Early in its history, the Fort Atkinson Historical Society nearly saw all of its work wiped out.

The year was 1945, and at the time, the society’s museum was housed in the lower level of the Dwight Foster Public Library.

A fire started in the library’s kitchen, and though it was doused, the blaze caused smoke damage to some 23,000 volumes and damaged another 501 that had been stored in the kitchen. The historical displays stored in the library’s lower level also suffered damage from the soot, grime and residue of the flames.

Yet, the historical society persevered, and with careful cleaning and preservation, almost everything was able to be saved.

In fact, some of the same items can be found in prominent places in the museum’s collection today, like the copper kettle that graces the iron cookstove in the Foster House, a pair of men’s shoes that filled out a display on historical footwear, and more.

The Fort Atkinson Historical Society has come a long way since its inception in 1939, weathering not only the library fire, but numerous other challenges over the years.

In the meantime, it has moved to a new location and expanded several times, partnering with the National Dairy Shrine and becoming widely known as the best historical museum in the region.

To celebrate all that it has accomplished in the past eight decades, the historical society held an anniversary gala Saturday night in the Hoard Historical Museum, with tours, special temporary exhibits, costumed guests, catered refreshments and recollections by various museum officials, past and present.

Many attendees took the opportunity to dress in historical style, with outfits ranging from a turn-of-the-century walking suit to 1970s fashion in all its garish glory. Prim little 1940s dresses and understated hats could be found alongside seafoam green 1960s wear with flowing sleeves and semi-psychadelic prints.

Some of the outfits had a family history, like Denice Jones’ dress, once worn by her aunt Elizabeth “Betty” Jones Chisholm, who was famously reputed to have dated Clark Gable.

Michael and Debbie Rusch, owners of a local bed-and-breakfast, dressed in pitch-perfect vintage wear from the early part of the 20th century, and they even brought their 7-year-old granddaughter along, also in a vintage dress and miniature hat.

Early in the evening, attendees were invited to tour the museum and the 1841 Foster House on the museum grounds, and to check out the special exhibits. Later, they gathered for comments from museum director Merrilee Lee, National Dairy Shrine representative Steve Larson, and past and present historical society board members.

When the society started in 1939, Lee said, its founders had the vision of promoting and protecting the history and culture of the Fort Atkinson area.

This mission continues today, with the support of numerous volunteers and paid staff, plus 400 members, including individuals, businesses and local organizations.

The historical society held its first meeting in February of 1939, getting right to work on the articles of incorporation and filing all of the necessary paperwork with the state. It moved into its current location in the 1950s.

The museum, which is unusually expansive for a community of this size and generally recognized to be state-of-the-art across the region, is the result of a partnership first with the City of Fort Atkinson and, secondly, with the National Dairy Shrine.

The historical society owns the artifacts in the building, while the city owns the buildings and grounds. Both contribute toward the operation of the museum, including the costs of staff, utilities and programming.

But it is the members of the society who really make the museum with all of their research, dedication and contributions of time, information, artifacts and expertise, Lee noted.

The move to the current location came about due to the generosity of the Hoard Family. Frank and Luella Hoard had lived in the Hoard home that now makes up part of the museum, and after both had passed away, their children, W.D. Hoard Jr. and Shirley Hoard Kerschensteiner, sold the house to the city for a token sum of $1.

In 1957, the museum moved from its former home in the library to its current location. It has expanded several times since.

The 1960s saw an addition on the back of the house to showcase larger exhibits. In the late 1960s, the 1841 Foster House became part of the museum, located on the edge of the grounds.

In 1979, the museum entered a partnership with the National Dairy Shrine, which moved here and joined with the Hoard Museum, necessitating another major expansion.

As well as the extensive exhibits, temporary displays, archives and collection of historical artifacts on site, the historical society also oversees various traveling exhibits and provides educational programming for all ages.

