History of The Brown County Historical Society
(Excerpted and based on "Brown County Historical Society Centennial Timeline", an article and compilation of Society meeting minutes written by Carol L. Pinn for Voyageur Magazine, Vol 16, No. 2, Winter/Spring 2000)
By the end of the 19th century, Green Bay had seen decades of transformations. The railroad had displaced the Fort Howard complex of military buildings (see photo), which were subsequently moved, dismantled, or demolished. Historic buildings from Green Bay's earliest days were falling into disrepair. The history of the area, contained in the artifacts and buildings and memories of its people, were being lost, all to the concern of local history-minded citizens.
On the evening of October 2, 1899, forty-eight Brown County civic leaders gathered to discuss their concerns and consider the formation of a fledgling historical society. At eight o'clock, in the meeting rooms of the Green Bay Business Men's Association located in the Business-College building (see photo), Arthur Courtenay Neville called the meeting to order, and introduced Reuben Gold Thwaites, secretary of the State Historical Society. Mr. Thwaites addressed the gathering and stressed the importance of studying and preserving local history. Afterwards, the group voted unanimously to form the Green Bay Historical Society. Neville was elected temporary chair, with B.L. Parker assisting as secretary.
At the Society's next meeting on October 9, the new group was organized as a corporation under Wisconsin state law, and the incorporators were designated. A nominating committee was selected, and after a short consultation made its suggestions. At the October 23 meeting, the constitution and by-laws were adopted, officers were elected, and dues were set at 50 cents. The names of the charter members for this new organization were synonymous with Green Bay area history itself, including Grignon, Barkhausen, Nau, Cotton, Neville, Lawton, Elmore, Martin, Hastings, Joannes, Whitney, and Irwin.
In the early years, the society arranged tours and lectures, and sought to safeguard valuables and documents owned by and loaned to them. In 1900, 75 Society members boarded the steamship Dennison (see photo) to make the first of what would become regular pilgrimages to historic sites, this time to Grignon House in Kaukauna. In 1903, they went to Riley's Point, site of an old Native American village. Later tours included the discovery of arrowheads and pottery shards at Lily Lake, and a visit to the Menominee Reservation.
One of the early priorities of the Society was the preservation of Tank Cottage (see photo). In 1907, the Society secured $350 for the removal of Tank Cottage from the west shore of the Fox River to Union Park. Work began immediately, but progressed slowly due in part "to the unfortunate disposition of the contractors and partly to the infirmities of the old structure itself.
When it was raised from its foundation – or, we should more accurately say, lack of foundation – it displayed a most exasperating disposition to collapse. It was only by heroic efforts that it was braced up sufficiently to be moved a few hundred feet before winter prevented further work. With the coming of warm weather in the spring of 1908, it started again on its perilous journey – perilous because of the roughness of the road and the weakness, from old age, of the structure itself. For a time it looked as though it would not withstand another pull, but it reached the South Broadway railroad crossing safely and was there again 'held up' for two or three months. Finally, one midnight, it was rushed across the tracks, at imminent peril, and continued to its chosen site in Union Park."
The Society first proposed the "Spirit of the Northwest" statue (see photo) in 1916. A.C. Neville presented the design, commissioned by the city and created by Sidney Bedore, that portrayed a grouping of Father Allouez (the first Jesuit missionary in this area), Nicholas Perrot (the Northwest Territory's first governor), and a Native American (who represented all the region's tribes). In 1928, plans were made to purchase the statue, and it was finally completed and unveiled in 1931. The statue still stands today on the Brown County Courthouse lawn.
The Society was instrumental in the development of a local museum. In 1918, they pledged $30 and moral support to the cause, and in 1921, they helped open a small museum in a room (see photo) in the Kellogg Library. In 1927, the Society loaned money to the museum to finish paying for Eleazer William's portrait.
Soon, the Society was expanding its reach, publicizing the discovery of the foundations of the area's third Catholic Church in Shantytown (Allouez) and placing historical markers on lower De Pere Road. In 1919, M. J. Maes first made the motion that the Society change its name to the Brown County Historical Society to encourage all interested people in the county to join. It wasn't until May 21, 1928, however, that the Green Bay Historical Society officially became the Brown County Historical Society.
