The Green Bay & De Pere Antiquarian Society: Preserving our history for tomorrow

Aimee Suzanne Kruse-Ross

aimee suzanne kruse-ross | antiquarian society | nov. 2018

The Antiquarian Society's Mrs. Kent Marvil and Mrs. Thomas Skogg check poster announcements in Oct. of 1970.On February 9, 1864, Abraham Lincoln, along with his youngest son, Tad, posed for a portrait in the studio of the famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Soon afterward, Lincoln himself signed a number of these photos, two of which were given to Gustave Matile. At the time, Matile worked for Lincoln as a secretary in the White House, but after the president's assassination, Matile moved to Green Bay, bringing the photographs with him. While in Green Bay, Matile served as a judge and attorney and spent many hours at the old Kellogg Public Library. When Matile died in 1908, his estate gave one of the signed photographs to the library where it hung for many years before it was eventually put into storage.

Decades later, when the now-renamed Brown County Library began to look for funding for improvements, they considered putting the photograph up for sale. The signed portrait of the legendary president sat in precarious debate.

Would this priceless artifact leave Green Bay, likely to never return again?

Enter the Green Bay & De Pere Antiquarian Society.

Since 1923, the society has aided in the procurement and preservation of numerous artifacts and supports other historical institutions by providing grant monies obtained via an annual fundraiser. A non-profit entity, the society is one of the oldest member-based philanthropic organizations in the nation. Today this organization is dedicated to holding and preserving in community trust for future generations, its most valuable cultural and historic items, art and artifacts.

While the work of the Antiquarian Society may fall under the radar, the role the society continues to play in preserving Brown County's history is not easily overstated. In fact, if you or your family has enjoyed a visit to Heritage Hill State Park or the Neville Public Museum, you've likely enjoyed the fruits of Antiquarian Society labor.

Two examples of Antiquarian efforts are housed at the Neville Public Museum, preserved for future generations.

One of those originally belonged to Otto Kaap, who in 1907, opened a local chocolate confectionery business on Green Bay's Main Street.

According to Beth Lemke, the Antiquarian's current governor, the candy counter and an original booth from Kaap's Old World Chocolates were conserved with assistance from the society.

“Also in our collection is a birch bark canoe that is about 100 years old that Arthur Neville had collected," says Lemke. “It is believed to be from the Menominee nation."

Lemke credits William Robillard of Encore Restorations in De Pere for his instrumental work in painstakingly preserving these pieces so that they may be appreciated for decades to come.

The Antiquarians also serve to assist area historical societies, which in this area includes the Brown County, Ashwaubenon, De Pere and Pulaski Historical Societies, as well as others.

At times, the Antiquarians may lend assistance in helping other organizations care for their own existing collections.

Antiquarians Mrs. Allan Houston, left, Mrs. John Boersma, Mrs. Peter Dorschel plan the society's annual show in Sept. of 1966.“Many historical institutions may know how to catalog their own collections," says Lemke. “But they may not have the funds to properly store or care for them and may need things such as acid-free boxes and storage tissues. The society helps make it easier for them to properly care for items of historical interest for future generations."

The Antiquarian Society also serves as a liaison, often bridging the gap between those seeking to preserve an item and those that offer, what can be, esoteric preservation services. The society can offer resources to those looking to preserve historical items that may not know where to begin in their preservation efforts.

“Part of the issue is knowing who is available or those who are reputable enough to help match smaller organizations to those folks who can help conserve these items so that we, ultimately, can continue to have those items on display," says Lemke.

When not assisting other organizations with their preservation needs, the society is busy procuring artifacts for its own historical collection, which over the years, has grown to considerable size.

The society owns more than 350 treasures ranging from the aforementioned Lincoln photograph, Presidential letters, antique furniture, Oriental rugs, fine china, silver and art objects, of which many are exhibited locally in historic homes and museums.

Known today as the Heritage Collection, it includes 22 paintings from the highly regarded American artist, Howard Pyle, that, had the Antiquarians not intervened, would have likely left Brown County forever.

In order to save these artifacts, the society enacted a community-wide-and-beyond campaign to raise the $1.3 million necessary to acquire the collection and keep it from leaving the area. The collection was shared in-full with Brown County residents in 2008 and is now safeguarded at the Neville Museum.

While many Antiquarian efforts may go unnoticed or unlauded, the society was instrumental in putting Green Bay on the national stage by convincing the television show “Antiques Roadshow" to visit in 2011.

“It took about two years from that first initial email where I invited the show to come to Green Bay," says former society governor Debbie Ashmann.

She credits unabashed persistence, along with a little bribery as finally persuading the show to visit Titletown.

“We sent chocolate and cheese to them numerous times!" says Ashmann cheerfully. “Oh, and some Kringles from Uncle Mike's Bakeshop!"

The turnout for the event was record-breaking.

“Eighteen thousand people had signed up to participate," says Ashmann. “The highest number ever of people to apply to the show, and only 3,000 people received tickets."

Getting Involved

The Antiquarian Society is able to continue its founding mission through its yearly fundraiser, the Annual Holiday Antique Show and Sale. The first of which was held in 1957 and since then, has raised and given back to the historical community nearly $750,000.

The easiest way to support the society? Attend their Holiday Antique Show & Sale at the Rock Garden Banquet and Conference Center this November.

“This is a very important fundraiser," says Lemke. “Many people may not fully realize the Antiquarian's mission, but each year, all the proceeds from this sale go into a re-granting fund. The society, in turn, may re-grant those funds to smaller historical societies for conservation, care and acquisition of regional material."

The sale highlights nearly 30 vendor booths dealing in retro, mid-century modern and antique curiosities. The funds raised from this event go into the coffers for future preservation and aid of historical items.

The antique show is also the perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about that odd piece of furniture or knick-knack collecting dust in the attic.

“We do have an ID booth at the antique show and people are welcome to bring something to the show," says Ashmann. “We aren't able to tell you what it's worth, but we do have experts that likely can give you more information if you have questions."

Another way to aid the Antiquarians in their mission is to become an Antiquarian.

“We are always looking for new members," says Ashmann. “A lot of members are collectors, but you need not be a history buff to join."

The Green Bay & De Pere Antiquarian Society presents the 62nd Annual Holiday Antique Show & Sale on Friday, Nov. 16 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 17 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Rock Garden Banquet and Conference Center, 1951 Bond Street, in Green Bay.

Admission is $6 and covers both days.

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