Material culture and Local History

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Peggy Derrick

This photo shows a close-up of a crazy quilt made in 1905 by Mary Dalton Jenks Benton. Her family treasured it, and, in 1983, one of them donated it to La Crosse County Historical Society.

It’s hand-pieced in the usual asymmetrical, “crazy” pattern of quilts of this genre. Included among the fabrics are three commemorative ribbons, printed with the names of local La Crosse organizations. This ribbon is a memento of an event held by the Old Settlers Association.

And what was the Old Settlers Association? Why, that was the La Crosse County Historical Society before we adopted the name we have today. And it wasn’t even our first name — that was the La Crosse Pioneer Association, founded in 1870, less than 40 years after Nathan Myrick erected the first permanent European-American cabin on Prairie La Crosse.

Our new name was officially approved in 1898, but as this 1903 ribbon shows, it took a while for the new name to catch on.

We are an old organization. Our mission has grown and evolved as the region has grown. As the names Pioneer and Old Settlers Association suggest, we were first created to honor and preserve the memory of the city’s founders, glorifying men such as Nathan Myrick, John Levy and Thomas Stoddard. The young city needed heroes, whose exploits — real or otherwise — became part of the mythology out of which the town’s identity grew.

With the arrival of the 20th century, and a desire by La Crosse residents to find their place in the larger world, the historical society expanded its focus to share with residents as many wonders of the wide world as its citizens cared to donate. The collection swelled with items brought back from far-away travels, many of them reproductions.

By the mid-20th century, starting with the Colonial Revival of the 1930s and going strong through the country’s bicentennial, the organization was collecting items based on their antiquity. Interest in worldwide curiosities gradually was replaced with a veneration for items viewed as harking back to the country’s, and La Crosse’s, early days.

In the past few decades, this focus has been further refined to what we know best: La Crosse and the Coulee Region. But now our mission to preserve and share local history has expanded to include the stories of everyone who has lived here, and to document history as it is being made.

My goal with the “Things That Matter” series in the La Crosse Tribune has been to share the rich cultural assets and stories that make up the layers of life in the Coulee Region. To fully understand historical events, we need to understand the world in which they took place. These artifacts, some of seemingly minor importance, reflect the world in which events are embedded. It’s all one story, made up of lots of little stories.

These stories, big and small, are what we love to share. It’s what the Historical Society exists for. The objects we feature only matter because the people who made or used them matter. History is about people; it’s what we share, whether we like it or not, sort of like family.

I continue to be gratified by how many of you let us know that you appreciate “Things That Matter.” We need the support of everyone who reads and enjoys these articles. We need your help to grow into the history museum that La Crosse deserves.

Something to be proud of. Isn’t that how you feel about the history of your community? We feel that way, too, and we are proud of the work we do to help the citizens of La Crosse County feel that connection.

No place really becomes a community until it is wrapped in human memory: family stories, tribal traditions, civic commemorations. No place is a community until it has awareness of its history. Our connections and commitment to one another are strengthened when we share stories and experiences.

LCHS is committed to preserving and sharing those stories and experiences with you. And I am asking you to commit to helping us in our mission.Many people don’t realize that, despite the word “county” in our name, we are not part of county government. The La Crosse County Historical Society has been a member-governed 501©3 nonprofit organization since 1939. While county supervisors generously donate a small grant to us each year, we depend on memberships and other donations from individuals for most of our operating expenses.

If you enjoy reading “Things That Matter,” I ask you to support us by joining the La Crosse County Historical Society. Membership levels start at $35 and entitle you to free admission to Historic Hixon House and Riverside Museum, as well as a subscription to the only local publication regularly publishing original articles on local history, our newsletter.

Joining is quick and easy, and can be done on our websitewww.lchshistory.org or by calling the office at 608-782-1980. A membership makes a great gift for family who live out of town but who would enjoy receiving our newsletter with its local history articles.

So, join now, and help us make this membership drive a success. And when you open your Saturday morning Tribune and see the “Things That Matter” article, you can take pride in knowing that you help support this engaging series.

The Last Man’s Club’s Cognac

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Ivy King

Catalog Number: 1986.058.01

The members of the Last Man’s Club first served along the Texas-Mexican border. Two hundred fifty men of the Wisconsin National Guard left La Crosse for the border in 1916. As soon as they arrived home in La Crosse, they were sent to France, arriving in March 1918. Their group was Company C of the 121st Machine Gun Battalion. The men served for a number of months under shell fire on five different fronts.