In 1924, Deborah Beaumont Martin (see photo) became treasurer of the committee to renovate and repair Tank Cottage at Union Park. The year before, $75 was given to put the house in order to accommodate donated furnishings, and the next year, the interior work was finished and the grounds were improved. In addition to her work on Tank Cottage, Martin was also active in the attempts to preserve the Fort Howard Hospital building (which had been moved to Chestnut and Kellogg Streets in 1929 and was being used as a private residence) and the founding of the Neville Public Museum. As a long-time librarian and local historian, civic leader, preservationist, and charter member of the Society, she was sorely missed when she died in 1931 at the age of 77.
A.C. Neville (see photo) served as the Society president until his death in 1929. During his administration, he gave "this Historical Society prominence among historical students throughout Wisconsin. He was tireless in his efforts to investigate … historic sites along the shore of Green Bay and surrounding country and his lifelong familiarity with Green Bay … and its environs made him an authority on the Indian tribes in this vicinity. Mr. Neville's monograph on 'Historic Sites on Green Bay' … established Red Banks as the site of the Winnebago fort, Jean Nicolet's first landing place in 1634 ….
A very valuable service rendered by Mr. Neville to this society was the preservation in printed form through the 'Green Bay Historical Bulletin' of historical manuscripts and documents not previously printed, and which otherwise would never have been made public." During Neville's tenure, 653 pages of local history had been written in the Green Bay Historical Bulletin, which he started and financed. Without his guidance and support, the Bulletin ceased publication in 1932.
In 1932, T. A. Pamperin purchased and deeded six acres on Duck Creek to the Society for a historical park for all citizens. Pamperin Park continues today as a county park.
In 1934, the Society was a major sponsor of the Tercentennial of the landing of Jean Nicolet at Red Banks. This site would eventually be commemorated with the statue at the Jean Nicolet memorial (see photo), although it wasn't installed and dedicated until 1951.
Cotton House was built ca 1840 by John Arndt for his daughter and her husband, U.S. Army Capt. John Cotton. In 1896, the building was sold to the Green Bay Diocese, which used it as an orphanage until 1933. In 1937, Bishop Rhode gave Cotton House to the Society, who moved the building (see photo) the next year to Allouez on the site of the former military Camp Smith. Restored as a museum in 1941, Cotton House was dedicated and opened for Sunday tours.
The move of Cotton House instilled the idea that other threatened buildings could be moved for safekeeping, and the Society property surrounding Cotton House seemed a logical location. However, initial attempts to use the Cotton House lot as a means for preserving and collecting other area historic buildings were not well received. In 1945, Boyd House was accepted by the Society as a memorial historic building and was moved to the Cotton House grounds (see proposed landscape plan, with Cotton House at the lower left and Boyd House at the top). By 1947, however, neighbors started complaining about the rundown appearance of Boyd House. In 1948, after neighbors petitioned the town to have the building removed, it was returned to the owner, who disposed of it.
But finding an economical way to preserve Green Bay's historic buildings remained a concern. In 1951, the Fort Howard Hospital (see photo) was put up for sale, and the Baird Law Office was made available to the Society if they would move it. This led to discussions of having a central location where Green Bay's historic buildings could be gathered and preserved, and the Cotton House property was once again at the center of this thinking.
According to the Society's minutes of 1953, "Because of the growth and development of our city, the construction of buildings and destroying of others and because our Shrines such as Fort Howard Hospital, Baird Law Office and others are scattered, throughout the city, and are not in their original location, it was thought it might be well to have them centered in one location. Discussion followed. It was thought more state property could be acquired in the vicinity of the Cotton House and have all Shrines centered there. This would necessitate approaching the State Legislature." These talks would be the genesis of what would eventually become Heritage Hill State Park (see photo of original site prior to development of the Park, with Cotton House at the upper right and the Court House Monument at the bottom).
The land west of where Cotton House was moved was owned by the State of Wisconsin and used as orchards and gardens for the State Reformatory to the south. In 1952, Colonel Hannon, head of the State Board of Control when Cotton House was moved the Reformatory property, promised land west of Cotton House for a park.
