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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.

For the week of 9/27/2020
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Autumn is a good time to visit the exhibits at the Vernon County Museum, with warm days and cool nights keeping the exhibit halls at a comfortable temperature. Several new exhibits opened this summer, which you might not have had a chance to see yet. One of these is “Drops of Water”, about our county’s relationship to water.

“Drops of Water” explores how water has affected the history of this area through transportation, jobs, recreation, flooding, and more. The exhibit begins on the 1st floor near the museum’s main entrance, and then continues throughout the exhibit halls with a water droplet icon indicating water stories wherever they are found. For example, the Coon Creek Watershed display in the agriculture room on 2nd floor is marked with a water droplet, and so is the washboard in the ethnic exhibit on 3rd floor, because both tell water stories.

Several containers for holding or carrying water are found in the exhibit, including a plain brown ceramic water jar used by pioneers, a Victorian-era porcelain water pitcher and basin that would have been kept in a bedroom, and a rough khaki canvas water bucket issued by the U.S. Army. Also on display is a fancy silver tray and matching goblet from the late 19th century, used for serving ice water to guests, all of whom drank out of the same cup – not something we would do now!

In other exhibit news, an oil painting of the Hatlem family farm in Norway has just gone on display in the ethnic exhibit on 3rd floor. Donor Roger Hatlem of Viroqua writes about the painting, saying that “Hatlem is the name of a valley in Norway and the custom there is when you leave an area you take the name of the ... valley as your last name so people will know where you came from. The valley is about 60 miles north of Bergen and a few miles north of the Sognefjord (west end).

“In the painting the North Sea is on the other side of the mountain. The homestead had been in the family for over 600 years. The last relative to live there was my father’s mother who died in 1950 at age 89... The homestead was a grazing area for sheep and goats... My wife and I visited the area in 1983. Took a lot of pictures from which [local artist] Janice Fortney made the painting... There were no roads in the area till about 1960 or 1970. It was a thrill to have been there.”

You can see these and other exhibits at the museum now during our regular fall hours of Monday through Friday, noon to 4PM. If those hours aren’t convenient, you can also make an appointment – call 637-7396, or email Masks are required, and museum tours are self-guided.

Hatlem family farm
Painting of the Hatlem family farm in Norway.


For the week of 9/20/2020
by Carol Krogan, assistant curator

This year we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Sherry Butt House, 795 N. Main St. in Viroqua. It was built by Cyrus and Margaret Butt in 1870. Their family lived in the home, including their only grandchild, Tom and Nellie Butt’s son, Cyrus M. Butt III, who was born on October 16, 1909. He graduated from Viroqua High School in 1927 and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, graduating in 1956 at the age of 47.

Intelligent but eccentric, Cy III attended UW Madison for about 30 years, earning a yearly stipend from the family as dictated in his grandfather’s will if he remained enrolled at the university. He also attended an Experimental College formed by the University of Wisconsin; it existed from 1927 to 1932 and had only 200-250 students.

Cy was a WW II veteran, as a member of the Coast Guard. A letter he wrote while stationed in Alexandria, VA, dated Feb. 17, 1943, was published in the local newspaper. He told of his recent work and recreation schedule and reported on the cold temperatures. He stated that one day when it was 6 degrees he won a $5.00 bet by walking a half mile with nothing on but his track pants and shoes!

He was married to Gertrude T. Johnson of Viroqua in 1938 but was later divorced. He had no children. His main residence was in Madison but he returned to the family home in Viroqua in his later years.

Cy was a colorful character, known well by residents of Madison and Viroqua for his letter writing and unique perspective. His letters were printed in two Madison papers, and also in the Chicago Tribune, Milwaukee Sentinel and the La Crosse Tribune. Letters to the Madison papers were sometimes signed by an assumed name although editors always recognized his writing style.

According to his obituary he had “an ‘irreverent’ attitude toward everyone and everything.” Once after a shot was fired in his apartment in Madison, the police arrived to find Cy sitting at his typewriter with a gun nearby and a sword hanging over his head by a single thread. When asked why he fired his gun, he said “It spurs my writing.” When asked about the sword above his head, he said it helped him concentrate.

Cy was known to walk down State Street in Madison and tip his hat to the ladies, only to reveal a live mink on top on his head. He loved books and was often seen in the city and University libraries. He once found a long-forgotten city ordinance which stated that citizens could carry side arms in visible holsters. Just for fun he tested the ordinance and was soon arrested by a Madison policeman. After some investigation, the charges were dropped and the ordinance was repealed.

Bill Stokes, a Wisconsin newspaper writer, stated that Cy had once been institutionalized for reasons related to alcohol. Cy Butt wrote to Stokes and told him that he was “being studied” for addiction. While there he was placed in charge of the clothing dispensary. He was released after a few days and showed up at one of his favorite hang-outs, the Congress Bar in Madison, with about a dozen belts around his waist. He gave them away as “welcome home presents.”

In the 1950’s Cy had several friends who were athletes and decided he should be able to see them in action at Camp Randall without paying for a ticket to get in. So, he became a gate-crasher at football games by posing as a popcorn vendor, pretending to look for his little girl, or riding in a wheelchair.

Cy did actually work as a lawyer. His obituary printed in the Wisconsin State Journal says that on a bet in 1958 he wrote the exam for Wisconsin assistant attorney general and received the highest score of all applicants. He worked collecting overdue veterans’ loans but resigned after about one year.

Cyrus M. Butt III died November 2, 1968. Bill Stokes recalled attending Cy’s funeral in Viroqua, held at Jacobson and Vance Funeral Home on North Main and West Decker Streets. He stated that a party was held afterward at a blacksmith’s shop and featured jazz music, drinking and storytelling.

Cyrus Butt

Cyrus M. Butt III, 1909-1968


The previous two articles:

September 13, 2020

September 6, 2020