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Discovering Wisconsin, One History Marker at a Time

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When Melinda Roberts visited Wisconsin for the first time in 2011, she had no idea she would soon be diagnosed with colon cancer. Given two years to live, she began recording Wisconsin’s historical markers as a therapeutic project.

The last covered bridge in Wisconsin, captured by Melinda Roberts.

The last covered bridge in Wisconsin, captured by Melinda Roberts.

What began in 2011 as a distraction from her cancer diagnosis has led Melinda Roberts to marvel at the serendipity of life.

“I discovered my purpose and I think it saved my life,” she says.

Between June 2012 and October 2013, Roberts visited, photographed and recorded on her website – wisconsinhistoricalmarkers.com – the then-532 Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) “official” markers. She also organized them by county – unsnarling the confusing numerical list available from the state. She sometimes drove 600 miles a day, after hours of mapping out GPS coordinates in advance, to capture certain markers. She even found WHS markers that weren’t on the list at all.

Along the way, Roberts noticed scraps of local history that existed beyond these “official” markers. She found Wisconsin history in locally placed markers, veteran memorials, lighthouses, monuments, historical sites and museums, cemeteries and whimsical roadside attractions.

“I realized that WHS didn’t have the corner on historical markers and thought, ‘My goodness, I’m just going to keep on going,” Roberts says.

And she has, in more ways than one.

Today, wisconsinhistoricalmarkers.com is home to more than 6,000 carefully organized postings and 70,000 photos; it welcomes 700 to 1,200 visitors per day.
“There’s no other website like mine in the entire country,” she says. “Michigan has a great one that inspired me, but the curator only documents official state markers.”

Roberts’ project has spooled off in new directions. She’s often a resource for public radio interviews and historical society articles; she’s collaborating with the Door County Coastal Byway to develop a local history app; she helps people to navigate the process of erecting new historical markers; and she recently signed two contracts for exclusive books titled “Little Wisconsin” (2019) and “Little Wisconsin Goes to War” (2020) with Minnesota publisher Adventure Publications. In the first book, she’ll profile 100 Wisconsin communities of around 600 people or less, focusing on history, a notable person or event, and interesting sites that can be visited there today. “Little Wisconsin Goes To War” will focus on fallen heroes from the same 100 communities.

Melinda Roberts

Melinda Roberts

Roberts has a special place in her heart for veterans. All her veterans memorial photos are donated to The Memorial Day Foundation, a national veterans memorial online database. “The memorials belong to the veterans and their families,” she says, “not to me.”

‘Getting to Know You’

All this deep knowledge of Wisconsin history is pretty impressive for a woman who didn’t step foot in the state until 2011.
“When I came here to live in De Pere [near Green Bay], I knew nothing about Wisconsin except that it had a sports team called the Packers,” she says.

A native Californian, she moved here in June 2011 after six years in Westchester County, N.Y., to accept a job as program director at a small Catholic college. Her background is in literature, writing, and English as a Second Language.

Then, five months later, on the eve of her 55th birthday, she received a diagnosis of Stage III-A colon cancer.

The diagnosis cost her the new job and led to major surgery. Six months later she found herself isolated in an unfamiliar state, pondering mortality.

“I didn’t know anyone except my oncologist, who was very good and spent a lot of time talking with me,” she recalls. “He encouraged me to go find something enjoyable to focus on, since we didn’t know how much time I had. The marker project became the distraction I needed to keep my mind off the cancer and heal.”

Although she’d never been one to jump in the car and go exploring – “I never left my New York neighborhood once in six years of living there” – Roberts packed up her 75-pound dog, Miss Maxine, and headed for the Man Mound in Baraboo. She’d read about this effigy mound in a Wisconsin history magazine.

“I’d never heard of an effigy mound but this interested me,” she says.

Effigy mounds are raised piles of earth, most containing human burials, built in shapes of animals, symbols or other figures. The Man Mound near Baraboo, built by the Ho Chunk tribe more than 1,000 years ago, is the sole remaining effigy mound made in the shape of a human (wearing a headdress). It was recently designated a National Historic Landmark.

Roberts’ late father, an organic chemist, loved all things history and in retirement had volunteered his time at the Lompoc Mission and Chumash Indian Museum in Lompoc, Calif.

“When I was little, he dragged us with him to missions, museums and churches of various faiths all over California,” she recalls. “I was bored out of my mind at the time. But it gave me a certain depth. He instilled in me a lifelong appreciation of history and especially Native American history.”

She learned early on that life in North America began well before Europeans arrived. That’s why her “Little Wisconsin” book will reach back through ancient Native American history as well as highlight more recent events like the death of SPC Nichole M. Frye, of Lena, who has a bridge named in her honor on Wisconsin Hwy 141. She was killed in Iraq in 2004.

