MONSON -- Of all the things that Myra Keep Lovell Moulton collected and couldn't part with -- furniture receipts, family diaries, bird's eggs -- it's the buttons that she cherished most.
Whether they were made of plastic, porcelain, copper, or pearl, thousands made their way into her attic, basement, and bins stuffed in closets around her house. When she died in 1988, at 89, the twice-married schoolteacher, traveler, and unabashed pack-rat willed her land, family home, and everything in it to the town. The gift came with two strings: It had to be opened to the public, and it had to be named "The Keep Homestead Museum."
The buttons came out of storage and became the focal point of the museum, home to one of the country's largest button collections.
In this Western Massachusetts town of about 8,000 people, it's little surprise that the museum's care fell into the hands of those who knew and admired Moulton. And it figures that they're as passionate about button collecting as she was, some holding official positions in the Massachusetts State Button Society. So the newly appointed caretakers of the Keep Homestead Museum set out cataloging and showcasing as many of Myra's buttons as they could. To date, about 6,000 are on display throughout the Keep family's farmhouse on Ely Road. Thousands more are still being inventoried.
"Myra saw buttons as miniature works of art," said Jacquie Hatton, president of the friends of the museum and a past president of the state's button society. "This was her passion."
Case after case holds buttons from around the world with histories spanning hundreds of years. English-made copper buttons that were excavated from Revolutionary War battlefield sites fill one shelf. On another, buttons from Okinawa are carved into the faces of Asian deities like Jurojin, the god of long life, and Benzaiten, the goddess of beauty. Mother-of-pearl buttons glisten not far from duller, intricately carved buttons of bone. And one display shows the evolution of political buttons, from Zachary Taylor's 1848 campaign to the "I Like Ike" pins of the 1952 campaign.
But the prize of the lot is the collection of about 600 mosaic buttons. Made in Rome and Florence in the 1850s, these buttons -- some as small as a pinky fingernail -- have designs of animals, buildings, flowers, and birds. At first glance, the motifs look painted on backgrounds of onyx, silver, or brass. But under a closer inspection with a magnifying glass, it's clear the designs were made from minuscule pieces of colored stone or glass.
Exactly what drove Myra to collect buttons is unknown. But her tendency to acquire stuff may have been hereditary. "Myra was typical New England," said Emmaladd Shepherd, chair of the museum's steering committee. "She threw nothing out. Now we've got it on display."
The Keeps were one of Monson's founding families, making a name for themselves in town politics and as well-to-do farmers. The family's 120-year-old farmhouse became a repository of journals, records, and bills of sale. "They may seem like silly little things," Shepherd said. "But they give us a really good idea of what life was like back then."
Along with ledgers from the 1800s that record daily selling prices of milk and eggs and receipts for bedroom furniture and a Limoge china set, the family amassed a collection of rocks, gems, and seashells that were brought back by friends and relatives who traveled the globe. Charles Keep, Myra's father, collected and catalogued birds' eggs.
A schoolteacher until she married her first husband, Moulton drove cross-country with another single friend, recording the adventures of her journey. After one stop in Wisconsin, she wrote that the town's "ginger ale was too active and the men were too free."
"She was a very free-spirited woman," Shepherd said. "Even when that wasn't too popular for a woman."
She married the Rev. Charles Lovell in 1941. A year after Lovell died in 1952, she married Ralph Moulton, who died in 1961. With no children of her own, she would often invite girls to her home for tea and lessons in needlepoint.
But it's the buttons that took center stage in her life.
Exactly how many buttons are there? "We're still trying to figure that out," Hatton said.