There’s a bit of irony in the Chippewa County Historical Society’s years-long pursuit – to leave a fiercely historical building for a newly constructed one a few miles away.
Historical society members Wendy Sullivan and Jim Schuh chuckled at the point, each knowing that the current building wasn’t working for them, the historical documents they were protecting or the people clamoring to visit.
The dream of a new Chippewa Area History Center building, of which land has been purchased and more than a third of money to build has been raised, is a practical one.
But also, with the hope of a new building comes a renewed passion for sharing the rich history of Chippewa Falls with those who might just wander in for the first time.
If the length of Sullivan’s title is any indication of her passion for history, it’s clear. Sullivan is a volunteer and member of the Chippewa County Historical Society and the Chippewa County Genealogical Society. She’s also the genealogical society’s secretary, Chippewa Area History Center Capital Campaign Communication Committee chairperson and a member of the Executive Committee for the Chippewa Area History Center Capital Campaign.
Yeah, she likes history.
While standing at the grassland of the new site across from the public pool in Chippewa Falls, Sullivan eagerly talked of historical decorated soldiers and lumbermen. Her eyes lit up as she chatted about fur traders, Native Americans and European immigrants that passed through Chippewa Falls, or were born and raised in the city.
“History is a way to connect generations and instill a sense of belonging and price in community,” she said. “It is the responsibility of each generation to preserve the history of previous generations, and to provide an adequate facility to display historical items and documents to educate future generations.”
With music festivals, farmers markets, new park developments and art shops popping up in Chippewa Falls, Sullivan said a new history center carves its own niche in the community.
“This is a place that will complement the many other destination places in our community,” she said. “We will provide a wonderful facility that will preserve our history as well as provide a space to educate people.”
Greg Hoffman, Chippewa Falls mayor for the last 10 years, said although city government has no oversight when it comes to the Chippewa Area History Center, he has a personal interest.
“My classes were history. I’ve always had a strong love of history,” Hoffman said. “I enjoy reading about things that happened 100 years ago. The biggest thing we need to do is learn from history.
“It’s very important for the fabric of society. They need to know where they came from.”
The first place to start might be the history of the group itself.
The Chippewa County Historical Society was established in 1969 by a group of volunteers who are just as passionate as Sullivan, Schuh and the rest of the historical society volunteers. The founding members wanted to make sure Chippewa County’s history would not be lost or forgotten.
The Chippewa County Genealogical Society was formed in 1980 to gather historical documents and local family history. The societies work hand-in-hand to provide a glimpse of the area’s history and its impact on past and current generations.
The current Area History Center is located in the former convent of the Notre Dame Catholic Church. The museum has 17 exhibits on four levels, including the library of the Chippewa County Genealogical Society.
More than a decade ago, the museum began experiencing increased interest. Attendance numbers were up, and the museum’s collections were growing steadily. The groups realized the former convent was not a practical long-term solution.
History Center volunteers explored building a larger center that would be handicap accessible and account for space required for the future.
In December 2015, a location next to Irvine Park’s south entrance became available. Being close to Leinenkugel’s brewery and other local attractions make the land appealing.
The Historical Society board secured donations to purchase the property at 12 Bridgewater Avenue for $80,000 and just recently purchase the white house directly to the east.
In January 2016, a campaign executive committee formed, including members of both groups, to oversee the project. So far the committee and local partners have raised $1.3 million.
“Prior to asking the public, we made sure to first ask our groups’ boards and members,” Sullivan said. “They responded with an amazing amount of $300,000.”
The groups then met with major community donors and then the public. Both groups have given generous contributions to the project.
The city of Chippewa Falls and surrounding communities have worked hard to bring family friendly, educational events to attend. The History Center needs to be one of those places, Mayor Hoffman said.
He agreed that years ago our claim to fame was taverns. They serve a certain part of the population, but what about the others?
“What do we need to attract that other percent?” Hoffman said. “There are a multitude of people who come through Irvine Park. You need to have that array of different things for different people.”
Ten years ago, when Hoffman was elected, the economy was tanking and Chippewa Falls was “in bad shape,” he said. The city council with help from citizens tightened the city’s belt.
“We hung on, which today has positioned us that we can do (tax incremental financing). Ten years ago we were not in a position to do that,” he said. “We went through the tough times, which better prepared us for the good times.”
Hoffman said the good times include bringing young families to the area to be immersed in the community, enticing businesses to choose Chippewa Falls to bring more jobs to the area and continuing to create a community environment that serves all people.
Sullivan said the History Center is a part of that community environment.
“History is interesting to so many because everyone has one,” Sullivan said. “The fun part about it is that it can be customized to each person’s unique interests. Many want to understand more about what brought their families to Chippewa County … others want to know more about the military history of our era. Regardless of the topic, people love to hear an interesting story and they usually have an interesting story of their own to add to it.
“There is definitely entertainment in discovering history as well as in storytelling.”