PdC Historical Society gains $7,000 in grants

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This is one of three scenes painted on a 17-foot-long panel on one wall in the former music room at Wyalusing Academy. The title of the scene is “La Salle at the Mouth of the Mississippi 1682.” Water streaks can be seen on the right side of the painting as well as paint loss in the upper right corner.

The title of this scene is “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony 1680,” painted by Sister Mary Gertrude (Ida Mary Klein) around 1910.

By Correne Martin

The Prairie du Chien Historical Society is the recipient of two grants, from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) and the Alliant Energy Foundation, totaling nearly $7,000. The NEH Project Assistance Grant for $5,999 will be used toward planning, supplies and staff training for the preservation of a photographic collection documenting community history. Alliant’s $1,000 community grant will assist in the conservation of several murals removed from the former Wyalusing Academy/St. Mary’s Academy in Prairie du Chien.

Included among the approximately 10,000 photographs in the historical society’s collection are images of the community’s schools, churches, homes, railroads, downtown street scenes and businesses; events such as floods, fires and parades; economic activities such as commercial fishing and clamming; and particular areas such as the Villa Louis Historic Site, St. Feriole Island, Fort Crawford Hospital and Mississippi River.

According to the NEH grant application, “the collection provides a rich historic record of a community with a long and storied military history and British, French, Spanish and Native American influences.”
“It’s great to be one of only four in Wisconsin to receive a preservation assistance grant, which is geared toward smaller organizations in rural communities like ours,” stated Mary Antoine, historical society president. “The Wisconsin Historical Society came and did an assessment of our photographs for free but, with this grant, we want to hire a person who will come and set up storage for the photographs and a recording system and train our volunteers so we can keep monitoring the collection for the future.”

According to Antoine, many of the photographs in the society’s possession, including thousands of negatives, came from the personal collections of Mae Nichols, Gordan Peckham, Wallace Martner and Bill Howe. Many times, historical photos from the public are simply mailed or dropped off at the Fort Crawford Museum and filed away by the staff too.

“We have some from back when they were printed on tin,” Antoine noted. “A lot of Mae Nichols’ are on glass plate negatives from WWI family photos. So they’re as old as the 1860s at least.”

Currently, the different mural panels, painted by Sister Mary Gertrude (Ida Mary Klein) around 1910, are owned by the historical society. Their ownership was transferred in late 2013 upon the closure of Wyalusing Academy, where the murals once colored the walls.

Two of Sister Gertrude’s murals depict the natural beauty of the Upper Mississippi River Valley: Maiden Rock and the Mouth of the Wisconsin.

The others present a tableau of important events that occurred along the Mississippi River: La Salle at the Mouth of the Mississippi 1682, Discovery of the Mississippi by Father Marquette 1673, Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony 1680, Burial of De Soto 1542, The Surrender of Red Bird to Major Whistler 1827, and Old Fort Crawford. The tableau consists of six panels, the biggest spanning 17 feet long and 32 inches high.

“Some of the murals had paint flaking and were dirty. They need to be cleaned and mounted to another canvas,” Antoine said. “Thanks to a donation from Mark and Kati Forsythe, we had these 100-year-old murals removed from Wyalusing Academy. Art Conservator David Spangler removed them with the least amount of damage.”

Antoine expressed that the cost of restoring the murals is enormous and since more money will be needed to complete the project, the $1,000 Alliant Energy Foundation grant will be set aside in an account until the work can be done.

“We are taking donations toward the project,” she added. “Maybe it would be something former St. Mary’s graduates would be interested in supporting.”

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