Preserving and sharing the past is usually what the volunteers of the Verona Area Historical Society spend their time on.
But this year, as the world navigates a deadly pandemic – the present has overshadowed the past.
And with the ability to host in-person events restricted, Society president Jesse Charles said there was more time for projects that had been long neglected.
As such, apart from collecting and cataloging artifacts and oral histories that will help future generations understand what the COVID-19 pandemic looked and felt like for those who lived it, he said one of the biggest accomplishments for the organization this year was a photo identification project.
The Society’s only in-person event after the initial nationwide shutdown in March was the unveiling of a historical placard marking the Matts House at the intersection of Main Street and Verona Avenue on Nov. 7. It was the second placard placed by the Society. The first placard was placed without an official ceremony on July 28 at 221 S. Main St. noting the site of a former blacksmith shop.
The photo project, though it didn’t involve any in-person gathering, spurred a lot of community interest.
For decades, the Society has had a backlog of pictures it first developed in the 90s and then digitized in 2017 that have needed labels and identifications.
The photos include log cabins, one room schoolhouses and old class photos.
For years, Charles kept saying “one day we’ll know who these people are,” and this year, the stay-at-home aspect of the pandemic provided an opportunity to engage the Society’s older members while accomplishing a task that was long-time-coming.
The project began in April with Charles selecting one photograph of the class of 1925, which he knew no one in the frame could still be alive – but that community members in their 80s and 90s might recognize.
After sending that photo out, five people in the shot were able to be identified right away by community members.
So Charles sprung into action.
He created a packet of 50 photos from the 1930s-1950s in which he numbered the people on the photos and left matching numbered blanks below them. He made eight printed copies, which he hand-delivered to the older non-techy members of the Society, and rotated around.
He said in some instances a member didn’t know anyone in 45 of the photos but would know everyone in the other five.
Had it not been for the pandemic, that project would not have been completed this year.
The project also led to more photo donations from the community.
“More folks contacted me and said “hey I’ve got this photograph don’t know what to do with” and old collages and yearbooks,” Charles said.
Prior to the pandemic, Charles had planned to finish a project that’s taken several years to complete – the asylum cemetery next to Gus’ Diner.
From the 1880s to 1950, 440 people were buried there who were residents of the nearby former Dane County Asylum for the Criminally Insane, the facility now known as Badger Prairie Health Care Center.
The graveyard was unmarked for a long time, Charles said, until a family on Whalen Road discovered their backyard patio was made from approximately 70 headstones turned face-down.
Using an old map of the graveyard from 1945, the Society had spent two summers putting back the headstones over the original grave, and Charles thought 2020 would be the year to get the final fifteen done.
But of course, the biggest and most important thing the Society did this year, Charles said, was collecting articles, stories, artifacts and photographs of the pandemic.
“That was the big focus of this year – what kind of stuff should we be gathering,” he said. “The stuff we have acquired I think will really help tell the story and I think the gem of all that is two interviews we did in May.”
Charles interviewed Carl Miller and his daughter Andrea of Miller and Sons Supermarket at the end of May about the “panic of March, and craziness of April.”
By May, many things that had sold out such as toilet paper finally came back in stock. Charles asked the Millers what it had been like for them on the store floor.
Miller said it was the first time he recalled the supermarket ever having to impose buying limits in its over century-long existence.
Charles also interviewed a fifth grade teacher from Glacier Edge for almost two hours.
Besides for those two oral histories, he collected artifacts in the form of pictures of car drive-by events, business and store signs stating “we have to close,” photos of the inspirational artwork and messages people put in the windows of their houses, a big bag of caution tape that had blocked-off the Cathedral Point playground, homemade masks made by Verona residents, and the “keep six feet of distance” signs from Military Ridge Trail.
“To touch and hold these things brings you back, it helps people interpret what this was like,” he said. “When I look back at this year, having this kind of time capsule captured in real time is going to be important and valuable to future generations.”