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Friday, 12 August 2016 12:20

Visitors invited to explore pieces of Walworth's past

Written by  Edwin Scherzer
Nancy Lehman, president of the Historical Society of Walworth and Big Foot Prairie, checks for information in the society's files. The society recently marked the grand opening of its new museum and historical library on the corner of Maple Avenue and South Main Street in Walworth. Nancy Lehman, president of the Historical Society of Walworth and Big Foot Prairie, checks for information in the society's files. The society recently marked the grand opening of its new museum and historical library on the corner of Maple Avenue and South Main Street in Walworth. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- There is just something exciting about a new home. Despite the packing, unpacking and deciding where the family’s precious memories go, a new locale gives new perspective. This was exactly the case for members of the Historical Society of Walworth and Big Foot Prairie as they moved their displays and artifacts into a permanent location just one block off the village square.

The move literally took a village, as society President Nancy Lehman can attest.

“I delegated. Some items were brought over by car, heavy display cases were moved by young men,” she said. “Our society is a group of 180 people; it’s impossible for one person to do it all.”

The collection of books, clothing and memorabilia was moved starting in October. Some of the items were stored at the town hall, but admittedly, a majority resided in Lehman’s basement.

Lehman, a retired cytologist from Rockford Memorial Hospital, has been the heart and face of the historical society and an avid historian for some time.

“I’m busier now in retirement than I was when I commuted to Rockford,” she said.

The society’s new home is the former site of Walworth Memorial Library. The 2,400-square-foot building, at the corner of Maple Avenue and South Main Street, was sold by the village of Walworth government to the society for $120,000. The space had been empty since the library moved in January, and Lehman and the society were happy to fill it.

The historical society made a bit of its own history last month with a grand opening. Dr. Harold Bonner, a veterinarian for decades and 95 years young, cut the ribbon to officially open the facility. Various members were on hand to highlight portions of the museum and library as some 80 people took part in the self-guided tour. Collections are split between the main floor and the basement.

 Downstairs is still a work in progress, but according to society Vice President Diana Bird, Lehman works wonders in a short amount of time.

 “You’ll be aware of a project or donation that’s come in and it’s done before you get here,” Bird said. “She (Lehman) is quite a woman. They are very lucky to have her as an unofficial historian.”

One half of downstairs is designated as the Military Room with clothing and artifacts representing various time periods and branches of service. The other side includes displays of pioneer artifacts, presidential items and recordings that Lehman hopes to let visitors listen to in the near future.

Upstairs a 4,000-piece resource collection features books and manuscripts depicting family lineage, history from around the world, Wisconsin places and counties and literature on genealogy. Other exhibits of interest in the library/research area include displays on the Civil War, farming and the Church family exhibit.

Visitors also may use the surname and obituary card files for genealogy research of their own.

The presentation room that will delight visitors and quilters alike is the McElwain Quilt Shop.

The display features nearly a dozen quilts from the early 1900s, as well as patterns that Mary A. McElwain sold in her quilt shop and through mail order. The store, located in downtown Walworth from 1912 to 1952, was popular with shoppers from Chicago and all over southeastern Wisconsin.

Bird, who also acts as librarian, said society members hope to reach out to the community.

“It’s important for people to remember the past, and hopefully we’ll do some school presentations related to something they’re learning,” Bird said.

The historical library and museum is currently only open on Wednesdays, but society members hope to offer a second open day, perhaps Saturdays as an alternate day, starting in October.

 As for a new home welcome gift, Lehman said the greatest need is funding.

 “Patrons are the most important group because they pay annually,” she said. “We keep it low because we want to keep our members and don’t want to chase them away.”

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