written by Kathy Engel, SWCHC Librarian
I’m known in my family for remembering dates. When were we in New England? 1989 and 2007. When is Uncle Gary’s birthday? July 23. When did Wood become a county? 1856.
Keeping track of when events happen is important to me as it was to my dad who always labeled his photographs with name, place, and year. My mother, Kay Hermsen Stewart, loved the stories of the past. She was very involved with the Oconto County Historical Society in Oconto, Wis., where my dad, Robert “Pat” Hermsen and I were born. She wrote the column “Historic Oconto” throughout the 1980s. And she had a degree in history, as do I, along with my library degree.
I retired as a school librarian with the Wisconsin Rapids Area school district in 2014, after spending 21 years in school libraries, kindergarten through high school, and 13 years at McMillan Memorial Library in reference, children’s and cataloging.
My first school library job was in Plainfield, Wis., where I met teacher Gary Engel, who, in 1984, suggested I meet his brother, who had just published River City Memoirs I and was working on River City Memoirs II, collections of Daily Tribune columns about the history of central Wisconsin. The previous year, he had been named City Historian of Wisconsin Rapids.
I happily joined Dave on research trips, going to Registers of Deeds, cemeteries, interviews, libraries and remote country areas where people from Wood County came from. I remember bouncing in the bed of a pick-up truck with my two step-daughters and a large dog in 1987, while Dave and Hebron, N.Y., historian Harold Craig conversed about the Wakely family who had come from Hebron to Wood County in the 1830s.
Now, my daughter Angelica is updating the SWCHC website and managing this historical blog. As an archivist with the SWCH Museum, I will be contributing content about some of the documents, papers, letters and photographs that have been donated over the years.
That trip to New England? Dave, Angelica and I visited 16 cemeteries in Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut in the search for the history of the Witter family, ancestors of Isaac P. Witter who, along with his wife Charlotte, originally built and lived in the historic house that is now the Museum.
written by Alison Breuner, Museum Assistant
Having grown up in Port Edwards, I have always heard the names of Edwards, Alexander, Witter and Mead. Though time has passed and names have changed, their legacies still surround the people of this region and give us opportunities.
It is through the Edwards and Alexander families I received my primary education. Across from what once was the Nekoosa Edwards Paper Co. and under the ever watchful gaze of the Statue of John Edwards Jr., I went to preschool in the South Wood County YMCA. My primary education was completed all through the Port Edwards school district. I walked the same terrazzo floor that stretches the length of the main hall of the John Edwards High School that 79 graduating classes had walked before me. The history of the town and the names associated seemed to be everywhere I looked and would even follow me further.
I attended Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, linked to Wisconsin Rapids by several members of the Mead family. George W. Mead served on the board of trustees for the college from 1958-1961; today the all-girls dormitory is named after him. His daughter Emily Baldwin Bell served as a trustee from 1960-1978 and donated nearly $700,000 through her lifetime. The dining hall, the Baldwin Commons, is named after her and her husband’s connections with the school. Ruth Barker, Emily’s daughter and George W. Mead’s granddaughter, gave money to build the geoscience wing in the Larson-Juhl Center for Science and the Environment; more money to help renovate Wheeler Hall (where most of my time was spent); left $1 million in her estate; and was a former director for the Mead Witter Foundation Scholarship which I received. It is something special to have had these names be there for every step of my education from pre-school through my Bachelor of Arts degree in History.
Before I could obtain that degree, however, I first needed to complete a semester-long internship. I have long dreamed of working in a museum. For a small town girl, museums were extraordinary in their abundance of primary sources. The internship enabled me to work in the archives, see beyond the exhibits, and communicate information to the public. The summer before my senior year, I returned home and earned my credits by being the intern for the South Wood County Historical Museum that once was Isaac Witter’s family home. I was able to experience firsthand the archival experience. I am fortunate enough to go beyond daily operations at the museum by writing for the local history publication, Artifacts.
Today, a year after graduation, I am fortunate to work at the Museum as an assistant. I’m still learning things every day, from how to preserve archives, working on new exhibits and the keeping records of local history. It just seems right that after being given the opportunities I have through the pioneer names of this community that I can still learn, and in return give back to the community and help to continue to keep records of the history of this community.