If you haven’t discovered it yet, your community may hold a hidden gem: the local historical society. I’m thinking right now particularly of the small ones, run by volunteers. Typically operating a museum in a historic house or railroad station, they preserve lore, papers, and artifacts donated by longtime residents. Their archives can be invaluable for researching family history.
They’re on my mind as I edit the DeForest Area Historical Society’s semiannual newsletter. It’s a small task; most DAHS volunteers do far, far more. Board member Mary Wendt explains, “We are preserving the past to share with the future, because we show a passion for memories and objects related to our area.”
Historical societies in the United States began as early as 1791. Public libraries or archives were rare, so private benefactors got together to preserve and publish historical documents. Community elites later organized to celebrate the history of prominent local families and businesses. For a time after the advent of the automobile, historical sites and museums were popular tourist destinations. More recently, with museum attendance in decline, many societies are expanding their reach through collaborative programs with schools, senior centers, and libraries.
Is there a local historical society near you? Check it out; you may be glad you did.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.