Deb Nelles realized nearly 25 years ago there wasn’t a great record of Mosinee’s history. So she started compiling information on her own.
A 1915 letter to the board members of Wausau Sulphate Fibre Co., the original name for Mosinee Papers. Nelles found the document, as she has found many other artifacts, in a friends’ garage.
It was in the early 1990s when Deb Nelles’ kids were assigned to write a high school English paper about the history of Mosinee and ran into a problem: There were few sources to find information. And that raised a larger problem about Mosinee’s past. So as an avid history nerd, Nelles decided to do something about that and started collecting artifacts.
She went to auctions and bought items no matter if they were in great shape or not. People around Mosinee gave her family heirlooms they had sitting around the house or copies of old family photos. Sometimes she just found things when walking through friend’s garages.
Slowly but surely over the past 25 years, Nelles gathered enough information about Mosinee’s past to form the Mosinee Area Historical Society, and set up exhibits at special events.
Now, Mosinee’s historical society is finally getting its own building thanks to a special arrangement: leasing the old DNR ranger station, which the city of Mosinee has owned for years, for $1 to the new historical preservation organization. The building will require considerable renovation before it’s suitable for the public, but that, too, is in the works.
Located on the east side of Mosinee, the ranger station itself has an interesting backstory. It was constructed in the 1950s and used as a fire station before being shut down in the mid-90s. The site has one of the few fire towers left in the state. The tower was constructed in the 1940s so the DNR could spot forest fires around the area but was decommissioned in the early 2000s; the DNR now uses drones for forest fire monitoring. Mosinee has a history of devastating fires and near misses, including a 1910 fire that swept through downtown and destroyed many of the businesses there.
Mosinee Mayor Brent Jacobsen says the city’s deal with the historical society is a great public/private partnership that keeps a historically significant building upright.
“Mosinee has a rich logging and Native American history. That needs to be preserved,” Jacobsen says. “We have a lot preserved (at the downtown library) but the ranger station is a great place where you can put this stuff on display.”
Speaking of stuff to put on display, Nelles has collected some fascinating artifacts from Mosinee’s past. Some of the highlights:
• The original plat map of Mosinee from 1857, drawn on cloth that now must be kept in a climate-controlled environment.
• The original letter (on cloth) from when Joseph Dessert made the final payment on the logging route he purchased in 1863. Dessert moved from Quebec, Canada to Mosinee and bought a mill in town. Eventually, he was running the mill himself and by the 1890s was the richest person to own a logging company individually in Wisconsin.
Nelles says she discovered both of those items when she was going through friends’ houses because they had other artifacts for her to check out. What horrified her was that both pieces of cloth were lying on the garage floors and walked on by the homeowners. “They didn’t even know they were stepping on history like that,” Nelles says. Those items will require substantial rehabilitation but won’t ever be fully restored.
Not too long after Nelles began collecting various items, word spread around town about her efforts to preserve Mosinee’s history. When the Logjam Festival started in 2007 in Mosinee, organizers invited Nelles to display the items she and others collected over the years. Nelles says the historical society has been so blessed by donations from community members that despite 10 years of different themes displayed at Logjam, they have another 20 years worth of themes to exhibit before starting again.
That’s why the historical society getting a place to show off artifacts year-round is so important: Some of the items shown at Logjam 10 years haven’t been seen by the public since. “This time we have a place where we can rotate these things around so it stays new and fresh,” Nelles says. “The things we do in the past stay out there.”
The biggest issue for every nonprofit organization is always funding. Mosinee Area Historical Society became a 501c3 in 2014. In 2016, the historical society first approached city government to help find a location.
Raising funds to cover the cost of renovations to the ranger station, which needs a new paint job, roof, and ample interior work, is close. Nelles says they’ve raised $20,000—exterior renovations will cost $24,000 and the interior will cost $6,000.
In the meantime, Nelles is branching out and conducting educational events throughout the community. She provided a lot of information to third grade teachers in Mosinee a few years ago so they could give a presentation to their classes. “They didn’t know where to go for information on the city’s past so they came to me,” Nelles says.
Nelles will give two, hour-long community education presentations April 19 and 26 at Mosinee High School, focusing on pre-1900s Mosinee in the first one and 1900-1950 in the second. Both are free events. Also, expect to see Nelles and others this year at Logjam Fest, Kronenwetter Fest and Halloween Fest.
“My father raised me with an interest in history. I just started digging and recording,” Nelles says. “Someone needed to start writing this down. The history was going to be lost otherwise.”
What history is hidden in your house?
Marathon County Historical Society Librarian Gary Gisselman: Objects show that how we got to where we are today “didn’t just happen. It came through advancements in our culture and technology.”
Preserving artifacts for history is not on the same level as collecting valuable antiques. Perfect condition doesn’t matter to people like Nelles and Marathon County Historical Society Librarian/Archivist Gary Gisselman. Artifacts in presentable shape is what matters the most.
Gisselman says the Marathon County Historical Society thrives off donations from private individuals. Marathon County history volunteers don’t go to auctions or estate sales to buy items. Rather, they allow people to bring in items, or arrange for staff to visit homes, to judge whether or not an item is worthy of preservation. And when someone thinks their artifact is important, more often than not it’s donated to the historical society, Gisselman says.
“People bring things in almost every day,” Gisselman says. “Most people are cleaning out their house and they ask, ‘Can the historical society use this?’ Then we would take a look at it and determine whether or not it was important.”
Gisselman says the historical society wouldn’t be what it is if people didn’t rummage through their homes or their relative’s homes from time to time and found goodies to donate.
The importance of preserving history with the help of artifacts isn’t just to tell a story about a specific time period or to show off a curious item. Objects even as mundane as old kitchen and farm tools show how we got to where we are today. One of the current exhibits at the Marathon County Historical Society shows how dramatically life changed in the county when electricity was introduced to communities in the early 1900s. “People need to know the way we are now didn’t just happen. It came through advancements in our culture and technology,” Gisselman says.