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Historic Morris desk finds new home

Published: Friday, March 28, 2014 9:48 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Heidi Litchfield – hlitchfield@shawmedia.com)
The old Gebhard Brewery desk has built-in cubbyholes, where orders were kept.
Caption
(Heidi Litchfield – hlitchfield@shawmedia.com)
The original skeleton keys to the Gebhard Brewery desk Shawn Hornsby bought lay on a Morris directory of the same era. In the directory, Louis Gebhard's name is spelled Lewis, but all other records indicate it was actually spelled Louis.

MORRIS – Imagine the stories a desk from the early 1900s could tell – if it could talk.

Stories about the people who sat behind it, the business deals that transpired on it, the items stored in it’s drawers and cubbyholes.

Morris resident Shawn Hornsby recently acquired such a desk from Jim Baum when he retired and moved to Vermont. The desk sat at one time in an office at the Gebhard Brewery in Morris, which shut down in 1919 when the 36th state approved the 18th Amendment in January of that year. By the terms of the amendment, the country was set to go dry one year later on Jan. 17, 1920.

“When you sit at the desk you can picture someone sitting at it 100 years ago,” Hornsby said. “And you know in 100 years someone else will be sitting at it.”

The brewery was founded in 1866 by Louis Gebhard, and the brewhouse and bottling plant are all that remain of the structure, according to Ken Sereno, local Morris historian. The property on Washington Street in Morris is currently vacant.

Sereno said Louis operated his brewery in a wooden building at the location where the current brick building sits and in 1886 his son William took over operations as Louis retired.

William was a Morris alderman and fireman, and he built the present-day building and furnished it with items including the leather top desk that sits in Hornsby’s home office today.

William’s son Fred also worked at the brewery before its closing and moved the desk to his Hartford Insurance office in suite 201 of the Baum Building in downtown Morris when he opened it.

Fred married Louise Baum, sister of George Baum who operated Baum’s department store, combining two well-known local business leaders’ families.

“We acquired the desk when I returned to Morris,” Baum said. “When I got it, there were still order forms for quarter, full and half kegs of beer in it.”

The order forms were on little white cards and surely were lost in the massive desk’s many compartments.

The desk, made of fine wood and topped with stretched leather, wasn’t easily moved to the Baums’ Briar Lane home at the time.

“The thing is huge. When we got it we had to remove the door frames and take the top off to get it into our home,” Baum said.

Baum said it moved more easily to their Fremont Street home, which was built with wider doorways.

The desk sat in Baum’s home office until Hornsby, a realtor, happened to see it when doing an evaluation on the home, which was about to be sold.

“I saw it when I was doing an evaluation on Jim’s home and I commented on it. He told me it came from the Gebhard Brewery and he wasn’t sure he was taking it with him,” Hornsby said. “I told him if he decided to sell it I wanted to buy it; he called me later and told me he would sell it to me.”

When Baum was having items he didn’t want to move valued to sell, he was told the desk wasn’t worth anything and nobody would want it.

Those appraisers didn’t know Hornsby, and the collection of Morris history that resides in his 1892-built home in Morris.

“I like antiques that have to do with Morris,” Hornsby said. “I wanted it because of the Morris history and that the brewery is in the neighborhood.”

Baum said that Hornsby’s father Arthur is one of his oldest friends who grew up just a block from him, and he thought Hornsby was a person who would appreciate it.

“Growing up in Morris I knew I would live in Morris my entire life,” Hornsby said. “As kids we would sneak into the brewery, and I thought I was the first to go in there until I read Michael Skope’s book ‘My Little Skinny Greek Life’ and found out I wasn’t.”

Hornsby said you can buy any antique, but without the history that goes with it, it’s not the same.

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