Historical society, Legion join forces for project

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Dave Bretl | November 25, 2013

I had one of the nicest Veterans days that I can remember earlier this month, when I joined the Walworth County Historical Society and the Walworth County American Legion Council in recognizing the day. In addition to honoring our nation's veterans, the observance served a second purpose: dedicating a permanent veterans exhibit at the historical society's new museum building. I was asked to speak on the topic of the importance of preserving military memorabilia.  I was happy to give the speech; it is an important topic. It also gave me an opportunity to publically thank both the historical society and the Legion for the important missions they support in Walworth County.

While many counties levy hundreds of thousands of dollars to support and staff museums, Walworth County is fortunate to have the historical society. The society is a private organization that operates independently from county government. County taxpayers make a small contribution to the society ($10,000 in 2014), but the lion's share of its funding comes from donations and the efforts of its many dedicated members.

The historical society is probably best known for the Webster House, which it maintains in Elkhorn. That house not only documents the life and times of Joseph Philbrick Webster, an important early county resident and musical composer, but is packed with many other exhibits. In 2011, the historical society saw an opportunity to expand its campus by acquiring an adjacent building that had come on the market. Society officers Doris Reinke and Dan Richardson arranged for a $100,000 loan from the county to help with the purchase. Combined with its own cash, the historical society closed the deal in the summer of 2012. In this era of grants to businesses and forgivable development loans that are never repaid, the historical society's approach was refreshing; they will pay the county back, in full, over the next 10 years.

The new building, which is named Heritage Hall, will help the historical society by providing meeting space and room to display exhibits that are currently in storage. Heritage Hall also will provide relief to the Webster House, permitting it to focus on the history of that building as well as the life and times of Webster. The house predates the establishment of Walworth County and has a fascinating history of its own.

Focusing on a different mission than the historical society, but with no less energy, the Walworth County American Legion Council organizes the efforts of the county's 10 American Legion posts. I have had the opportunity to interact with the council in two events that they sponsor, Support the Troops rallies and Student Government Day. These activities, while significant, represent just a fraction of the many programs in which these Legionnaires are involved.

Following Sept. 11 and the deployment of American troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, Legionnaire Bob Webster helped organize weekly Support the Troops rallies at the Walworth County Government Center. In addition to honoring servicemen and women with county connections, the event provides support for military families. To say that the Legion is committed to this cause is an understatement. Last Labor Day marked the 444th weekly rally.

The group also has been active in assembling and mailing packages and cards to combat troops. In addition to snacks, cards and quilts, the council sends items that I never would have thought of, but which are in high demand by our servicemen and women, including personal GPS units, coffee makers and baseball gloves (190 of them as of last April).

The council also is instrumental in sponsoring Youth Government Day. Council Commander Bob Miller and Legion members have been organizing and supporting this effort for many years. The event provides high school students throughout the county the opportunity to learn about how county government and our court systems work.

Given the can-do philosophy of both the Legion and the historical society, it shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that the two organizations would collaborate to find a solution to a problem that faced the county. As our WWII and Korean-era veterans grow older, important memorabilia associated with their service was being thrown out or sold at garage sales. Recognizing that this important history was being lost, Webster put out a call for help to local governments and civic organizations. With its newly acquired space, the historical society stepped forward and agreed to make room available at Heritage Hall for a permanent exhibit. 

Despite the fact that this effort has just gotten off the ground, I was impressed by the quantity and quality of items that were on hand. The exhibit was aided by numerous glass display cases donated by Macy's following a renovation of one of its stores. As more county veterans learn about the opportunity to safeguard military artifacts for future generations, I expect that the collection will become even more impressive. If you missed the Veterans Day event, don't worry. I understand that a formal dedication of Heritage Hall will be taking place in the spring.

Both the historical society and the Legion council make important contributions to the quality of life in Walworth County.

You can learn more about the historical society by visiting www.walcohistory.org. Its website contains information about the organization and upcoming events, as well as a pictorial tour of the Webster House.

If you would like to support the troops this holiday season, attending an upcoming Support the Troops rally is a great way to start. Rallies are held at the government center in Elkhorn at 11 a.m. every Monday.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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