County Historical Society
Milwaukee’s memory keepers
Four Milwaukee citizens who thought it was a crime
that a county of its size didn’t have an organization charged with collecting
and preserving items of historical interest founded the County Historical
Society. It was given use of the seventh floor of the county courthouse, an
unfinished attic-like space with poor lighting and insufficient heating. They
enlisted the help of persuasive members and volunteers to convince people to
donate interesting items. Despite the struggles that come with running a
nonprofit outfit, MCHS always moved forward and kept adding to the collection.
By the early 1960s, the
seventh floor had become what some people called “Grandma’s Attic,” and there
was simply no more room to be had. A group of county and historical society
board members knew the First Wisconsin Bank was looking to sell one of its
buildings—a stunning neoclassical revival structure completed in 1913 that
included an interior finished with black and white Italian marble—and asked if
the bank would donate the building to the historical society. First Wisconsin
Bank turned down a number of offers on the valuable real estate at the corner
of Old World Third Street
and Kilbourn Avenue
and gave the building to the society in 1964.
Serving as one of the
few reminders of the Historic
Center’s past life are
the six massive vaults located in the basement, ground floor and mezzanine
levels of the building. The dark, cool and dry conditions within are perfect
for storing Milwaukee’s most precious historical documents, such as the collection
of German Bibles dating back to the 17th century and Solomon Juneau’s ledger
According to Steve
Daily, curator of research collections, “Seventy-five to 80 percent of the
people that walk through the door are looking for something related to family
history.” Television programs like “Who Do You Think You Are?” have spurred
recent interest in genealogy, though Daily contends that there is always a
steady stream of visitors looking to find out if great-grandpa ever sat in
county jail or married more than once.
The Historical Society
organizes itself into two divisions: the museum and the library. The museum
holds three-dimensional artifacts, everything from furniture and firearms to
clothing and cars. The library is broken down into manuscript collections, such
as old Milwaukee County records, photographs and books.
The MCHS also operates historic properties: Trimborn Farm, the Jeremiah Curtin
House, the Lowell Damon House and Kilbourntown House in Estabrook Park.
A persevering sentinel
in the unrelenting stream of America’s forward-thinking, forward-moving
culture, MCHS remains a steward of Milwaukee’s
Milwaukee County Historical Society is located at 910 N. Old World Third St. For more information, call 414-273-8288 or visit www.milwaukeehistory.net.