History Museums: Some Discoveries Come in a Small Package

Aztalan Museum

Aztalan Museum

You’ve seen them: those little museums housed in old mansions or school buildings. A wooden sign out front bears the name of the local historical society and some infrequent hours of operation. It’s easy to look right past those signs. After all, the spotty hours can give the impression that little museums are usually closed.

The little museum in Aztalan, Wisconsin, on the west bank of the Crawfish River, comprises the village’s former church plus other historic buildings that have been relocated to the site. On a recent sunny afternoon, I paid a visit at long last. I’d been to the big Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, with its fascinating walk-through exhibit about ancient Aztalan. But at this smaller museum I hoped to get a sense of how life had been for the 19th century pioneers who built farms and towns on the land around the Crawfish.

In some ways, local history museums throughout the Midwest are probably similar from one county to the next. The artefacts, many donated by townspeople whose ancestors settled the area, include hundred-year-old silk suits and gowns, a pump organ from a prominent family’s parlor, and photographs of once-grand hotels and courthouses.

But in addition to the commonalities are items that really tell us where we are and remind us that every place has a unique past. At the Aztalan Museum I found an 1872 map of Jefferson County that showed how railroads made some towns flourish and others – like the bypassed Aztalan — fade. I saw a photo of a fish trap – like a dam of flat-topped stones – that native people had built to catch fish near present-day Milford. That made me realize that “Milford” was situated and named because of a shallow area, or ford, in the Crawfish River. And I studied a framed display of some 200 arrowheads – arrayed in a heart-shaped heraldic pattern. They had all been collected along the Crawfish River in the 1800s by a homesteader near Faville Grove. The next time I visit Faville Grove, I’ll be doubly reminded of who walked there before me.

Is there a little museum near you? Jot down its spotty hours the next time you happen past. Or get out your phone and snap a picture of the sign. Then plan a visit, and see what surprising things you can learn about a history you thought you knew.Pioneer Aztalan sign