The Manitowoc County Historical Society, formed in 1906, is one of the oldest historical societies in Wisconsin. It is also one of the earliest societies to become an affiliate of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
MCHS was organized for the discovery, collection, preservation and publication of historical records and data of and relating to Manitowoc County, that establish the growth and progress of population, wealth, education, arts, science, agriculture, manufacture, trade and commerce.
The first president was Judge Emil Baensch. Other founders were Ralph Plumb, Dr. W. G. Kemper, John Schuette, James S. Anderson and Fred Christiansen of Manitowoc; H. P. Hamilton and W. F. Nash of Two Rivers; and Dr. Louis Falge of Reedsville.
The first meeting of the Manitowoc County Historical Society was held on January 13, 1906 at the Manitowoc Public Library on N. 8th and Chicago streets. A group of 12 men were present including community leaders such as former Lieutenant Governor Emil Baensch, Judge James Anderson, John Schuette and H.P. Hamilton. In the 105 years since that first meeting, the organization they formed has grown into one of the State’s largest and most active local history organizations.
The second floor of the public library remained the meeting place for the Society during its early years and the rooms quickly filled with exhibits and artifacts. Under the direction of Emil Baensch and Ralph Plumb, the organization dedicated a monument to Chief Waumegesako in Manitowoc Rapids, Published a written history of Manitowoc County and acquired the Flag of Company A, 5th Wisconsin Regiment, carried to war by Manitowoc’s first Civil War volunteers.
With their collection growing, the early leaders of the Manitowoc County Historical Society sought out a building to become home to a community museum. In 1941, Mrs. Reinhart Rahr gifted her home, now the Rahr-West Art Museum, to the City of Manitowoc. The articles of agreement stipulated that “the grounds and buildings are to be made available for use by the Manitowoc County Historical Society and its museum and are to be used for other educational and civic purposes and the property is to be known as the Rahr Civic Center”.
In 1949, the Society became involved in a public controversy. The organization had quickly spread out filling every room of the Rahr Civic Center. In fact, so much of the space was used that it restricted use of the facility by other community groups. Hard feelings arose and eventually led to the resignation of then Society president John G. Johnson and the closing of the Rahr Civic Center as the Society’s museum. Some artifacts were returned to their donors and others were stored in a vacant school building, which was vandalized resulting in the loss or damage of many artifacts. Society membership dropped during that year from 120 to just 28.
The Society lost control of the Rahr Civic Center building but maintained a presence there, holding meetings and managing several exhibits throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The revitalization of the Society began in the late 1960’s as the Society sought out a more permanent home, focused on producing first rate publications such as its award-winning Occupational Monographs, and began laying the groundwork to create a historical village in Manitowoc County.
With their collection of artifacts scattered in barns and city buildings, the Society saw the need to find a permanent home. Several sites were proposed for a historical village and agreements were made to acquire several buildings. 1969 was a critical year for the Society. Under the leadership of Bob Lyman, the Society received its official status as a non-profit, tax exempt organization, moved back into the third floor of the Rahr Civic Center, and accepted the donation of 40 acres of land from Hugo and Eleanor Vetting for the establishment of a historical village.
Throughout the 1970’s, the Society grew in size and membership. Enthusiasm for Pinecrest Historical Village was great as building after building was carefully moved, preserved and furnished as an exhibit. All of the work was completed by volunteers as individuals, organizations and businesses all pitched in to create this unique museum.
During the 1980’s the Society made great strides in expanding Pinecrest Historical Village, made the critical step of hiring its first Executive Director, Bob Fay in 1987 and found a permanent home in the Sexton House at Evergreen Cemetery in 1989. Finally, the Society’s records could be kept in a central location and be cataloged and preserved by a trained staff. These changes laid the groundwork for the stability and expansion seen by the Society today as we serve the public through education programs, exhibits, research services, and preservation efforts.
In 1990, the Manitowoc County Historical Society received the Wisconsin Historical Society’s highest honor—the Rueben Gold Thwaites Trophy. The trophy was presented to the Society during the annual convention of the Wisconsin Council for Local History in Madison on October 20. The award is presented annually to the local historical organization judged to have the best overall program in the state. The Manitowoc County Historical Society was chosen out of more than 240 local historical societies affiliated with the State Historical Society.
A major step in the development in the Manitowoc County Historical Society came in 1998, when the Society moved its administrative offices, exhibits, artifact storage and research library to the Manitowoc County Heritage Center after a successful fundraising effort to renovate the Manitowoc County Teacher’s Training College building at Michigan Avenue and 18th Streets. The Society ended the lease on the building in 2016.
The Society currently serves over 11,000 people each year. We keep thorough computerized records on each of our 14,000 documents, artifacts and photographs, and have two paid employees in addition to our 200 volunteers.