History on Display: The Unexpected DeMoulin Museum Celebrates Invention, Imagination,and Industry
I freely admit that I visited the DeMoulin Museum in Greenville, Illinois, with a certain amount of trepidation. Over the years My Own True Love and I have visited plenty of small private museums that were founded to showcase an individual’s passion. All too often, they are sad, weird, and incoherent.* A museum devoted to a company known for band uniforms and what the brochure described as “lodge initiation devices” sounded like a candidate to be all three.
Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.** The DeMoulin Museum is quirky and fascinating: one of those rare gems that keep My Own True Love and I walking through the door of small private museums with hope in our hearts.
Today DeMoulin Brothers and Co. is the largest manufacturer of band uniforms in the country. A perfectly respectable, if occasionally glittery, business. But the real story lies in those mysterious “lodge initiation devices”.
The period from 1890 to 1930 was the Golden Age of the fraternal lodge in America. Belonging to the Elks, Moose, Kiwanis, or one of the dozens of other organizations that sprang up at the time*** offered American men a social outlet, a status symbol, a female-free zone other than the corner bar, and sometimes health and life insurance not available elsewhere. A chance to wear a funny hat and get life insurance? How could a man resist? Hundreds of thousands of men belonged to at least one lodge. Some sociable types belonged to three or four. With more than 100 different lodge organizations in existence, lodges competed for members. That’s where the DeMoulin brothers come into the story.
In 1892, the national head of the Modern Woodmen of America was looking for a way to stand out from the pack. He called on local photographer and inventor Ed DeMoulin for help. DeMoulin and his brothers, Erastus and Ulysses, suggested that the Woodmen needed to add a little excitement to their initiation rites. They devised the “molten lead test:” candidates were told that to join the lodge, they had to plunge their hands into a bubbling pot of molten lead, an illusion created with the chemical reaction of dry mercury powder and cold water.
The molten lead test was a success, and a decades-long tradition of hazing new lodge members was born. So was DeMoulin Bros. and Company, which became the leading inventor and manufacturer of fraternal paraphernalia, including spanking machines, collapsing chairs, and other devices designed to cause discomfort in the initiate and hilarity among his friends.**** Their signature item was the DeMoulin goat, a vehicle halfway between a rocking horse and a tricycle certain to give a blindfolded rider an undignified ride.
Known locally as “the goat factory”, DeMoulin Brothers soon expanded its focus. The transition from initiation devices to other lodge paraphernalia***** was an obvious one. In 1897, the company made another obvious transition its first band uniforms. (It was also the Golden Age of the municipal marching band.) Over the years, they’ve made circus costumes and military uniforms, reinventing themselves as needed.
The museum tells the story well, focusing not only on the DeMoulin brothers and their wacky devices but on the story of a company that has reinvented itself over and over in response to social changes. If you’re in the St Louis area, give yourself a treat and spend an hour or two at the DeMoulin Museum. You might even get a chance to ride the goat.
* Unfortunately, passion does not always come with the skills needed to inspire others to share it.
** You knew there was going to be a happy ending, right?
***Masonic lodges look similar but the organization is older and may in fact be the pattern on which later fraternal orders are based. Freemasonry reached North America from England in the 1730s.
****The fake guillotine was not a big success with lodges, but museum owner John Goldsmith says it is popular with modern school groups.
*****Any fan of the Flintstones will remember the headdresses Fred and Barney wore to meetings of the Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo.
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Thanks for showcasing one of the many museums in our small town of Greenville! You will be pleased to hear that the DeMoulin Museum has undergone a renovation, and has expanded its display space by the removal of a few rooms in the back of the hall (which used to be the Legion Hall). There is now more room to display many more items, and room for large tour groups and lots of visitors. You forgot one thing about the DeMoulin Bros.; among all their lodge paraphenalia and band uniforms, they also made church furniture and choir robes, but most lately, graduation gowns. Our own college graduation gowns came from DeMoulin Bros. It wasn’t that long ago the Cap and Gown subsidiary was spun off and sold, so now they are pretty much exclusively band uniforms. But, for the last half of the 20th century, they were nationally known for both band uniforms and caps and gowns.
Kathy: Thanks for the update on the renovation. It was just ready to start when we were there.
We visited early on a Sunday morning, so we weren’t able to visit Greenville’s other museums. I guess we’ll have to go back!
I HAVE A JUDGEMENT STAND AND WAS WONDERING IF YOU KNEW SOMEONE INTERESTED IN IT, STEVE $500.
I have a surprise chair sticker still on bottom demoilin bros. The surprise chair. Could anyone give me an approximate value. Please. I’m guessing it’s pretty rare. Can’t find anyone that has a clue about it
Have you contacted the DeMoulin Museum? Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
I have a surprise chair in excellent working condition still has the paper label on the bottom.
I’m trying to find out how much it’s worth. And how rare it is .
I just read the artical about the Demoulin family history. Very interesting. My wife and I have a sword that we’ve had for years. There is marking on the blade that say it was made in Greenville IL. I am sure it’s a initiation device. Would love to visit the museum this summer. We live in Alma Ne. So it will be a little ride. Thanks
I have a surprise chair with the paper label still in great shape underneath the chair next to the firing mechanism the chair works perfectly the fabric is not in to good of shape . I’m trying to find out it’s value . There is a video on youtube of the chair in action just search surprise chair heppner oregon to watch it. Anyone know it’s value