You and Local History

Local history is the celebration of place.  It is dynamic and not static. As each era and each generation asks new questions of the past, we come to learn a fuller, more inclusive history of who we were and who we have become.

Grant County has a unique past rooted in lead mining and trade on the mighty Mississippi River. It is rooted in the undulating Driftless landscape where HoChunk, Mesquakie, and other peoples were born, raised families, and passed away over many centuries’ time.

Left Hand with his Wife and Son by George Catlin, 1841 Detroit Institute of Arts

Our past is rooted in the deep earth where lead ore was discovered, causing an influx of colonists from the southern states, the eastern seaboard, and from other countries to make this their home. This movement of Euro-Americans into southwest Wisconsin caused clashes with those who already called the region home. Thus, through warfare and treaties, native Americans were driven from their lands. From these beginnings, southwest Wisconsin grew into a diverse region, eventually dominated by farming and educational institutions.

Lead Mining in Upper Mississippi – John W. Barber and Henry Howe – The Loyal West in the Times of the Rebellion, chapter title “Illinois”, p. 321.

With rich, well-watered soil, and the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers allowing for transportation, opportunities to work and farm abounded. Many groups came to this land that we call Grant County. Black freeman, Irish and German immigrants, and many other groups joined the eastern and southern newcomers to make this their home. Each group created vibrant institutions, churches, and communities that made a mark on the land and in history.

Members of Pleasant Ridge, WI, c. 1895 WHI

 

St. Thomas Catholic Church, Potosi, WI

Grant County Historical Society is a vibrant organization which got its start in 1935 when a group of dedicated citizens and university affiliates began to collect and preserve the documents and objects of the region. These manuscripts and artifacts help to tell the stories of our area, helping people of all ages in Southwest Wisconsin connect with the land and people of the past.

The new ADA-compliant Grant County History Museum in Lancaster, created in 2019 by many volunteers and a trained professional museologist, brings local history home with updated exhibits and artifacts that help school children, researchers, and the curious learn about the experiences of those who lived before us.

Grant County History Museum 135 E Maple St Lancaster, WI Photo by DA Wilson

Becoming more and more curious about our past is a way to connect with our place and being curious about local history is only natural. Whether your family has been in Grant County for centuries as have the Ho-Chunk, or if you just arrived, you are connected with the people and the stories that are animated by the research and sharing of local history. You and your family can dig into your curiosity at the Grant County Research Center, Grant County History Museum, and at the Mitchell-Rountree Stone Cottage.

Covid-19 has forced the Grant County Historical Society to temporarily close to the public. However, when it is safe to open you will find a world, your world, to explore which will allow for wonder and reflection about who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming. Please join us on this adventure.

Giving to Grant County Historical Society

When I consider what organizations and causes I want to support with my hard-earned money, I ask myself what good will my donation do? What will they do with my money?

If you ask those same questions, I can assure you that Grant County Historical Society will use your funds wisely. Since 1935, volunteers have steered the organization and given generously so that our generation and future generations will have access to the manuscripts, one of a kind photographs, clothing, tools, and other “material culture” held by the Society. These 35,000 objects tell multiple and complex stories about our collective past. They are exhibited at the Grant County History Museum and at the Mitchell-Rountree Stone Cottage in Platteville. They are studied and puzzled over by researchers- history enthusiasts, school-age students and their teachers, and professional historians- at our Grant County Research Center.

The dining room at the 1837 Stone Cottage

We maintain three historic buildings. Our headquarters are at the Grant County Research Center at 129 E Maple St in Lancaster, which previously housed The Cunningham Museum. The vast resources of the Grant County Genealogy Society are on the first floor along with the Historical Society’s archives and offices. On the second floor of the old Cunningham Museum building we are developing a safe storage home for our artifacts. With conditions moderated by an independent HVAC system, we can protect our vast collections for generations to come.

In the basement, we store many of our artifacts. Removing artifacts from the moist basement is a primary goal to protect the collections. Your donation will go towards maintaining the integrity of this historic building and protecting the artifacts. We need to purchase 10 large shelving units that cost about $200 each. We also need hundreds of acid-free archivally safe boxes in which sorted, cleaned, and catalogued artifacts will be placed for their safety and longevity. These boxes are very expensive as they are specially treated so that the box will not harm the contents within. Boxes and other supplies to preserve the documents and photograph collection alone will cost about $5000. Boxes to store our beautiful costume collection and military uniforms will cost another $2000. To supervise this large project, we need trained curatorial help. These are not frivolous purchases, but are meant to save the collection or our kids and grand-kids and their kids.

Acid-free box

Next door to the Research Center at 135 E Maple St in Lancaster is our new Grant County History Museum. Chocked full of interesting and well documented exhibits that tell the story of our region, this Museum space is meant to create excitement and curiosity about our history. It is intended to be a gathering space for the communities we serve.

