A new exhibit is now open at The Arms Family Museum showcasing the eclectic collection of Benjamin Franklin Wirt.
Benjamin Franklin Wirt was born March 25, 1852, into one of Youngstown’s pioneer families. He read law in the office of Laurin D. Woodworth, and at the age of 21 was admitted to the bar. He began his practice in May of 1873 in association with Mr. Woodworth, and grew to be one of Youngstown’s most prominent and respected citizens. He served a four-year term as the Mahoning Valley’s state senator from 1889 to 1893.
Mr. Wirt and his wife, Mary McGeehan Wirt, were world travelers who amassed a collection of artifacts, coins, furnishings, and works of art from across the globe. Wirt was also a lover of books and rare documents. He collected thousands of books and dozens of papers signed by noted historical figures.
Wirt’s book collection of 4,000 books represented a great variety of interests, which included world and national history, politics, archaeology, art, Asian culture, and fiction. Within the collection are many rare and first editions, as well as several books that were mass-produced at the turn of the century. Wirt even collected magazines that published stories by his most beloved authors. He collected almost every book published by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ohio native William Dean Howells. Rather significant in the collection is Wirt’s fondness for Howells. Manuscripts Wirt saved include personal correspondence with Howells’ sister-in-law Eliza, several proof sheets and autographed letters. He was fortunate to have had opportunities to acquire many works prior to publication, and also collected proof sheets signed by authors such as Henry Howard Harper, Howells, and James Whitcomb Riley. Diaries kept by Wirt, and now stored at the MVHS Archival Library paint a picture of a man who loved reading so much that he would often “lose sense of time and sometimes forget appointments” (taken from Wirt’s 1930 diary.) He greatly enjoyed the time he spent with his wife, Mary McGeehan Wirt, who read to him until her death in 1926. He even left $500 in his will to friend Edith Parsons for “her reading to me and rendering numerous kindnesses.”
Upon B. F. Wirt’s death in 1930, his entire estate, including his amazing collection, was placed in trust. He had hoped that trustees would establish a museum to exhibit his antiquities and art work for the benefit and education of the public. In August of 1962, Judge John W. Ford appointed five trustees of the estate and charged them with the task of fulfilling B. F. Wirt’s wishes.
The trustees soon discovered that the estate was not large enough to fund the construction of a new museum. They turned to members of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, of which Wirt was a founding member. On June 14, 1965, an agreement was signed between the Wirt trustees and Historical Society, whereby the B. F. Wirt Collection would be housed and exhibited within the Arms Family Museum. Trustees of the Wirt estate are still active participants on the MVHS Board of Directors.
To learn more about the Wirt collection visit the MVHS Archives.
The Arms Family Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 1-5p.m.