During World War I, the men never budged an inch on the front. They were nicknamed Les Terribles by the French government because of their refusal to retreat. Mac McCall toured the battlefields nearly 20 years after the war and discovered a monument in Chateau-Thierry to remember the division and others who fought. After the Armistice, on Nov. 11, 1918, the group was among the first U.S. troops to set foot on German soil.

A few years after the war, starting in 1931, the men decided to meet periodically. Their meeting captured the attention of the French government, which decided to make them a gift of a bottle of cognac. The cognac was presented to the club by U.S. Rep. Gardner Withrow during their meeting in 1934.

La Crosse was the headquarters of the club, and Withrow, a member of the was member of the Wisconsin Progressive Party from La Crosse.

This is the bottle of cognac presented to the Last Man’s Club. The cognac — French brandy — is in a green glass bottle. Cognac is named for the city of Cognac, in the region of France where the members of the club fought. It was bottled in 1933 and is sealed with a cork; there is still some cognac in it today.

The Last Man’s Club’s bottle resides in a wooden box, likely made by one of the club’s members.

At club meetings, the men had a meal, a drink and remembered their time on the war front. They brought out the bottle of cognac at these meetings but did not open it. They intended for the last surviving member to drink the cognac and toast his comrades once they were gone.

McCall wanted to have the club to change the rule to the last five men as opposed to the last man. In a 1975 article in the La Crosse Tribune, McCall said, “What the hell is the last man going to do? He probably won’t be able to get the cork out.”

For a number of years, Joseph Brabant was the keeper of the cognac. He was the youngest member of the club, having left for the Mexican border when he was only 17. His aunt signed the paperwork for him to go. He later enlisted in the Navy, and he served from 1918 to 1923. Later, during World War II, he was called into active duty as a captain in the U.S. Army Air Force.

At one of their last meetings, only three men attended, and they opened the cognac. “God, is that stuff awful,” said Chester Newcomb, according to a 1983 La Crosse Tribune article. “If I drank very much of this stuff, I could fight a war myself.”

The group’s members decided to give both the cognac and the club records to the La Crosse County Historical Society in order to preserve its history.

We have not opened the bottle, so we cannot verify just how “awful” the brandy has become. It remains in its box, a reminder of 250 men from this region who fought together in World War I.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on November 11, 2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

Franklin Roosevelt Clock

Robert Mullen

Catalog Number: 1985.021.02

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Early Sunday, we will turn our clocks back an hour as daylight saving time ends. The La Crosse County Historical Society’s featured artifact this week also turns back the clock — more than 80 years.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, the nation was ready for change. The country was in mired in the Great Depression, with the nation’s jobless nearing 20 percent and hundreds of thousands of people living in shantytowns called “Hoovervilles,” named for the unpopular previous president, Herbert Hoover.

Roosevelt campaigned for a New Deal for the common man, and he gave hope to many who were down and out. His theme song, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” became the most popular song in the country. The time seemed right for showing support for a new president.

Roosevelt’s landslide victory over Hoover inspired the Gibraltar Electric Clock Co. of Jersey City, N.J., to create a souvenir clock to commemorate the new president’s election. This clock features Roosevelt standing behind a ship’s wheel, symbolizing him steering the ship of state. On the base below the wheel are “Roosevelt” and the words “At the Wheel for a New Deal.” The wheel holds an electric clock with a plain white clock face. Made of cast pot metal, this clock stands 13½ inches tall and still has its original electrical cord.

There were a number of variations of this clock. Some were a warm pewter tone, like the one shown here, while others had a bronze finish. The company made another version of the clock with a large eagle next to Roosevelt. The company used the same Roosevelt figure for an electric lamp. There was a similar clock manufactured by a different company that featured Roosevelt standing on the opposite side of a ship’s wheel.

Roosevelt certainly was the man of the hour.

Like all novelties, these whimsical clocks were made of inexpensive materials and probably sold at low cost. Their appeal today is not political but as antiques. Time has not completely healed these 80-year-old political wounds, but its passage has turned these old clocks into timeless artifacts.

Don’t forget to turn your clocks back tonight. It’s your opportunity to travel one hour back in time.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on November 4, 2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.