Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: England native preserves Clark County's past

Jo Bryant, curator of the Clark County Historical Museum, sits in a converted closet that now holds some of the museum's oldest historical records Monday, July 10, 2017, in Kahoka, Mo. | H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 17, 2017 9:00 am Updated: Jul. 17, 2017 9:14 am

KAHOKA, Mo. -- Jo Bryant preserves the history of her adopted homeland.

The English native traces her passion for history to the home in which she was born -- the bakery of a neighboring estate that had been built in 1625. Growing up in the southeastern English village of Ringwould, Bryant was in and out of the some of the oldest and most luxurious homes in the area as a child because her father was employed by the various lords and ladies to care for their estates. Her mother was the head mistress of the school she would later attend.

"He was a master builder, so he did a lot of the restoration work on the estate homes of England," she said. "In the area I was born, we have a first-century lighthouse, castles galore. You can't move in Great Britain without hitting something historic."

When she and her two siblings were younger, they would travel with their parents around the English countryside as their father did restoration work on massive estate houses for months at a time. The family would move into the homes and were given the run of the house while the work was being done.

"When you grow up with history and castles and all the things I grew up with, you take it for granted. It wasn't until I got to this country that I had a great appreciation for what I had experienced as a child."

She began her education at 4 and was fast-tracked through school, skipping two grades. By 16, she had graduated from high school, and she would spend the following three years pursuing her degree at Alnwick, a college housed in the castle best known for its depiction in the Harry Potter movies and Downton Abbey television series.

"My class was the last year," she said. "It closed down after my class, and it went back to being a castle for the Percy family."

After five years of higher education, she had obtained two bachelor degrees. While studying at Alnwick, she met an American and fell in love.

"I don't think I'd have ever probably stayed in Great Britain. I'd always liked to travel," she said. "I didn't know anything about this country, at all, other than what I'd learned while studying geography."

‘Life is short and you need to grab it'

Bryant touched down on American soil for the first time in 1979, when she flew into John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. It was her first time flying, and she'd done it alone.

"I was a little apprehensive flying into New York on my own," she said, "but I don't really worry about things. Life is short, and you need to grab it and have a good time."

She settled into her life as an American, teaching for a period in St. Cloud, Minn., before moving to Iowa, where her husband originally is from.

"Teaching is different in England because kids have uniforms," she said. "I think that having uniforms brings kids on a level playing field. Over here, if one kid has advantages over another, it can show in the way they dress. I noticed that when I first came here."

Passion for history and preservation

In 2000, she left her career as an educator to work at the Battle of Athens State Historic Site. Last December, she was asked to become the curator of the Clark County Historical Museum, which had ceased operation several years before. The artifacts and various exhibits cluttered the rooms without any sense of organization, and returning the museum to a functioning state became Bryant's passion.

"I've never had a job, in my entire life, where I haven't felt like I'm doing something important or something good," she said. "That's important to me. I've always wanted to make a difference and change my little piece of the world."

The people had donated their items, but they had no museum to show for it, Bryant said.

"I took it on, cleaned it up, sorted it out, redid the displays, did all the labeling," she said. "It took awhile. I had some good help, and I think it's important that the community has somewhere to come. It's a niche that needs to be here."

Preservation is her passion. She enjoys being the caretaker, ensuring the museum's displays and many other items in storage are available for future generations. She likens museums to icebergs. The part above the water can be seen, but there is so much more to it below.

"I love to handle things I know have been handled by people hundreds of years ago. I don't care if they were famous or not," she said. "I love visiting with people. I like hearing what their story is. People do like to tell you their story, and we can learn from that."

"People think its strange that I'm an English woman working in historical places in America, but someone has to do it."

Each Monday, Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident.