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Rugby museum receives gown worn by Queen Victoria

By Staff | Aug 4, 2017

Submitted photo Photo of one of the shirtwaists made for Queen Victoria’s 1870 Knight of the Garter Ceremony, now part of the collections at Prairie Village Museum in Rugby.

Prairie Village Museum in Rugby, N.D., has acquired a ceremonial dress worn by Queen Victoria of England. The dress is one of numerous gifts Queen Victoria bestowed upon her personal dresser, Marie Downing Williams, when Williams left the Queen’s service in 1886 to homestead in Rolla, N.D.

The dress and Marie Williams’ story had been on display at the Rolla Public Library for 40 years. In June, the library board transferred ownership of the dress and several other items in the Marie Downing Williams/Queen Victoria Collection to the Geographical Center Historical Society, which operates Prairie Village Museum. The library board wanted to give more people an opportunity to learn about Marie and to view items associated with her service to the Queen.

Museum collections manager Stephanie Steinke says, “There are few, if any, dresses worn by Queen Victoria or other British royalty on display outside of England, let alone in the upper Midwest.” Based on records provided, Victoria wore this particular dress during the 1870 Knight of the Garter Ceremony when Hugh Grosvenor, First Duke of Westminster, was invested with the Order of the Garter.

The dress will go on display at Prairie Village Museum Friday, Aug. 11. An unveiling celebration is planned from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. for members of the Geographical Center Historical Society and invited guests. The exhibit will open to the general public at noon that day.

Steinke has spent hours researching Marie Downing Williams to verify and expand her story and to trace connections between the Rolla artifacts and Queen Victoria. Steinke has tracked down ship manifests, homestead claims and graveyard plots, each piece of information enriching the story of a Queen’s dresser who left the palace for the love of Harry Williams, a fellow servant who dreamed of owning land in his own right first in Canada and then in Dakota Territory.

Marie arrived in Rolla in 1887 with nine trunks filled with wedding gifts from the Queen. She and Harry began farming their adjoining homestead claims, but Harry had meager success as a farmer and in 1910 they decided to rent out their land and move into town.

They rented a home in Rolla and opened it as a boarding house, where their borders dined on china, dish sets, and silverware gifted to Marie by the Queen. Eventually the Williamses moved back to their farmstead, but continued to rent out their land.

“Marie often loaned local brides her fancy royal dresses to wear for their weddings and gave away dresses and many other items to friends and acquaintances throughout her lifetime,” Steinke said. “Marie and Harry were not well off, so they also traded the Queen’s treasures for goods and services. It’s thought the Queen’s Order of the Garter ceremonial dress, now at the museum, came to Mrs. J.P. Widmeyer, the wife of a Rolla physician, as payment for medical care.”

Mrs. Widmeyer’s granddaughter Barb Widmeyer Hanson donated the dress and other artifacts to the Rolla Public Library in 1977. The library had a special case built and displayed the dress for nearly half a century.

“We had this beautiful piece of Rolette County history, but no one was coming in to see it,” said library director Becky Sheridan. So, the library board instructed Sheridan to offer the dress and other artifacts to nearby museums with the goal of providing the artifacts with proper care and greater public exposure. The Rugby museum was the first to say yes to the dress.

“The Rolla Public Library board has done the Geographical Center Historical Society a great honor by entrusting the Marie Downing Williams/Queen Victoria artifacts to us for display and safe keeping,” said museum executive director Cathy Jelsing. “We are fully aware of the responsibility associated with caring for and preserving these objects and are taking steps to make sure we do things right.”

Items in the collection not on display have been documented and packed in archival storage; a professional conservator has been engaged to evaluate all the objects and make recommendations on appropriate conservation and repairs; and Sue Steinke, has made a major donation for the purchase of a new, archival case for display the Queen’s ceremonial dress.

The Queen Victoria/Marie Downing Williams exhibit will be a featured attraction during the museum’s annual Village Fair, which kicks off with a concert by Wild Hands, craft beer tasting and barbecue from 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12, and continues Sunday, Aug. 13, with music, pioneer demonstrations and fair food from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Regular museum hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. For more information visit www.prarievillagemuseum.com, call 701-776-6414 or email prairievillagemueum@gmail.com.

– Prairie Village Museum

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