“My dad taught me that Native Americans had been treated very badly and we should at least understand what they endured and why they resent it,” she says. “I didn’t ‘get it’ when I was younger, but that’s typical. Most younger people are too self-centered and busy to care about history. It’s when we reach our forties or so that something in us changes and we often become more curious about and empathetic to people who lived here before us. We realize, ‘I should have asked Grandma this or that question while she was still here.’”

During that first trip to Baraboo, Roberts stopped to photograph four Wisconsin Historical Society “official” markers in Sauk County, then looked them up online when she got home.

“That’s when I discovered there were all these markers in 71 Wisconsin counties,” she says. “ It seemed like a good way to get to know Wisconsin and keep my mind off the cancer. I’d been given a twoyear window. I ended up spending 10 months of it visiting, photographing and recording the markers on my website.” She already understood how to run a website because she’d built one for her students to use back when she was teaching.

And boy, did she get to know Wisconsin.

“I learned that Wisconsin has a rich, rich history that includes the Ice Age, indigenous peoples and swarms of European immigrants whose cultures and lifestyles still heavily influence the state,” Roberts says. “I encountered the Ringling Brothers Circus, Laura Ingalls Wilder – whose stories I’d grown up with – and the oldest logging camp in the U.S. I learned that Wisconsin is the birthplace of the Republican Party, Flag Day and kindergarten. The typewriter was invented in Milwaukee, the ice cream sundae in Two Rivers, the snowmobile in Sayner. The words to ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ were penned at a church in Sturgeon Bay.”

She learned stories about the brutish and the brave, about soldiers, scholars and suffragettes. The stories of ordinary people often touched her most deeply.

“For example, runaway slave Joshua Glover was protected from his angry Missouri master by a ‘great crowd’ of Wisconsinites who eventually escorted him to Canada and safety,” she says.

No longer a stranger to Wisconsin, Roberts found herself surrounded by people from across the ages – sailors who tied themselves to ship masts during storms on Lake Michigan, only to freeze solid on the poles; immigrants whose boats erupted in flame when the shore was in sight, forcing them to choose between burning or drowning; pioneers who spent many hours trudging through mud, cold or heat each Sunday, sometimes crossing swollen rivers, just to attend the nearest church service.

“They were people of faith and were accustomed to hardship,” Roberts says. “They were resilient and determined. Their church would burn down from a lightning strike or be ripped apart by a tornado and they would rebuild it, time and time again.”

Roberts was physically sickened when she read about the 1832 Bad Axe Massacre near DeSoto, in which hundreds of Sauk and Fox natives, led by Black Sparrow Hawk, were shot or drowned at the hands of the U.S. military. After losing their fight against an armed steamship, the dead were left to rot in the Mississippi River – children, elderly, women and men.

“I later spoke with a local sheriff who told me that, to this day, cadaver dogs still go crazy when they’re near that part of the river,” Roberts recalls.

As she continued with her marker project, Roberts befriended other history lovers, sometimes spending hours chatting with kindred spirits in small-town museums.

“There are people all over the state working their tails off in these little historical societies and they’re doing first-class work,” she says. “They may not know technology or how to post things online, but they know how to build the notebooks, take the photographs, organize the information. They have a passion for local history and they’re on the front lines of preserving it.”

Another way to preserve history is to pass it along to our young. Roberts provides a list of kid-friendly markers at wisconsinhistoricalmarkers.com; she recommends smaller sites over big, sprawling museums.

“They’re more manageable and they’re often free,” she says.

Serendipity

When she was packing up for her move to Wisconsin, Roberts ran across a small family Bible given to her by her grandmother when she was in high school. She felt an impulse to open it and was amazed to discover this handwritten inscription:
“To Ethel V. Peterson from Aunt Laura Peterson, Wautoma, 1903.”

Wisconsin? Roberts didn’t even know her ancestors once lived in the state to which she was headed. Once she arrived, it took her two years to figure out that her grandmother Ethel was born in Wautoma and that her great-grandmother, Annetta, for whom Roberts was given her middle name, “Anne,” immigrated from Norway to Wautoma.

“And yet I’d never heard one story about immigration around the dinner table,” Roberts says. “Why not? Where were the immigration stories?”

One ancestor she did hear much about, as a child, was a great -great uncle named Hjalmar Rued Höland, who’d traveled the world lecturing about the Kensington Runestone. An avid historian, he believed the runestone proved that Northwestern Europeans, not Columbus, first arrived in the New World – a theory that today enjoys renewed interest.

Discovered by a Swede who was clearing his Minnesota farm in 1898, the 202-pound stone is carved with characters known as “runes,” a type of writing used in the Middle Ages only by northwestern Europeans, such as Norwegians or Danes.

