtained several hundred of the letters after his death in September 2004. She expects to receive the rest after the estate is settled.

"It looks like everybody in the Wylie family saved letters," Burgess says after a first glimpse of the cache, which was saved generation after generation and ended up with Bradley. The letters are to and from Theophilus and Rebecca, his wife. To and from Lou, their daughter. To and from Maggie, whose husband became first governor of the Dakota Territory. "It's a huge, rich collection," Burgess says.

Burgess, who has been the museum?s director for five years, has read Wylie diaries, can effortlessly recite Wylie birthdates and family trees, and works each day in the very house in which the Wylies lived. Still, she says, the correspondence revealed a new kind of history. "I didn't have a handle on the second Wylie family to live in the house, not really," she says. "They used to be kind of shadowy for me."

But after reading and transcribing some of the letters, which Burgess digitizes so she can enlarge the images and more easily decipher the scrawling handwriting or nineteenth-century turn of phrase, she understands their lives far better.

She knows about the homestead, about the university, about Bloomington gossip. Burgess learned, for example, that Rebecca was a midwife, and that heavy rains could make roads so impassable that Wylie women would go for a week without a visit downtown. Burgess says she can relate stories about the family as if she knew them personally. Her friends now tease her:  "Jo, you know way too much about these people."

Bradley's gift includes letters, photographs, diaries, a sketchbook, glassware, furniture, some 19th-century clothing, jewelry--even  a hundred-year-old Christmas cactus started by his grandmother in the Wylie House.

Bradley, who had no heirs, left his estate to the Wylie House, the Lilly Library, and the IU Art Museum. The share left to the Wylie House will be used toward construction of an Education Center on the property, which will include space for classes, meetings, exhibitions, researchers, and administrative staff. Designed to look like a barn, the Education Center is part of an overall plan to recreate the original Wylie homestead.

"This is a way for the family legacy and history to be carried forward," Burgess says. "We can tell his story. It's such a wonderful gift."

last updated: 7/8/2013