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How the Mequon-Thiensville Historical Society is remaking itself in 21st-century style

In keep with its mission of preserving historical records, Bob Blazich opens a storage box containing assessment records from the 1860s in the Mequon-Thiensville Historical Society’s facility in the Logemann Community Center last week.

In keep with its mission of preserving historical records, Bob Blazich opens a storage box containing assessment records from the 1860s in the Mequon-Thiensville Historical Society’s facility in the Logemann Community Center last week. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Dec. 3, 2013

Mequon — Now in its 26th year, the Mequon-Thiensville Historical Society is alive and well and doing what it does best: tracing the people and happenings of the area back through time while bringing into focus the stories of Mequon and Thiensville's rich and varied past.

It wasn't always that way.

In recent years, the historical society's membership had dwindled and its coffers had run low as, in a vicious cycle, its newsletter content had diminished, leading to less awareness and publicity, leading to less membership, which lead to less resources to produce content.

A well-attended presentation in 2011 by local historian John Gurda was the shot in the arm the historical society needed, drawing a crowd that bolstered membership, helped fund the newsletter, and turn the cycle into a virtuous one, thanks in part to 21st-century tools like a website and Facebook account. The historical society now has a membership to match its heyday and a renewed focus to digitize its sprawling collection of historical materials, as well as continue its popular role of researching and providing genealogies for the area's many multigenerational families.

"We want to have a purpose, to be relevant," says President Bob Blazich, 68, adding of the renewed outreach efforts, "People have to know we're here, and be able to trust us to give us things or let us copy things."

Born of change

The historical society was born, coincidentally, from modernization.

In the 1980s, as the nearby interstate and Port Washington corridors were expanding and developing, historical society co-founders Don and Bev Silldorff watched as a number of historical homes — many built around or including original log house materials — disappeared in the wake of the projects.

"They were tearing everything down on the east side of Mequon," says Bev Silldorff, 84, former society president and current archivist. "...We wanted to do something about it."

After their involvement in saving one of the log houses, the Silldorffs in 1987 launched the historical society with the help of the soon-to-be defunct Mequon Men's Club and area philanthropist Ottomar Logemann. With the remaining funds of the then-closing Men's Club and a generous grant from Logemann, the historical society renovated and took up residence in what would eventually become the Logemann Community Center.

That gave the Silldorffs the opportunity to bring in their expansive collection of papers which tell the story of local schools, governments, churches and families.

"Since the time I was a girl I was collecting stuff," recalls Bev Silldorff, a veritable font of information whose knowledge is dwarfed only by her enthusiasm to share it, "and I've always been interested in genealogy."

Years of struggle

For many years the historical society enjoyed a large and active membership, which at times comprised more than 300 members, Bev Silldorff says.

Themed events and history days drew in current and potential members while Bev's husband, Don, penned the quarterly newsletter. In its signature project, the historical society fought and won a battle in the early 1990s to save and restore the Isham Day House, a historical log structure which stands across the street from Mequon City Hall and dates back to the mid-19th century. For years afterward the historical society enjoyed a strong following.

But like most small, volunteer organizations, the success of the historical society hinged on the efforts of its founders and most active members. So in the early 2000s, when Don Silldorff's health began to deteriorate, so, too, did the health of the organization.

For years, recalls Bev Silldorff, the group lived on grants from groups like the Wisconsin Antique Dealers Association and Junior Woman's Club, and the generosity and hard work of its members.

Yet, "when you're a volunteer, you can only spend so much time," she says.

By 2011, the historical society had an estimated 15 paying members and a total of 70 members who contributed through some donation of time, money or materials. So when the society brought in historian Gurda to present, there was a sense of urgency to recruit from the crowd.

"We filled the house that night," Blazich recalls. "We probably had 130 people."

New focus

The Gurda presentation and resulting flood of new members was the shot in the arm the historical society needed. With the influx of membership dues, the society was able to get its newsletter up and running again as well as launch a website and Facebook page. A recent sale of Thiensville artist Earle Raine's art has been a similar boon for the historical society.

The virtuous cycle of stepped-up newsletters and outreach, which generates interest, which generates memberships, which generate income and therefore more newsletters and outreach, has helped the historical society build toward its former numbers. Blazich says there are now nearly 150 paid memberships, covering nearly 250 local households.

There is also a growing contingent of younger members, some of whom, Blazich notes with pride, are in their 20s and 30s.

Websites and Facebook are a far cry from the society's now-retired method of making newsletters, which once consisted of assembling texts and clippings and photocopying the result.

"It was literally copy and paste," Blazich says. "We've come a long way since then."

GET IN TOUCH

WHAT: Mequon Thiensville Historical Society, 6100 W. Mequon Road

OFFICE HOURS: 2-5 p.m. Thursdays

MTHS WEBSITE:http://www.mthistoricalsociety.org/

FACEBOOK:https://www.facebook.com/MTHistory

PHONE: (262) 242-3107

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