In 1953, the Society acquired the Baird Law Office (see photo) and had it moved to the Court House lawn. In addition, the Fort Howard Scullery building was given to the Society. With more buildings needing preservation, the desire for a historic building park associated with Cotton House started to gain momentum. Plans were begun to move the Baird Law Office next to the Cotton House.
In 1960, in order to help sell the concept of a historical park in the Green Bay area, a plan was drawn up and taken to Society presentations made in the Green Bay area and in Madison. In 1965, the Society received a $32,000 bequest "to acquire and maintain historic shrines", and work began on acquiring land west of Cotton House. In 1967, Society leaders Amanda Cobb and Dorothy Straubel Wittig (see photo) were invited to present plans for a historical park to the Wisconsin Board of Health and Social Services. In 1969, a frontier log cabin was discovered under modern siding on South Adams Street, and this structure was thought to be yet another potential candidate for inclusion in a historical park.
At the same time that the Society was planning the future Heritage Hill, it was also looking to preserve Hazelwood (see photo), the home of Morgan L. Martin, who helped draft Wisconsin's constitution. In 1963, the Society passed a resolution to preserve the building as a historic site on its original site. The next year, the Neville Museum purchased the building, and placed its Hazelwood committee in charge of restoring it and opening it to the public. In 1965, the Society held their first meeting at Hazelwood.
In 1970, it was learned that a proposed new bridge across the Fox River between Allouez and Ashwaubenon would separate the State Reformatory's north orchard from the remainder of their property (see photo, with Cotton House near the water tower at the upper right, and the Reformatory at the bottom), rendering the property wanted for a historical park useless to the Reformatory. The formation of the Park was now falling into place.
In 1971, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources committed $1.5 million to fund the park. That same year, the Society was promised an opportunity to acquire the historic East Side Moravian Church (see photo), and the first YMCA building was also felt significant enough to be included in the park.
In 1974, the City of Green Bay voted to move Tank Cottage, three of the Fort Howard buildings, and the Franklin Hose Company firehouse to the proposed park, and later that year, the State Building Commission voted for the final approval to create what would be known as Heritage Hill. In 1975, Tank Cottage and the Fort buildings were moved by barge (see photo) from the west side of the Fox River to Heritage Hill on the east side.
In 1976, the Society won the prestigious Reuben Gold Thwaites Award for local history for its work in establishing Heritage Hill. On June 24, 1977, after more than 25 years of dreams and hard work, Heritage Hill State Park was dedicated and opened to the public.
In 1984, George Nau Burridge, then President of the Society, and history professor Norbert Gaworek of the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay founded Voyageur Magazine (see photo) as part of that year's Heritage Festival, a celebration of the 350th anniversary of Jean Nicolet's arrival to this area in 1634. Sponsorship was provided by the Society and the local universities, UWGB and St. Norbert College, with all the editorial and business talent volunteered. The magazine continues to this day as a twice-a-year award winning publication that covers the history and prehistory of a twenty-six county region of greater Northeast Wisconsin.
In 1988, the Neville Public Museum offered Hazelwood for sale to a public organization for $1, and the next year, the Society decided to purchase the building (see photo). A $750,000 capital campaign was begun for the Hazelwood restoration, and in the meantime, the building was used for Society housewarmings and a Victorian Christmas Open House. In 1993, after a successful fundraising campaign, Hazelwood was closed to the public for restoration, and artifacts were packed and stored at Leicht warehouse for safekeeping.
The renovation was planned to include the construction of a reproduction south wing, the lower level of which would house the Society's office, meeting room, library, and Hazelnut gift gallery. During excavation for the new construction, a Martin era privy was discovered and documented. In 1994, the newly restored Hazelwood was reopened with a December Holiday Open House. The successful renovation won a Certificate of Commendation from the Wisconsin State Historical Society and an Award of Recognition from the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation.
After more than 110 years, the Society continues into the 21st Century, with its projects including advocacy for historical preservation, educational outreach, publications, operation of the Hazelwood historic house museum, and a historical resource to the community.
Many of the historic photographs used on this page are courtesy of the Neville Public Museum.