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Touring exhibit explores Wisconsin history

Photos from the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which was founded in 1846, are on display through July 30 as part of the Wisconsin History Tour at the Douglas County Historical Society, 1101 John Ave. (Maria Lockwood)

Tales packed in "Blue Men & River Monsters: Folklore of the North" are as diverse as the people who shared them during the Great Depression. They come from every corner of the state and all walks of life, said John Zimm, who edited the work.

"The stories tell us what they hoped for, what they were afraid of," said Zimm, who grew up in Iron River. "It tells us what was important to people, what they held onto."

Zimm pulled tales for the book from about 1,000 pages of collected stories.

"When you look at an area or person from the past, you look at certain labels — farmer, business owner — you get a simple picture," the historian said. "You read their stories, and there’s a whole lot more to a person than you tend to know."

The same could be said about the Wisconsin Historical Society. Its travelling exhibit, the Wisconsin History Tour, currently inhabits the Douglas County Historical Society, 1101 John Ave. The exhibit has been touring for a year.

"It’s about getting history out to the people where they are," said Jim Draeger, director of outreach for the Wisconsin Historical Society. "Almost everyone knows us, but they might not know the totality of us. We have an absolutely tremendous historical archive." It includes documents, newspapers, diaries, photographs and films ranging from the only journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition to Rod Serling’s "The Twilight Zone" scripts. Whether people are searching into their family history or looking into state people, places and events, the Wisconsin Historical Society can provide direction and help.

"We are open to them," Draeger said, and they are only a mouse click away.

Until July 30, they are also providing a free show in Superior. It features a smattering of state facts, including underwater views of shipwrecks, Ho-Chunk photographs taken by Charles Van Schaick and a brief history of malted milk, which originated in Racine. Add in three interactive touch screens and the Douglas County Historical Society’s own treasures, from a gallery of David Frances Barry photos to a display on Superior’s Webster Chair Factory.

"It’s fantastic," said Joe Mann, who provides maintenance and sets up exhibits for the historical society.

The exhibit is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday. Next week, a series of free programs tailored for the area kicks off. Zimm, a 1991 Northwestern High School graduate, discusses "Blue Men & River Monsters" at noon Thursday and an earlier compilation, "This Wicked Rebellion: Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers Write Home," at 6 p.m. Tuesday. It was a dream gig for Zimm, who now lives in Madison.

"When I heard they were going to be in Superior, I begged and pleaded," to be included, Zimm said. "I started hounding them a month ago."

Other events include a panel discussion on the history of deer hunting at 11 a.m. June 13 and a how-to workshop on preserving your family treasures at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Residents can bring in their own items for "Your Stuff, Your Story," at noon Tuesday.

"It’s the most unpredictable part," Draeger said of this adult show-and-tell. "You never know what you’re going to get." He has seen a quilt that was crocheted for the 1893 World Fair and a porcelain doll a girl’s great great-grandmother brought with her from Russia.

"We want to encourage that," Draeger said. "Wisconsin Historical Society cannot hold all the history of Wisconsin. We can be a resource; we can help people preserve our history. It’s a task everyone can be involved in."

A full list of programs and hours are available online at