When we move past the Covid-19 pandemic, we know this will be a dynamic place with activities and programs for young and old alike. The historic building that houses the Museum has a water leakage problem during heavy rain storms. We need to fix this problem as soon as possible so we can continue to build out the lower level of the building to conduct workshops, demonstrations, and lectures. The cost of the stonework repair and building out the lower level to become a multi-use space is estimated to be about $10,000. Much of the labor for these projects is donated. We have an awesome volunteer crew!

We also maintain and preserve the Mitchell-Rountree Stone Cottage in Platteville, sited on 2.5 acres on Lancaster St at the corner of Madison. This amazing property was bequeathed to the Society by Laura J Rountree, a great grand-daughter of the original owner. Reverend Samuel Mitchell, a Revolutionary War veteran from Virginia, and his wife Eleanor, decided to retire in Platteville so they could be near their daughter. In 1837, they purchased forty acres for just $50.00 and built the Stone Cottage in a unique architectural style known as Virginia Tidewater. It is the oldest home in Platteville but also a rare example of this type of early home and an architectural gem. Laura J Rountree lived in the home from the day she was born in 1870 to the day she passed away in 1966. She made it her life’s work to preserve the Cottage to its beauty and charm. Her 2.5 acres of property, the Cottage, her furnishings and effects were donated to the Grant County Historical Society in 1959. The Society raised money in the early 1960s to allow Laura to remain in the home during her last years.

The home needs continual maintenance and sometimes repairs and rehabilitation. Currently the Society is raising funds to build a new front porch railing, replace seventeen broken window panes, tuckpoint the stone exterior, and complete a non-invasive weather-proofing project. These projects which are sorely needed are estimated to cost $5,000. We recently received a small grant from the Platteville Community Fund to pay for some of this, but your donation is needed to fill the funding gap.

The Cottage houses over 3000 artifacts left by Laura Rountree which need preservation and care. We received a Covid-19 Emergency grant in August to begin cataloging and housing the artifacts that are not on display in acid-free boxes. To complete this project with the cost of a Collections Manager to oversee volunteer efforts and buy the remaining needed boxes and supplies, we estimate this project to cost about $12,000. We also plan to create new exhibits during the next year.

So you can see, with the energy and commitment of our volunteer team, part-time professional oversight, and your donation, we can preserve, teach, and share the history of Grant County and southwest Wisconsin for generations that come. We can create interesting, thought-provoking exhibits, offer programs for all age groups, come together with our neighbors, and meet new friends as we explore the rich cultures and history of Grant County.

Please become a member today or donate toward one of the projects mentioned above. We need you! Click here to learn about becoming a supporter!

Reflecting on 2019 at GCHS

Dr. Rachel Lewis, Museum Director

2019 was a banner year for the Grant County Historical Society. Our major achievement? The opening of the Grant County History Museum. Taking an empty store front and making it into a museum is not easily done. For 3 months in 2019, I poured all my time and energy into making that museum happen. What resulted was the new Grant County History Museum (GCHM). It was a monstrous push that involved a lot of long days and the help of some extraordinarily dedicated volunteers. I could not have done it without them.

Renee Heimdal did all of our graphic design for the project, including this logo.

With the new museum complete and open to the public, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain to you my thinking about the museum. I used three objectives for this new museum and made all my decisions about the museum with these things in mind.

1) Visitors leave with a sense of the history of Grant County and what makes it unique
2) Create a space that could be self-guided 3) Create a structure for the museum that would allow us to easily add in or switch out collection items as desired.

Joe Greer’s Chaps in the Arts & Entertainment portion of the museum.

These criteria led me to select items for display that had a known story connected to Grant County. If the item didn’t tell a story about Grant County, it did not make it into the first rounds of moving. Having only been in my position a year, I am sure there are items in our collection that I overlooked. That is one of the advantages of the way the museum is structured. We can easily add items into the space without totally upending the exhibits.

The structure of the museum is based on 8 broad categories that the museum committee chose: Land, People, Arts & Entertainment, Education, Industry, Medicine, Military, and Agriculture. Each has collection items on display as well as interpretive panels. There are stories of Grant County that are not represented in GCHM simply because we don’t, as far as I am aware, have the material culture (stuff) to go with those stories. As soon as we have that material culture, those stories can be added.

Agriculture section of the museum

The large interpretive panels mentioned above cover the broad history of that theme in Grant County. Visitors will have the option to guide themselves through the museum at their own pace – whether that be 20 minutes or two hours. Nothing can replace a guided tour, but having a self-guided option may help with visitation and recruiting new volunteers; including you, dear reader.

As always, none of this work would be possible without your continued support. The time and talents of our volunteers as well as your financial support all go to supporting our mission to enrich lives by collecting, preserving, and sharing the history of Grant County.

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As I am sure you have noticed, this post is about the Grant County History Museum and not the Cunningham Museum. Back in September of 2019, the GCHS Board voted to change the name of the museum to the Grant County History Museum as they felt the previous name did not reflect all that was in the museum and visitors were not coming to the museum as they were unsure of what it was. With a new location, it felt an appropriate time to reconsider the name of the museum.