The Fort Atkinson Historical Society will be celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2019.
Since 1939, the organization has been maintaining its mission to preserve, protect, and promote the history of the Fort Atkinson area from its earliest inhabitants to today.
During its annual meeting last Wednesday, Hoard Historical Museum director Merrilee Lee announced that a gala celebration of the historical society will be held on Saturday, Aug. 3, at the museum. The event is intended to feature a display of nearly 100 pieces in the museum’s original artifact collection.
While the historical society organization’s tenure covers eight decades, the museum collection is actually 85 years old. Lee said it was Luella Hoard and Fort Atkinson’s Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution that started the collection.
“A fascinating quirk that would only happen in Fort, the DAR began collecting Fort Atkinson artifacts in preparation for a 1933 public tea in Hoard’s home,” she said.
The collection was, in essence, the city’s first “museum.” For the public tea, the collection was put on display at the Frank and Luella Hoard home, now part of the museum.
Afterward, pieces were preserved in the basement of the Dwight Foster Public Library.
Lee said the society formally formed in 1939 with the intent to preserve the area’s history, and the museum moved to the the Hoard home in 1957. It since has undergone multiple renovations and additions.
Some of the original artifacts remain on display, including a drum that is featured in the museum’s Lincoln Library.
“We have done our mission,” Lee said. “We have preserved our artifacts and kept them, so let’s pull them back out and enjoy them.”
A few years ago, the director said, staff and volunteers began a museum-wide collections inventory.
In 2018, a total of 2,500 artifacts were inventoried. Lee acknowledged that some were a small as buttons and that were easy to inventory.
Located at 401 Whitewater Ave., the Hoard Historical Museum features a vast array of historical materials that tell the story of the 1832 Blackhawk War and how the City of Fort Atkinson earned its name.
In addition to Lincoln, legendary local figures such as William Dempster Hoard, the father of Wisconsin’s dairy industry, and world-famous poet Lorine Niedecker are featured in the museum. Then there are the substantial collections of Native American artifacts, quilts, local artwork and much more, including the Lincoln-Era Library detailing the exploits of a Fort Atkinson army unit that fought in the Civil War.
Presenting her annual director’s report, Lee said 2018 was a good year for the historical society and museum. A total of 21,370 people visited the museum, an increase of nearly 1,000 visitors from 2017.
Lee pointed out that Fort Atkinson has a little over 12,000 people.
“We’re quickly approaching a level where everyone in town comes to the museum twice,” she said.
Attendees were welcomed from 160 Wisconsin cities, 41 other states and 23 countries around the world.
“Are we cosmopolitan or what?” she added.
Some of her favorite visitor comments in the log book included, “Outstanding place, we’ll be back” and “Warm, knowledgeable people.”
Lee noted that one of her favorite comments written in a child’s handwriting stated, “I learned a lot about cows.”
“These are things we are pleased to read in our visitor log book,” the museum director said.
In 2018, she reported, staff repainted and repaired the rear porch on the Foster House and the city removed two unhealthy trees from the museum’s front yard.
Lee also highlighted some of the new exhibits featured at the museum in 2018, including “A Place to Call Home: Newcomers to Fort Atkinson, 1836-2018.”
The project was initiated by Fort Atkinson resident Lori Compas, who is a volunteer English as a Second Language instructor with the Jefferson County Literacy Council. Inspired by her students’ stories, she approached Lee about creating a special exhibition featuring the stories of immigrants and other newcomers to the Fort Atkinson area since its founding.
“It is interesting how we all, at some point our families, have come here to make a new home,” Lee said, adding that the exhibit currently is traveling around the county, slated to be on display at Young Auditorium at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater through March.
Also, Lee referenced the “Just Like Me: Local Experiences with Project Understanding” exhibit that remains on display.
Put together by a museum intern, it shares the story of Project Understanding, which operated from 1968-2009, as a culture-sharing program through which African-American children from Mississippi spent part of their summer with Wisconsin families.
The director recalled the museum hosting a traveling Vietnam War exhibit from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum featuring photos of every Wisconsin soldier killed in the war.
She noted that the historical society is one of the few organizations in Fort Atkinson that has a growing volunteer base.
Lee recognized the Ager-Hart family — Brett, Linda, Bjorn, Brita, Maren, Elsa and Roald — who were named the Volunteer of the Year during the organization’s annual volunteer recognition in September 2018.
“The demographic growing the most in our volunteers is people 20 to 35 years old. We are getting a lot of college students who are looking for experience and that is a wonderful thing for us. We are thankful for all of the help our volunteers provide,” she said.
Members of the Ager-Hart family have served as volunteers since Linda was hired at the museum three years ago.
Some of the numerous events they are involved in include Dairy Day at the Mooseum, the July 4th Ice Cream Social, the August ice cream social fundraiser at Barrie Park and the Holiday Open House.
The family’s recognition marked the first time in 34 years that a family has won the Volunteer of the Year award.
Linda Ager, a 10-hours-per-week historical society employee, spoke on behalf of the family, who had arrived early to set up tables for the annual meeting. She joked that the award might have gotten revoked when they were helping to pour water and one of the carafes broke.
“We knew what makes us unique is that we are an entire family that is being recognized,” she said. “It is probably unusual to have an entire family volunteering anywhere together. When that happens, it is probably because the place where they volunteer has a wonderful environment.”
Ager said that is true of the Hoard Historical Museum, citing the welcoming atmosphere.
“There is a great sense of belonging at this museum,” she said.
As examples she cited how volunteer coordinator Tammy Doellstedt seems to know all the volunteers and the way her son is presented with a birthday treat at the Fourth of July event.
“Volunteering at the museum for my husband and I was really an opportunity to model community service,” Ager said.
“Working alongside our children is really an amazing thing. This has really given us a chance to do that in so many different ways. All things considered, our family is grateful to be able to volunteer here at the museum and we can’t say enough about it and thank you for recognizing us with this award.”
Also Wednesday, Fort Atkinson Historical Society Board of Directors President Bob Cheek shared some of his thoughts on 2018. Specifically, he highlighted the significance of the numerous volunteers.
“We can do a lot around here with a little extra money coming in here and there,” Cheek said. “Thank you for your support over 80 years.”
To celebrate its 80 years, he said, the society has been doing some extra things, such as participating in the city’s annual holiday parade.
“We have been strong, we are strong and I think, with all of your help, we are going to stay strong,” he said. “For a community our size, we have the greatest museum. We couldn’t do it without all the volunteers.”
During 2018, the museum’s more than 250 volunteers worked 6,124 hours or approximately 510 hours per month. If they were paid consistent with rates paid to part-time staffers, that would be equivalent to $72,000.
Wednesday night marked Cheek’s last annual meeting as the society’s president.
He joked that as past president, he was supposed to get all the leftover mini eclairs provided by the caterer, Bon Ton Bakery of Jefferson.
Then Cheek corrected himself and said he was hoping to designate himself as “cookie taster.”
The museum and historical society is known to always have cookies at various events.
Also, new three-year terms were renewed for historical society board of directors members Cheek, Karen Gomez, Loren Gray, Denice Jones and John Molinaro.