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Historical societies in Wisconsin towns seek new members

A clock salvaged from the Deerfield post office is on display on Oct. 31 at Deerfield Historical Society’s downtown museum. The society is now on the verge of extinction. Two of its four board members have died. The remaining two are in their 80s and recruitment attempts have so far not been successful. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

A clock salvaged from the Deerfield post office is on display on Oct. 31 at Deerfield Historical Society’s downtown museum. The society is now on the verge of extinction. Two of its four board members have died. The remaining two are in their 80s and recruitment attempts have so far not been successful. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal

DEERFIELD, Wis. (AP) — At the Deerfield Historical Society museum, you can find a typewriter from the train depot, a clock from the old post office, a wooden crate from the now-defunct Johnson Hardware and a yardstick from the former Deerfield Motor Co.

There are trophies won by athletes at Deerfield High School when it competed in the Eastern Suburban Conference, shelves of scrapbooks and a mural of “The Great Fire of 1888,” which destroyed a large swath of the village’s downtown. A black-and-white photo of Alex Nelson, who founded Deerfield in the early 1880s, looks over the collection.

The Deerfield Historical Society’s quaint museum on the second floor of the village hall tells the story of this eastern Dane County village of about 2,400.
But the future of history here is in question.

Dorothy Loftus, who founded the historical society in 1983 and had been its only president, died in January at the age of 96. Dick Berge, treasurer, died in May at the age of 79, leaving just three active members, all of whom would like to retire. A meeting on Oct. 14 to drum up replacements was attended by only about 10 people. When the question was asked if anyone present would be willing to serve on the volunteer board, no one raised a hand.

In addition, the village wants to build a new village hall, which could leave the museum on its own. The historical society now uses the space rent-free and pays no utilities, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“I’m sad that nobody else wants to help, and frustrated, too,” said Beverly Dahl, who has been secretary for the society for 36 years and is now 80. “That’s why I thought I would retire, but nobody else wants to do it. I guess I’ll just keep it going, but I’m worried about it collapsing.”

Dahl isn’t alone. Wisconsin is home to at least 414 local affiliates of the Wisconsin Historical Society, about 75% of which have no paid staff, according to WHS data. With aging members, busy schedules, work, families and other activities and organizations all vying for time and seeking members, finding volunteers to curate artifacts from the past can be a tall order. Even for societies that have active members, recruiting young people can be difficult.

‘Doesn’t look good’

In the Dodge County village of Hustisford, on Sinissippi Lake, just south of Horicon, the historical society owns a house that was built by John Hustis in 1851 and cares for a spinning-wheel shop put up in 1860, a shoe shop dating to 1888 and a band shell dedicated in 1916. But with just 1,115 people in the village, it’s not been easy to find people who will donate money and voluntarily offer their time. The society, founded in 1971, has about six active members.

“We’re able to squeak by but it doesn’t look good. We can’t get anybody to help,” said Robert Scharnell, 78, the society president and a member for over 20 years. “Every newsletter we put something in but nobody responds.”

Norman "Pogo" Dahl stands on Oct. 31 at the Deerfield Historical Society’s museum next to a section of the original rail line that had once gone through Deerfield. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Norman “Pogo” Dahl stands on Oct. 31 at the Deerfield Historical Society’s museum next to a section of the original rail line that had once gone through Deerfield. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

In better shape

That’s not the case in places like Mount Horeb, where the $1.8 million Driftless Historium, which opened in 2017, has exhibit space, archives, a library room, gift shop, community room and paid staff.

The Milton Historical Society also has paid staff and a board of nine directors who run the Milton House Museum, a national landmark and the last certified Underground Railroad station in Wisconsin that’s open for tours. The Rock County city is unusual because it also is home to the Milton College Preservation Society, which chronicles the history of the school, which was founded in 1844 and closed in 1982. The preservation society owns Main  Hall where it has a museum and an eight-member board.

“It is a very unique situation that we have that history and people who appreciate that history and donate their time, money and energies to help preserve it,” said Doug Welch, assistant director for the Milton Historical Society and president of the board for the Milton College Preservation Society. “We do feel very fortunate.”

‘A key conversation’

Janet Seymour runs the Wisconsin Historical Society’s affiliate outreach program, the oldest of its kind in the country, which advises local historical societies on topics related to displays, the care of collections and running nonprofit groups. The state historical society recently held its annual conference in Lake Geneva and recently approved four new affiliations, including the National Brewery Museum, in Potosi.

“One of the commonalities across the state for all nonprofits, it’s not specific to history-related organizations, is that there’s a real emphasis on recruiting, engaging and attracting new board members,” Seymour said. “It is certainly a key conversation that local history organizations are having.”

Seymour said it’s unusual for a historical society to be dissolved. In the case of the Deerfield museum, which has only 22 dues-paying members and a museum open only by appointment, one option could be a merger with the Koshkonong Prairie Historical Society in Cambridge. However, that would transfer the collection out of Deerfield, Dahl said. To avoid that, a second public meeting has been scheduled at the Deerfield Public Library.

“I’d hate to see it die,” Dahl said. “Some younger people would help. We can’t do this alone.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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