The Verona area has a rich history, from the days of the first indigenous people, to European settlers, to modern times.
What it doesn’t have is a place to show it all off.
Verona Area Historical Society members are hoping to change that, and make some new history for the area.
At 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 9, at the senior center, VAHS will host a public informational meeting and discussion about a site that could serve as a “history center” for the area.
In September, VAHS members began “seriously investigating and planning” what it would take to renovate a small historic downtown Verona home on 103 E. Park Lane into a history center/house museum, president Jesse Charles wrote in an email to the Press.
The group has enlisted the help of an architect and other local experts for advice, and want to present what they’ve found and get feedback on fundraising ideas and “what functions a Verona history center should serve.”
“Several of our officers have toured the building and believe this could be the location and house that would finally be our physical, permanent location for a display space,” he said.
The proposal is already backed by some funding, Charles said, with an anonymous donor offering $150,000 for the purchase of the building and naming rights, “once we raise everything else it will take to renovate and open it up.” He said the group hopes to have blueprints and cost estimates in the next few months.
The home is the former residence of “Doc” Joel E. and Viola Lillesand, best known for running a longtime veterinary service out of this house from 1920 to around 1968. VAHS members are working with the owner, Lillesand’s granddaughter, of whom is “very interested, along with Doc and Viola’s other remaining descendants, in this becoming a home for our historical society and a local history museum,” Charles added.
VAHS members have previously evaluated other sites as a possible history center based “essential criteria,” of which Charles said the Lillesand property satisfies all: centrally located downtown and walkable; zoned to allow a museum; provides links to Verona history; and smaller, maintainable size.
VAHS officials have toured the house with contractors and local renovation experts, met with the city inspector, consulted fundraisers, and have started working with an architect to scope out possibilities.
Charles said if the site passes the “investigation phase,” the next step is a “massive effort” to raise funds to purchase and renovate the building. He said as the project moves along, it would need “lots of help” with everything from contacting potential donors to helping fix up the property.
Charles said the group would also investigate how much annual expenses would cost for the facility, as well as possible “recurring funding sources.” He said due to the group’s nonprofit status, it would not have to pay annual property taxes on the property.
September meeting — Dane County Asylum cemetery project
Sandy Evenson, who used to work in the building that once housed the old Verona poor house and asylum, talked at the September VAHS meeting about saving and organizing a large collection of patient records left there.
Erected in 1854 with a capacity of 80 people, Verona’s original “poor house” was located on the southwest corner of East Verona Avenue and Hwy. PB, where the Park and Ride is currently located. In 1882, the asylum was built across the street to the north.
The asylum initially had 101 beds and separated the mentally ill from the poor house population. Over time several additions were built and by 1964, its population grew to a peak of 430. The 1970s saw the phasing out of many units, though, and sections of the buildings were chipped away over the next several decades.
In 2000, Evenson started at the hospital as a part-time seamstress working at nights, repairing residents’ clothing and sewing curtains.
She later worked as a medical records secretary, and through an interest in genealogy, came across a court documents on her great-great-grandmother, who was institutionalized in the asylum because her husband declared her insane, which at the time it was legal to do without proof.
“The juxtaposition of Sandy’s job at Badger Prairie Healthcare Center here in Verona and the finding of this ancestor’s fate made her realize the importance of the detailed ledgers and listings of a century of residents and patients,” Charles wrote in the VAHS October newsletter.
Soon, Evenson became intrigued by the old asylum part of the building; by then unused and blocked off, and set to be soon demolished. Walking around the area with a long-tenured colleague one day, she was shown a damp basement room containing long-forgotten patient records and personal possessions dating back to 1882.
She got permission to remove the documents, and started to organize the material, and would soon use the information to help answer questions from people seeking information on relatives that might have been patients there. All of the documents were turned over to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
“Sandy is to be commended for her lone role in saving such an invaluable piece of history,” Charles said.