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Grant story: La Crosse County Historical Society

September 1, 2022

Katie Berkedal, Program DirectorBy Katie Berkedal, Program Director

Grant Story: La Crosse County Historical Society

Tracy Littlejohn teaching La Crosse second-graders how to count in Ho-Chunk.

Tracy Littlejohn teaching La Crosse second-graders how to count in Ho-Chunk.

In late 2019, La Crosse County Historical Society announced plans to move their Riverside Museum at Riverside Park to its new location at 506 Main Street in Downtown La Crosse. The move was necessary as the owners of the building in the park had made other plans for the space.

The historical society saw the change as an opportunity to reimagine the museum space and update displays and interpretations with fresh and timely information that would attract even more than the annual 3,200 visitors. Specifically, one new exhibit features the history of the Ho-Chunk people in this region, and was curated by Tracy Littlejohn and Josephine Lee who curated the Ho-Chunk Cultural Museum in Tomah. Another new exhibit featured African American barbers in La Crosse.

A $10,000 foundation grant was awarded in February of 2020 to help get the museum up and running. The plan was to spend February-May of 2020 getting the new space ready for a grand opening in June. But then, well, we all know what happened in March of 2020. Yet, and despite several construction-related challenges in addition to the global pandemic, they opened the La Crosse Area Heritage Center in November of 2020 when another $10,000 grant was awarded help cover the first year of it’s operations.

La Crosse Area Heritage Center

Hmong community members play music for students on traditional instruments

Hmong community members play music for students on traditional instruments

After the grand opening, the La Crosse Area Heritage Center visitorship was still impacted by the pandemic as local tourism numbers were down and school groups were unable to come. Less visitors meant less revenue and the historical society applied for and received an unrestricted grant through our Pandemic Relief & Recovery grant program in 2021. The grant helped them to cover some of their fixed costs while the pandemic kept most paying visitors home.

By fall of 2021, the historical society was encouraged by a growing visitorship to the Heritage Center, including teachers eager to bring their students to the space. They hosted a Museum Studies class from UW-La Crosse and helped them with a class project on exhibits. The Enduring Families Project – a local group of actors and storytellers who reenact the stories of local, historical Black community members – started giving presentations at the Heritage Center. They also built exhibits that represent many aspects of life in the Coulee Region, from Native peoples to German immigrants, to more recent immigrants from Southeast Asia.

Preparing for a summer tourism boom and beyond

Hixon House docent Cathy Walth helping second-graders find things in Hixon House featured in their "Museum Passport."

Hixon House docent Cathy Walth helping second-graders find things in Hixon House featured in their “Museum Passport.”

The historical society lost many of their volunteers over the course of the pandemic, and the anticipated number of tour boats expected this summer necessitated an increase of staff to provide high-quality tours. To prepare, the historical society applied for and received a $32,200 grant in February of 2022 to hire and train more seasonal staff for a strong interpretive program ready to serve visitors at their museums this summer.  They also created a “Guide School” in March to train their guides and docents how to give engaging presentations.  They also plan to improve and expand their offerings to school districts in the region for the 2022-23 school year.

Experience local history for yourself!

Between the Hixon House, the La Crosse Area Heritage Center, Enduring Families Project, virtual exhibits and online collections, La Crosse County Historical Society has something for everyone looking to learn more about the people of this region. For over 120 years, they’ve worked to spread knowledge of the history of La Crosse County, and their museums are professional, impressive, and engaging.

If you have an interest in learning more about our local history, please check out what La Crosse County Historical Society has to offer. You can check them out here: https://www.lchshistory.org/