By Kaylee Schuermann, Winn-Worth Betco Marketing Director
The Winnebago County Historical Society has found innovative ways to dig up the past for all to explore while preserving/presenting artifacts and encouraging community involvement.
The society was slowly formed throughout the 1960s as locals began collecting and storing artifacts in a home. When the Mansion Hotel in Forest City became available in 1976, the society bought the building to relocate the artifacts, paving the way for the historical society we know today.
The society, consisting of 15 board members, oversees four main entities, including the 1874 Trinity Lutheran Church, Mansion Museum, Heritage Park and Leibrand/Whiteis Research Center. The Mansion Museum hosts roughly 300-500 visitors annually who participate in tours put on by the board members.
“It’s a learning experience, too,” stated Riley Lewis, vice president of the board, recalling
visitors who recognize artifacts. “… We encourage them to tell us more about their experiences, and we learn from them as they learn from us. It’s kind of cool that we share that history back and forth.”
The museum displays a range of the county and region’s history, including military, Winnebago Industries, Pilot Knob State Park, Terry Branstad (longest serving United States governor) memorabilia and much more.
Perhaps the most notable project the society put together occurred several years ago when the organization partnered with the Forest City Summit as the paper merged into media company Lee Enterprises. The Summit still had copies of papers dating back to 1871; the society collected these papers and made them free and accessible online for all to view.
Users can find the database at https://forestcity.advantage-preservation.com/, where you can even search names, events and places. Viewers can also explore Waldorf College yearbooks dating from 1921-2008 and Forest City High School yearbooks from 1947-2019.
The society’s latest project is establishing a fire-proof vault attached to the Leibrand/Whiteis Library to preserve the county’s burnable items. The vault’s dedication is set for Sept. 11, 2022.
“One of the worst things for me is to get a call in the middle of the night and be told the
mansion’s on fire,” Lewis said. “There’s so many things in there that we worked hard to
accumulate, collect, preserve and present, and nobody can replace what we got in that museum.”
The historical society works to keep the children of Forest City involved in and knowledgeable of the county’s history, partnering with the Forest City School District to bring students on tours every spring.
“We try to tell the kids when they go through that (museum), even though Forest City is a little town, it’s a big world out there; still, our community and our county has put out some notable people that have done a lot to change the world and make it a better place,” said Lewis. “We encourage them to not ever be put down because you’re from a small town because good things happen in a small town.”
Some influential Winnebago County natives Lewis referenced include Branstad, John Hanson and Eldean Borg.
In the last several years, the historical society has put on various educational events such as Night of the Rich and the Famous, When Tombstones Talk and Murder Trials.
“North Iowa is a great community, and we have a lot to be proud of,” said Lewis.
Tours are available on Sunday afternoons throughout the rest of the summer. Memberships will be available this fall.