MOUNT HOREB — Duluth Trading Co. is building its headquarters here, apartments are going up behind the Hoff Mall and there’s a new bike shop in town.
History has also received an impressive upgrade at the corner of South Second and East Front streets.
What appears to be the return of the Mount Horeb House, a two-story hotel constructed in 1882 but removed about 10 years ago, is part of what may be one of the most ambitious and impressive historical museum projects in the state for a community of its size.
The doors will open Saturday on the Driftless Historium, a 14,500-square-foot museum, archive, research facility and community center that celebrates and preserves the past of southwestern Dane County while adding another piece to the downtown’s economy in this village of just over 7,300 people. It includes artifacts from Little Norway, while the gift shop will sell Troll Tracks, an ice cream specially created by the UW-Platteville’s Dairy Science program using milk produced by the university’s Pioneer Farm dairy herd.
“We have a very large collection and the primary reason for starting this project was to get a better space to store those things and to make sure they’re safe for the future,” said Destinee Udelhoven, the full-time executive director of the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society. “It started out as a storage facility that went in a larger direction.”
And in an impressive way.
The $1.8 million project has been in the works for years. Talk of what is now the Historium began in 2005 and resulted in a $275,000 fundraiser for the purchase and removal of the dilapidated former hotel. That helped pave the way for the comprehensive project by the historical society located across the street from the Grumpy Troll Brew Pub.
Major financial contributors to the effort include Steve & Marianne Schlecht and the Schlecht Family Foundation. Steve Schlecht is the executive chairman of Duluth Trading Co., which will have its corporate name on the Historium’s research center. Other donors include the Kalscheur Family Foundation and Pleasant Rowland. Equally impressive is that the project received 625 other donations, including 120 of $1,000 or more.
“From a tourist aspect, it’s another attraction to help boost our economy, especially with the closing of Little Norway,” said Melissa Theisen, executive director of the Mount Horeb Area Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of this redevelopment that’s going on in our downtown has also given us the opportunity to become more of a historic district.”
The museum building on the hotel site includes a first-floor archive, library room, an 800-square-foot space for rotating exhibits and a prep area in the back of the building to clean and ready items that come into the museum. The upstairs offers 4,000 square feet to store larger items in the museum’s collection, such as furniture, signs and equipment, while the gift shop and ice cream counter are in a new building on the site of the former Troll Inn and Corella’s Alleys.
The third building, once home to Gilbertson’s Hardware, which was constructed in 1886, will continue to house the museum’s permanent exhibit, but it is being expanded to 2,000 square feet and reorganized. An adjoining community room will be used for special programs and provide some exhibit space.
Johnna Buysse is the historical society’s curator of collections and education and was hired for the three-quarter-time position in 2015. She has a master’s degree in archeology and spent 18 years as an archeologist in southern California and Texas, but moved to Dane County in 2007 when her husband took a job at Epic Systems Corp. in Verona. In 2009, the couple moved to Mount Horeb, where it didn’t take long for Buysse to be recruited to be on the museum’s board of directors.
“This is remarkably unusual,” Buysse, a Kalmazoo, Michigan, native, said of the Historium. “A lot of small historical societies have relatively small collections, but the collecting in this area has been prolific. I, personally, haven’t seen a collection this size from an organization of this size ever. The opportunity to have the stories told is really wonderful for us and for the community.”
The collection is curated from within the boundaries of the Mount Horeb School District and includes the communities of Pine Bluff, Daleyville and Blue Mounds and the towns of Springdale, Perry, Vermont, Primrose and Blue Mounds. The historical society’s museum opened in 1977 on the top floor of the municipal building, moved to its present location in 1996 and tracks the lives of the native Ho Chunk Indians and Scottish, German, Irish, Swiss and Norwegian settlers.
There are quilts, campaign signs from former Wisconsin governor, presidential candidate and Primrose native Robert M. La Follette and a neon sign from Evans Creamery. Clothing, household goods, tools and nearly 25,000 photographs and thousands of documents relating to the area’s history have been collected, most of them crammed into the third floor of the municipal building.
But the construction of the Historium provides more appropriate space and allows the village to better use its building while providing another amenity to the tourists who come to explore nearby Blue Mounds State Park, walk the Trollway or ride the Military Ridge Bike Trail. The first special exhibit, “Creators, Collectors and Community,” walks visitors through the history of how the village became known for its trolls. Funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council via the National Endowment for the Humanities, it includes not only trolls but pieces acquired from Little Norway, a major tourist attraction from 1937 until its closing in 2014.
“It goes from Mount Horeb being this enclave of all sorts of different groups,” said Udelhoven, a South Dakota native who was the director at the Indian Agency House in Portage for six years. “By the end of our exhibit, we see how we become this sort of distilled Norwegian identity, that isn’t a true reflection really of our roots, but as who we have become today that we’re very proud of in becoming the Troll Capital of the World.”
The pieces from Little Norway include murals removed from the walls of buildings, wooden cabinets and a chair carved from a log. Visitors eventually will be able to explore the stave church, built in Norway for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and relocated to Little Norway in 1935. In the fall of 2015, the church was dismantled and shipped back to Norway, where it will be reassembled this year.
The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery at UW-Madison did a 3-D scan of the exterior and interior of the building, prior to it being taken apart. The information will be used in a kiosk at the historium, where visitors can use a set of goggles to take a virtual five-minute tour narrated by Scott Winner, whose family founded Little Norway. The project is being funded by the Raymond & Margaret Vicker Charitable Trust, under the counsel of trustee Alexander Hobson, a cousin of Winner.
Two other sites, possibly a church and a barn, could also be scanned as part of the project.
“They really would represent the history of this area with the agriculture and community connections,” Udelhoven said. “It’s too bad (the stave church) had to go, but hopefully (the kiosk) will catch the interest of the folks who remember it and the folks who never had a chance to visit.”