A Brief History of the Historical Society & Museum

The Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum is almost as old as the building it occupies – Waukesha County’s 1893 courthouse.

The society was formed in 1906. In 1913, John H.A. Lacher began the Museum. The Waukesha County Board of Supervisors set aside one room in the courthouse basement for the Museum, which opened to the public in 1914.

In 1920 and again in 1936, the Museum expanded to additional rooms.

In 1934, Edith Tallmadge became curator. She was credited with starting a cataloging system in the Museum.

In 1938, the courthouse expanded but the Museum received no new space. The courthouse addition included a new jail, municipal court, register of deeds office and county boardroom.

In 1958 the county abandoned the building and moved to its new location on West Moreland Blvd. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) took tenancy of much of the space previously occupied by the county. The Museum shared the building with the planning commission until the spring of 2002.

In 1964, the historical society signed an agreement with Waukesha County in which the county government paid all costs associated with Museum operations. The society had operated the Museum until that point.

The building that has housed the Museum since its inception was designated as a national historic site in 1975. The old courthouse building, which is a prime example of the Richardson Romanesque architectural style, was built near the site of a large, turtle-shaped Indian mound. Earthen mounds and different architectural styles are topics included in the Museum’s exhibits.

In 1980 the Historical Society received the Rueben Thwaite Award from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In 1984, the society published the award-winning book, “From Farmland to Freeways, A History of Waukesha County Wisconsin.”

In 1996, the Society coordinated a year-long celebration of Waukesha County’s sesquicentennial. One of the most popular elements of the celebration was the SesquiScroll, a large roll of paper that was transported across the county throughout the year. Everyone in the county was invited to sign the scroll. The SesquiScroll and other sesquicentennial memorabilia are locked in a time capsule that is on display in the Waukesha County Courthouse. It will remain there until its scheduled opening in 2046.

Two years later, the Waukesha County Historical Society coordinated Waukesha County’s celebration of Wisconsin’s Sesquicentennial. Waukesha County’s participation in the statewide bell ringing on May 1 radiated from the front of the Waukesha County Museum.

In 1996, the society worked with Wisconsin Heritage Tourism to develop an audiotape tour and book about the Welsh Hills of Waukesha County. In 1997, the State Historical Society invited the society to present information about its marker program at the state conference. Two years later, the society organized a standing-room-only opening for the Lunt-Fontanne exhibit.

During the 1990s, the county and society discussed transferring the Museum’s management to the society, which finally occurred in January 2000. Waukesha County continues to support the Museum through an operational grant.

The Museum opened its largest exhibit, “A Nation Divided, a County United During the American Civil War,” in 2001. Waukesha County Technical College, Altrusa Club and Wisconsin Land Surveyors helped with other temporary exhibits.

New exhibits opened about Waukesha County architecture and Lunt-Fontanne. In the spring of 2002, Waukesha County Technical College unveiled its new, temporary photo exhibit that compliments the architecture exhibit.

In the summer 2002, the Museum successfully launched a summer camp, “A Step Back in Time.” The end of summer brought about the unveiling of the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum’s new book “Discovering Waukesha County.” The award-winning full-color book is available through the Museum Store.

In November 2002, the Waukesha County Board of Supervisors voted to sell the 1893 county courthouse complex to the Waukesha County Historical Society for $1. The county signed papers in January 2003 to transfer ownership to the Waukesha County Historical Society.

A month and a half after the signing, the Museum’s new technology exhibit, “Braving the New Frontier of Technology, Invention and How it Shaped Our Modern World,” April 2003 students attended the first Spring Break History Camp. Several participants returned for Summer History Camp. The 2004 camps were the first to be held in the new Waukesha State Bank Education center on the Museum’s third floor.

Restoration of the historic building is well under way. Multiple infrastructure repairs were completed in 2004. The exterior of the building was repaired and cleaned. Office space on the third floor was restored to highlight the original 1893 woodwork and architectural detail. The Museum’s Research Center was moved to renovated space on the third floor. These moves opened the entire second floor for additional exhibits.

2008 New Executive Director hired in June and oversees significant internal restructuring to stabilize operations and position organization for future growth.

2009 First traveling exhibit “Growing Seasons” kicks off the museum’s new traveling exhibit schedule.

2010 Museum completes new 2011-2013 strategic plan to become a premier regional destination point.