“Uncle Hjalmar wrote a book titled ‘Explorations in America Before Columbus,’ published in 1956, which was revered in our household,” Roberts recalls. “I was sent to grade school with that book each Columbus Day to tell classmates, ‘Columbus didn’t discover America, and here’s proof.’ People just looked at me like I was crazy. But that humiliation ended when I got to junior high, where we didn’t have show-and-tell.”

Eventually Roberts made the connection that Hjalmar was her great-grandmother Annetta’s youngest brother. Ironically, Roberts had landed 90 minutes away from each of the towns in which these Wisconsin ancestors had settled. She was further amazed to discover that many of the historical markers she’d already recorded in Door County had been put in place by Uncle Hjalmar.
“He and another sister had come here from Norway, alone without parents, as children,” she explains. “He got an education from the UW Madison and began writing history articles about Door County when he was in his thirties.”

He wrote prolifically of the history of the Potawatomi, Norwegians, Belgians, and Door County. He penned the two-volume “History of Door County, The County Beautiful,” published in 1917. He founded the Door County Historical Society in 1926. His “Old Peninsula Days” is still in print and a favorite among locals and tourists alike.

Uncle Hjalmar also helped to establish several Door County parks and preserves we enjoy today. In 1898, he purchased land for a pittance that is now the Peninsula State Park Golf Course.

“And here I am, writing about history in the same place, in 2017, exactly one century later, and I didn’t even know I had ancestors here,” she marvels.

“I’ve come to believe this is a spiritual journey because so many things like this have happened that just can’t be explained. Serendipity. Kismet. I’ve met up with so much of it. I really feel that my grandmother and Uncle Hjalmar are right here with me on this journey.”

The Take-Away

Roberts has spent about $30,000 developing her website, mostly in gas mileage, overnight accommodations (she camps in “beautiful Wisconsin state parks” when weather allows) and photography equipment. She’s not making money on this project and says that’s OK.

“This historical marker project has given me purpose and also perspective,” she says. “What I take away from it is a deep appreciation for all that’s been done by people over time to create the Wisconsin we have now. This is a well cared-for place.
“I grew up in places where we were always aware of dangers from gangs, violence, riots that could erupt at any moment. I don’t have any of those thoughts here.

“In the small towns I pass through, even if they’re not thriving, you can tell that many people take pride in and are devoted to their own history.”

In all, Roberts believes Wisconsin does a good job of representing its voluminous Native American and immigrant history. The state formed at a time of massive and diverse U.S. immigration; some call Wisconsin the “most melting pot of all states.”
But she gives the state low marks for failing to recognize one important category: Women.

“Fewer than 3 percent of the Wisconsin State Historical ‘official’ markers are dedicated to the accomplishments of a Wisconsin woman,” Roberts says. “That’s just not a balanced picture of things. And, it’s also ironic, since women were often at the heart of forming organizations that took care of civic actions like erecting historical markers.”

She points to Electa Quinney as an example of a woman who deserves a historical marker but doesn’t have one. A Mohican and a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, she was born and educated in New York. In the 1820s, Quinney founded the first school in the Wisconsin Territory, teaching both white and native students from English texts. “She more than meets the qualifications,” says Roberts, who has encouraged various groups to dedicate a marker to Quinney, so far to no avail.

Keep on Going

After completing chemotherapy in October 2012, Roberts lost her faithful travel buddy, Miss Maxine, to cancer. A few months later she adopted Dexter Noel, a 27-pound Terrier-Poodle mix who has since been photographed at dozens of Wisconsin landmarks. Roberts hopes to find a Class C motor home for future travels, which would make it easier for her to leave Dexter behind safely while she tours non-pup-friendly attractions.

Sadly, after several cancer-free years, Roberts learned this past January that her colon cancer has returned and spread. This time she has refused chemotherapy; she’s proceeding with life on her own terms, again defying expectations of oncologists who told her she’d be dead by now.

“My way of thinking about illness is that we each come into life with a certain number of days ahead of us,” she says. “The first time, doctors gave me two years and I had five years before the recurrence. This time around I’m much more diligent about diet and nutrition. I also recognize my whole self – body and spirit. I think that 99 percent of it is what’s going on inside my head.”

She began attending a 7th Day Adventist church after learning this was her Uncle Hjalmar’s denomination. She likes it. And she stays focused on her purpose and future.

“I don’t think God would bring me two book deals if He’s planning to take me out soon,” she says. “That’s how I’m looking at it. I’m just thankful to be clear on what my gifts are, where my passion lies, what my purpose is.

“A lot of people have endured much worse hardships. We need only look around at local history to see that.”

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