Witter History, Family-Style

written by Angelica Engel, Website Coordinator

On June 28, 2007, my father and I crashed through underbrush in the woods of Hopkinton, Rhode Island, looking for the grave of Josiah Witter, the (how many greats?) grandfather of Isaac Witter, whose 540 Third Street home is now the Museum.

We found Josiah’s gravestone, took photos, and journeyed back to the car, where my mother waited. We washed our legs with soap and water to prevent the onset of poison ivy rashes. We must have done a good job, because neither of us ended up breaking out.

I was 17 and knew the name “Witter” primarily from “Witter Field,” the place I sometimes played tennis with friends and LHS girls’ tennis teammates.

Searching for Josiah Witter’s gravestone in the woods with my dad was business as usual for me. Before I entered grade school, I had accompanied him up to Hibbing, Minn., many a time as he researched the then-washed-up Bob Dylan. I remember falling asleep at Iron World (a nearby historic site) as my parents chit-chatted with pop singer Bobby Vee, who had given then Bob Zimmerman his first paid gig. I also have walked the deserted streets of Calumet, Upper Michigan, a tiny town that once boomed with the business of the copper mines. When we went to Arizona, we made a point to tour multiple old Spanish missions.

I didn’t appreciate until recently that these vacations with my family are part of the reason my worldview has grown to be broad and receptive to new information. That’s what happens when a historian and a librarian take a kid on a trip.

That trip out east in 2007 involved many graves, poet Emily Dickinson’s and Beat-chronicler Jack Kerouac’s among them. I related strongly at the time to the writers and artists and was having all sorts of existential crises involving Kerouac’s On the Road the whole trip. Josiah Witter’s significance remained much more opaque.

Fortunately, the ten years that have elapsed between then and now have taught me a thing or two about money; specifically, ownership. Mr. Josiah Witter is important because he is a close ancestor of Mr. Jere D. Witter, who owned part of most businesses in what is now Wisconsin Rapids at the turn of the 20th Century.

When I was 17, as far as I was concerned, everything that exists is shared, and “ownership” is a fairy tale. Now that I’ve adulted for a while, I see why having a stake in so much of a city such as Wisconsin Rapids at a boom time would mean we would go find that person’s grave in the woods

At age 17, I did understand that accompanying my father on a quest to find a grave in a strange woods was pretty cool to be doing. Obviously, I still enjoy the memory.

Thanks, Dad!

Josiah Witter’s gravestone in the woods of Hopkinton, Rhode Island.

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Photos from the Museum’s First Two Years

The following photos were captured during the Museum’s first two years of operation, 1972 and 1973. Museum Assistant Alison Bruener is compiling a portfolio of photos taken throughout the Museum’s 45 years at what used to be the T.B. Scott Public Library. She selected this sample of photos to share.

Front of the Museum, 1972

Oct. 18, 1972, Cranberry Room, Mrs. S.G. Corey and friends.

1972, Country Kitchen Stove. Identity of women unknown.

1972, the Sun Room, also known as the Board Room. Identity of individuals unknown.

1972, Mrs. Kay Brazeau

1973, the living room. In 2017, this is now the Grim Natwick exhibit.

1972, Mrs. Emily (Mead) Baldwin (Bell)

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Goodbye Forever

written by (Uncle) Dave Engel, LHS 1963, SWCHC Director Emeritus

When I left town, I thought it was for good.

Late summer 50 years ago, in 1967, I abandoned the Rapids paper mill beater room to motor west from River City in a twin-finned baby blue ’59 Pontiac that could easily cruise at 120 mph. Most likely, I was smoking Salems, drinking Coke and lunching on meat loaf sandwiches from Mom.

Pretty much every time I stopped, whether at a relic gas station on old U.S. 30 or at a truck stop on a completed section of Interstate 80, I bought a picture postcard. Images of Rockford, Des Moines and Omaha were sent like homing pigeons back to from where I came, messaging that I was moving alone across the massive mid-American terrain toward a quasi-academic future I hoped would not include Viet Nam. If the front of the postcard bore the image of the state capitol and “Greetings from Iowa,” the reverse carried my sentiments, “Goodbye forever.”

I may have slept an hour or two at a wayside. I know I steamed late the next day into a ramshackle service station on the outskirts of Sidney, Neb., where a kindly mechanic not much older than myself somehow found a water pump and installed it by sunset.

Somewhere in the middle of that night, I descended Medicine Bow pass into a dusty former frontier outpost a long ways from the green, green grass of home. The front of the last card from 50-years-ago pictures Wyoming’s Ragtime Cowboy Joe and is inscribed, “Greetings from Laramie.” You know what the back says.

Uncle Dave’s “50 years ago” timeline appeared in the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, beginning in 1989 to commemorate 1939’s World War II.

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