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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

County Historical Society

Milwaukee’s memory keepers

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The advantage of knowing history is the opportunity it offers to learn from past events, mistakes and victories alike. In 1935, the Milwaukee County Historical Society (MCHS) took on the responsibility of safeguarding Milwaukee’s story and making historic artifacts accessible to those aiming to understand the link between past and present. To celebrate its 75th anniversary, MCHS is hosting a number of special events throughout the year, including the exhibition “Unlocking the Vault: 75 Years, 75 Stories,” in which 75 of its most rare and unique pieces are placed on display, first on the society’s website, then in an exhibit in the Historic Center when renovations are complete.

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 The dark, cool and dry conditions within are perfect for storing Milwaukee’s most precious historical documents, such as the collection of German Bibles dating back to the 17th century and Solomon Juneau’s ledger from 1834.

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 unique story.

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.