Some of the highlights of the year include the Dairy Day at the Mooseum, the holiday Gingerbread House Decorating Contest, Morning at the Museum programming for area preschoolers, the traditional Fourth of July Ice Cream Social, and various outreach efforts.

In March, for example, the museum worked with a veterans group to bring together Vietnam veterans to share their experiences.

“It helped heal wounds many in the community didn’t even know we still had,” Lee said, noting that some of the veterans at the event had never felt comfortable sharing their stories before.

Steve Larson, National Dairy Shrine representative, addressed the partnership the Dairy Shrine and the Hoard Historical Museum have enjoyed for the past 40 years — spanning half of the historical society’s existence.

The National Dairy Shrine actually got its start in 1949 with the aim of honoring dairy leaders and innovators, recording dairy history and encouraging youth to go into the field. He said that initially, it was centered out of Waterloo, Iowa, home of the “Cattle Congress,” the biggest dairy event in the nation at that time, much like the “World Dairy Expo” in Madison now.

As the National Dairy Cattle Congress began to wane in importance, Dairy Shrine leaders sought another home for the organization. Temporarily, its materials were stored on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Boosters of “America’s Dairyland,” feeling that Wisconsin was the natural home of such a shrine, advocated for the organization to relocate in this state, said Larson, retired editor of Hoard’s Dairyman magazine.

And among those enjoying Dairyland fame, none had a better claim than Fort Atkinson, home of former Gov. William Dempster Hoard (founder of the Daily Union and Hoard’s Dairyman) and the acclaimed “birthplace of modern dairying.”

The agreement to move the National Dairy Shrine to Fort Atkinson was signed in 1979 and ground was broken on the new building adjoining the historical museum in 1980. The expanded museum opened in 1981.

The membership of the National Dairy Shrine raised $250,000 to construct the building and deeded it to the city. In addition, the National Dairy Shrine raised another $50,000 for exhibits and displays in the shrine and their maintenance.

“National Dairy Shrine continues to grow in membership and impact,” Larson said. “It now has nearly 18,000 members, encompassing virtually every facet of the dairy industry and representing many countries around the world.”

Larson said that the Dairy Shrine is responsible for all of the exhibits in its section of the museum, many of which utilize cutting-edge interactive technology.

He noted that the relationship between the Fort Atkinson Historical Society is based on trust, understanding and open communication. This partnership has stood the test of time for nearly four decades and is poised to continue well into the future.

Also sharing memories were past historical society board members Barbara Lorman and Diane Abendroth and current board President Bonnie Geyer.

Lorman expressed gratitude to the founders of the society for their foresight and to the dedication of all of the historical society members, museum volunteers and staff over the years who carried on the historical society’s vision.

She noted that without the historical society, she would not have met so many wonderful people and learned so much about her home community.

Abendroth said she has been retired from the museum board for many years, but during her time on it she was honored to be part of a major expansion project encompassing the Hoard house, the museum, the Dairy Shrine and garage under one roof.

The project, which combined all of these assets, also involved squaring off the building, which left a small undesignated room off to the side.

A couple of years passed, after Abendroth had left the board, museum representatives received a call asking if they’d be interested in incorporating a Lincoln library into their collection.

And so the small side room gained an important purpose of its own, bringing to life Blackhawk War and Civil War times from both a local and national perspective.

Geyer said she thought the founders of the historical society would be amazed if they could see the organization and museum today.

Giving a nod to the first two museum directors, Zida Ivey and Hannah Swart, both of whom have passed away, as well as to all of the society founders, Geyer pondered what these community historians would think of the current expansive museum and all of the programming it is able to offer on site and off.

“This has really grown into a regional museum,” Geyer said.

On top of preserving historical artifacts and lending context so visitors can better understand the area’s history, the Hoard Museum also serves as the top art venue in the county, she noted.

“I am very proud of how welcoming this place is to everyone who comes through our doors,” Geyer said.

Finally, she thanked the historical society membership for supporting all of these assets and offerings and for helping the society preserve the past well into the future.

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