Editor’s note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
Before a community can move forward, it must first understand its past.
At the forefront of this effort stands the Rock County Historical Society, an entity charged with preserving and sharing the stories and artifacts that helped shape this area’s history. And the man behind the RCHS is Tim Maahs, the organization’s executive director.
A Janesville native, Maahs grew up in Menomonee Falls and attended Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School. After high school, he pursued a business degree at Madison Business College. Maahs’ first job out of college was in the records management division for an environmental engineering and consulting firm in Madison. After seven years, he moved on to an IT position supporting systems for administrative functions.
Maahs took the skills he learned in those positions to a job with the Wisconsin Historical Society, which helped set the stage for his career in history preservation. Among his goals as executive director at RCHS is to show visitors that history is fun and to ensure it is available to all who seek to learn more about it.
Maahs is married with no children but does have two dogs: Roberta, a 13-year-old cocker spaniel, and Arlo, a 2-year-old Maltese.
1. When people hear the term “Rock County Historical Society,” what tends to be the first thing that comes to mind? The Lincoln-Tallman House. I believe this is because the Rock County Historical Society was formed in response to the city of Janesville receiving a gift from George Kemp Tallman in 1950. We have continued to grow and evolve over the last 70 years to form a campus that surrounds the Lincoln-Tallman House that draws in visitors from all over the region.
2. Share a historical fact most of Janesville doesn’t know about. There were actually four car makers in Janesville prior to General Motors’ arrival. The Samson Company, The Monitor Automobile Works, The Wisconsin Motor Car Company and The Owen-Thomas Motor Car Company. This sort of thing was not unique to Janesville. However, it is truly a lesser-known fact.
3. If you were transported back in time, what do you think would be the most difficult adjustment to living in the Tallman era? Times were certainly different in the days of the Tallman family, and I think it would be difficult to have such a delay in learning about current events. That said, I think in today’s world, we might have gotten too far ahead of the curve. However, there is certainly a middle point we could find.
4. What person in history would you most like to meet? Theodore Roosevelt, because of his great ingenuity in times of great strife. I feel it would have been an incredible time to be a part of something so impactful.
5. On average, how many people visit RCHS facilities each year? There are more than 13,000 visitors who come to RCHS in any given year, but 2020 has been an exception. That said, I have been quite impressed with the number of visitors we have been able to have this year.
6. Are you more of a city person or a country person? I am less of a big-city person, for certain. Growing up on the outskirts of Milwaukee, I always found it to be so much less stressful to not be in the middle of it. I love to visit big cities but am always glad to get back home. Janesville is the largest city I have lived in since leaving Milwaukee 30 years ago.
7. Why is it particularly important to preserve the structures on the RCHS campus? The collection of structures on the campus are fantastic teaching and learning platforms that draw people in for many different reasons. It is important for any community to be able to share stories of past successes and failures and to learn and grow from them.
8. Does the RCHS offer any help to people seeking information on their personal histories? The Rock County Genealogical Society offers assistance with genealogy research. This group is made up of committed, capable volunteers who have a passion for helping people understand their past. In 2020, much of this work had to go on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the six months before the outbreak, the team from RCGS was housed in the Helen Jeffris Wood Museum & Visitor Center with RCHS staff.
9. Share something people would be surprised to find out about you. I love cars. I have always loved cars. From the engineering to the performance aspects, I have been fascinated since I was a young child.
10. Do you have any superstitions? To be honest, I don’t think I have any superstitions. That said, I have always been fascinated by people who do.
11. What drew you to the position of RCHS executive director? I have long been interested in history. Each summer while growing up, our parents would take us to different historic sites in Wisconsin so we could learn about the people who came before us. This led to a strong passion for historic architecture. I have restored six properties prior to moving to Janesville in the early 2000s, and I am completing my 12th year serving as a member of the city of Janesville’s Historic Preservation Commission. Back in 2006, I was asked to serve on the board of RCHS. I willingly stepped in and have not been able to shake it since. Additionally, I worked for the Wisconsin Historical Society for five years before joining RCHS as an official employee.
12. Explain the importance of volunteers in the continued operation of the RCHS. As with most nonprofits, volunteers are our lifeblood. We cannot accomplish any of the outreach programming without such a dedicated team. 2020 has been so difficult because we could not have our volunteers perform any work inside of our facilities. This was a difficult decision, but the right decision in the interest of the health and safety of everyone involved. We did get a number of volunteers who wanted to work in our gardens. The campus looked amazing this summer!
13. Left-handed or right-handed? Right-handed, but left-hand dominated. I really only write with my right hand but always start any task with my left. It’s the best of both worlds!
14. Are there any common misconceptions about local history you’d like to discount? Well, not discount but rather clarify. Many people know Abraham Lincoln visited Janesville in 1859, but some think he was president at the time. He was not. He was touring the area speaking about abolition, a topic about which the Tallman family was strongly supportive. And 1859 was not his first trip to the area. He also passed through southcentral Wisconsin (not yet a state) in 1832 while serving in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War.
15. What was your first car? I owned a 1973 Chevrolet Impala that was generously given to me by my father. It was yellow with a black vinyl top. It was really on its last legs, so I saved my money and purchased a 1977 Ford Granada for $700. Not sure that was much better!
16. Bound books or e-reader? Bound. There is something about the tactile connection to the pages when reading a good story.
17. For its time, the Lincoln-Tallman House was believed to have housed the latest in modern technology. Can you share some of those advancements? There are four cisterns located on the third floor of the primary section of the house. These cisterns collected rainwater and provided running water to the built-in sinks in each of the family bedrooms and the guest room. The house was built between 1855 and 1857 and outfitted with piping for natural gas. These pipes were to provide fuel to light each of the gasoliers throughout the mansion. Mr. Tallman insisted that this be done even though natural gas had not been an option in Janesville yet. It wasn’t until 1869 that natural gas was connected to the Tallman House. There are many more advancements that can be learned by taking part in a Tallman Technologies Tour.
18. Do you collect anything? I collect household antiques of many types with a strong focus on kitchen and dining housewares. I do this because it reminds me of my grandmother and special times we shared.
19. What initially got you interested in history? As an adoptee who had no knowledge about my own personal history, I am driven toward helping people understand their own histories and that of this community. It has been a driving force for me as I have navigated my adult life.
20. Aside from the obvious impact of COVID-19, what will we be remembered for when historians look back on 2020 many years from now? In Janesville, it will be that the people of this community continued to demonstrate their tenacity to be Janesville strong. This is a longstanding tradition here.