Small towns, and up, document odd history

Who makes history? Everybody. It’s how we choose to document and interpret life that determines who and what has lasting value.

Family scrapbooks do this. So do antique shop owners and history professors. Do your eyes widen with delight or glaze over with boredom at the thought?

The Wisconsin Historical Society estimates that more than 360 entities work to preserve history throughout the state, and many of these efforts involve the quiet, diligent work of volunteers in small towns. They may only be able to keep a museum open seasonally or a few hours per week, but it can be fascinating to see what people choose to save, to define their area’s place in history.

Seeking out these collections and making a small donation helps ensure that historic preservation will continue. Finding places to relive the past can be a low-cost, captivating way to spend a day – and what you learn might truly surprise you.

Me? I love the “talkers” – the curious, unexpected artifacts and collections. For example:

Julaine Farrow was a longtime registered nurse at Winnebago Mental Health Institute, near Oshkosh, and a little-publicized museum in 10 rooms of the former superintendent’s house is named after her. Why? The nurse documented the history of this facility, which opened in 1873.

Inside the museum are fascinating and frightful evidence of mental imbalance (a display case of items swallowed by patients, weapons and keys made by patients) and long-ago treatment methods (straitjackets, cold water therapy, electric shock devices). An old-time doctor’s office and pharmacy are reproduced.

Visitors learn about phrenology (the notion of basing a diagnosis on head bumps) and how treatments have changed. Prescriptions for “fresh air, good food and manual labor” in 1873 were expanded to include insulin shock and malaria therapy by 1937, lobotomies by 1943, psychiatric drugs like Thorazine by 1953.

The museum is especially popular among mental health students and people who work in medical professions, but exhibit language is geared toward the average person.

For more about the Julaine Farrow Museum, 1300 South Dr., Winnebago: (click “topics A-Z,” then Winnebago Mental Health Institute), 920-235-4910, ext. 2345. Open 1-3:30 p.m. Thursdays, Feb. 26 to Oct. 28.

Also look for The Gift Cottage (920-235-4910) on Treffert Drive, which sells rag rugs and other items made by WMHI residents. It is open all year.

One of the more majestic settings for a museum in Wisconsin is the former Waukesha County Courthouse, an 1893 building that kind of looks like a castle. Exhibits address significant points of passage, be it local involvement with the Underground Railroad or the area’s nickname of “Spring City,” a place of healing waters.

This is all logical and necessary, but it was the Chewing Gum Fan that I’ll remember most. The 1930s inventor was local boy Russell E. Oakes, known nationwide as “The Wily Wizard of Waukesha.” Several Popular Science film clips, produced by Paramount Pictures, spotlighted his inventions.

The ad salesman, who died in 1961, figured that gum chewing required energy that simultaneously could be used to cool yourself. Picture a bulky contraption with a neck strap, attached to a woven fan hanging over the head. As the jaw moved to chew gum, so did the fan.

Russell was far from the last creative spirit to come from Waukesha. Electric guitar developer Les Paul, comedian/impersonator Frank Caliendo and the rock band BoDeans also are natives.

For more about the Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum, 101 W. Main St., Waukesha:, 262-521-2859. Open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, all year.

One of Wisconsin’s wackier celebrations is the annual Burger Fest in Seymour (Outagamie County), and the local museum devotes generous space to event paraphernalia. The community obviously is proud of its reputation for being the birthplace of the hamburger and even displays a favorite spatula used by inventor “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen in the late 1800s.

Such a gentle, whimsical array. So it was a huge jolt to venture elsewhere and find a museum room devoted to eerie funeral artifacts: a child-sized coffin, all-black mourning attire, a wicker basket “used to remove bodies from the place of death” until 1945.

For more about Seymour Community Museum, 337 Washington St., Seymour: 920-833-2868 Open 1-5 p.m. Sundays, Memorial Day to Labor Day.

The line between “art” and “craft” can be fine, and it’s the same with “vision” and “obsession.” Venture to Shell Lake (Washburn County) for a unique example.

The Museum of Woodcarving houses the work of Joseph T. Barta, who began whittling with a butcher knife at age 14. By the time he died in 1972, at age 68, he had carved 100 life-sized figures, plus at least 400 smaller pieces.

Most of the big carvings are of biblical figures, and an intricate rendition of “The Last Supper” took more than four years to complete. The Ponderosa and sugar pine statues also include a nativity scene; the cow in it, at 178 pounds, is the heaviest of all carvings.

Niece Maria McKay operates this attraction, which has been open since 1951. For more about the Museum of Woodcarving, 539 Hwy. 63, Shell Lake: 715-468-7100. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., May 1 to Oct. 31.

In place at the Wisconsin Historical Museum until at least 2010 is “Odd Wisconsin,” an exhibit about one-of-a-kind, unusual events and items from around the state. The museum archives has a wealth of examples, so expect artifacts to change periodically.

Like what? An auction poster for killer Ed Gein’s estate in Plainfield, 1920s skunk grease medicine and a Liberace beaded show jacket.

The museum, 30 N. Carroll St., Madison, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. For more:, 608-264-6555.