Local history museums protect our roots

Perhaps you think that your dearest possessions – a locket, a family picture, a love letter, a child’s toy – are of little value to anybody else. That’s not necessarily true.

Hundreds of local historians in Wisconsin are passionate about rescuing and preserving pieces of the past for their museums, research centers, historical archives and local history books. Most are volunteers who live in the state’s tiniest communities. They have little to gain, except the satisfaction of helping future generations understand their heritage.

About five years ago, I was moving my parents off of their Sheboygan County farm and into an assisted living facility. It was a flurry of transferring, discarding, donating and boxing decades of accumulations.

This included a massive Indian artifact collection that my dad compiled in 75 years, while walking the plowed fields of his land and that of his neighbors. It was important to him that the collection be kept intact. It was important to me that the collection go to an entity that would respect it.

I sent various letters, to gauge local interest, and was pleased when Jim Stahlman of the Plymouth Historical Society promptly replied. After dozens of volunteer hours, and consultation with Wisconsin Historical Society staff, our family’s donation became the lead exhibit at the Plymouth Center, a combination museum/chamber of commerce office/art gallery/performance space.

My dad died in 1998, but his picture still is on a wall there. The exhibit is a bit smaller, to make room for more recent donations, but it remains a great testimonial to him and the area’s Native American heritage.

I stop by a couple of times a year, to read the complimentary reactions of kids, farmers, former neighbors and strangers from far away. For me, this has been a tremendous gift, and I can’t over-emphasize the passion of the volunteers who made it possible.

It is one of many examples. Several individuals and organizations received recognition recently from the Wisconsin Council for Local History, an organization that includes 324 historical societies.

I had the good luck of crossing paths with Joyce and Bill Menzel; she was a winner because of her Early Settlers Quilts project.

She is from Springbrook, a dozen miles west of Hayward, off of Highway 63 and in Washburn County. It is a town that doesn’t show up on some state maps, and its sole tourist attraction is the Springbrook Church Museum, a former Catholic church that contains extensive church records and local artifacts.

As a millennial project, people with Springbrook roots were encouraged to use a quilt square to create a symbol of family history. Contributions came from as far away as New Mexico and Oregon.

The handiwork depicts many things, including farmland and one-room schools. We also learn that “Old Abe” the war eagle was provided to Union troops by a Springbrook family, and that another Springbrook resident was an honor guard at Abe Lincoln’s funeral.

Now there are three quilts, and they hang in the museum, which is of particular interest to genealogists. Introduction of a fourth quilt and photo displays of military history, local teachers and early settlers are planned for 2003. The museum begins its 10th year of operation in June, for more, call (715) 766-3876.

Other state award winners are:

* Harry Anderson, executive director of the Milwaukee County Historical Society for 35 years. He guided the acquisition of major archival collections, including those of Pabst Brewery and Allis Chalmers, and has written dozens of articles about local history.

* Wayne and Ruby Lemburg, who for 11 years have overseen operations at the 1868 Eagle Bluff lighthouse, Peninsula State Park, Door County. They train tour guides, balance the books, stock the gift shop, supervise repairs and write copy for brochures.

* Randall Rohe, author of “Ghosts of the Forest: Vanished Lumber Towns of Wisconsin,” a book that explains the growth and disappearance of 14 lumber towns in the northern and central parts of the state. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin Center-Waukesha

* William Schuette, who has produced a digital collection of more than 10,000 historical photographs from Sauk County. The work includes images from towns that no longer exist. Each image is cataloged, and Schuette continues his work to expand this archives.

* Terry and Mary Tutton, Palmyra, whose guidance of the Palmyra Historical Society (Jefferson County) has produced a series of local history books, an inventory of historic houses, the Carlin House museum and its addition. Exhibits have ranged from the history of flight to hand tools in history and historic clothing.

* La Crosse County Historical Society, which published “Black La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1850-1906: Settlers, Entrepreneurs and Exodusers,” based on 35 years of research by Bruce Mouser. It is the first attempt to document the story of black settlers in the area, “a resource unparalleled for any other community in Wisconsin,” says the state council.

* Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum, for publication of “Discovering Waukesha County,” a local history book for children, written by Anne Celano Frohna. Children can learn about the county’s first airplane, a large diamond found near Eagle, the local inventor of sticky flypaper.

* DeForest Area Historical Society (Dane County), for its proactive attitude about historic preservation. Members have turned the historic Hansen-Newell-Bennett House into a museum, rescued and restored a 1915-18 collection of glass plate negatives, worked to include museum and research collection space in their city library.